She was forced to migrate to a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, after her parents were killed during the deadly Soviet-Afghan conflict and started studying at a poorly resourced school there with little hope of being rescued from the misery she was destined to live in. One day in 1984 a man in his early 30s saw the girl while passing her school and asked her teacher if he could photograph her. The teacher said yes, believing it might help reflect the situation they were in. Time has proven that she was right in expecting that much of a single photo. Known for so long solely as the “Afghan Girl” after it was published on the cover of National Geographic in June 1985, the piece has moved thousands of people all around the world to help her and other refugees in the region, said McCurry in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman in İstanbul, where he stayed for three days to take part in the Zaman daily’s +1T Design Days during the week.
National Geographic funds hajj pilgrimage for Afghan girl
After 18 years, that little girl was identified as Sharbat Gula when McCurry found her in Afghanistan with her husband and three children. McCurry narrated the story of what happened when he met her for the second time after so long and how he was touched by her dignity.
“She remembered me because I was the first one who photographed her but she did not have any idea that her first photo became so famous and moved many people around the world. We wanted to help her and asked if there was anything she wanted. Her only dream was going to Mecca for pilgrimage but her husband was working at a bakery and making only $1 a day back then. We helped her and we basically continue to do so. Other than that, what she was most interested in taking back from her photo was something for her three children. She was really not interested in material gains for herself at all,” he said.
When asked whether that particular photo could be described as a modern-day Mona Lisa given how vividly the image was caught on paper, the reason why Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece of the Renaissance era is so famous today, McCurry was no less humble than Gula and refrained from making such a comparison.
“I think it is probably better for others to make that comparison rather than me but I understand the point because she has an enigmatic expression like Mona Lisa. Some pictures capture people’s imagination and they are really quite remarkable how they have an enormous impact on people’s lives worldwide,” he answered.
McCurry is also actively involved in fundraising for schools in Asia through a non-profit organization called ImagineAsia. Together with a couple of friends, the American photographer is selling posters of the photographs he has taken to provide textbooks and notebooks for those schools and also to help with the salaries of some teachers working there.
Mingling with death on duty
Some may not agree about how dangerous a photographer’s life can sometimes be but what McCurry has lived through during his almost 40-year professional career leaves no doubt as to the extent of the danger they face from time to time.
“I photographed many conflict zones and death was a strong possibility sometimes when the hotels I stayed in were bombed or when I had a close shave if another explosion happened nearby,” he said, adding, however, the time he came closest to death was when he was attacked by a mob as he was taking photographs of an Indian festival while standing in the sea up to his waist. “Another Indian rescued me from being drowned after receiving some heavy blows,” he added. McCurry noted it was also a close call when the small plane in which he was the only passenger crashed into a lake in what is today Slovakian territory.
Despite all the difficulties he has faced, he does not have a single regret that he did not have a safer life working elsewhere. “I think all people should spend their time on things that are interesting to them, fascinate and move them, on things that they are passionate about. I don’t feel the necessity to have to work here or there for some reason. I just want to work in places where I feel I should work and explore the world that way,” the well-known photographer said.
McCurry is currently working on two books which will be published this October and next year. The first one will be about 15 stories he has worked on in his career and the other will be a retrospective. He is also expected to publish another book in the future about Buddhism.