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What I learned from Steve McCurry
Not what I was expecting.
I had heard of Steve McCurry – the photographer who is most noted for his incredible photography for National Geographic and other major publications. I was more familiar with his famous photographs than his name. Truthfully, I never really paid close attention to his work and more importantly, why his work matters. So, when Paul and I had the opportunity to see the Steve McCurry Icons photo exhibit at the Cordoaria Nacional in Lisbon, I was simply expecting to see some of his famous photos up close and maybe learn more about the artist. But I came away with a little something more.
Steve McCurry was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1950 and began his career as a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Daily News in the 1970’s. In 1978, McCurry traveled to Afghanistan as a freelance photographer, documenting the country and its people during the Russian invasion. It was during this time that he captured the now-famous image of the Afghan girl, which was published on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. His images were among the first to show the world the brutality of the Russian invasion.
In the audio guide that accompanied the exhibit, McCurry talked about the Afghan Girl photo and how he came to meet her. The girl, Sharbat Gula, was a young Afghan refugee. As McCurry walked through a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1984, he heard voices coming from a tent. Inside, he found a girls’ school and asked the teacher if it would be okay if he photographed the class and some of the students. He noticed a little girl sitting alone in a corner who had piercing green eyes. McCurry immediately realized that with her eyes, and the expression on her face, which spoke of sadness and tragedy, that she told an important story about Afghanistan where at the time there were millions of Afghan people living in tents in refugee camps. McCurry says that as he photographed her, she looked at him in a curious way because she had never been photographed before.
This photo, at that moment, would arguably become one of the most notable photographs of McCurry’s long career and a reminder of the suffering children and adults alike still face in many parts of the world.
Why his work is important (just my opinion).
McCurry’s work is important because it documents vanishing cultures, historical moments, times of conflict, and simply…life – people living their lives - all over the world. One of the things McCurry likes about photography is being able to wander and explore the world we live in and to discover what is different and what’s the same about people in different parts of the globe. In my humble opinion, his talent doesn’t lie just in his photography – which in itself is truly stunning – it lies in his ability to see and then capture the human (or nature) element –in the moment. It seems to me that McCurry lives in the present and by doing so, this allows him to see and to tell a story - often I think, where others can see nothing at all.
For example, take his photograph of a young boy in Yemen. McCurry took the photo after a wedding that the boy and his family attended. The little boy stands between his uncle and his father. The wedding was full of laughter, food, music, dancing. In the image, it’s evident that this little boy is unhappy and would have much rather been playing at home with his friends than attend an adult party. McCurry cropped out the father and the uncle and focused on that one, present moment when that little boy had a sad expression. McCurry says that he often empathizes with children because they must live in a world of adults when all they really want to do is just have fun. He likes to photograph their eyes because you can look right into them.
There was a short film at the end of the exhibit where McCurry talks about his work, his travels, and the people he photographs. He talked about walking down city streets in different countries, just to feel the vibe on the street. He doesn’t always have an agenda – he just lives in the moment and observes people living their lives.
What I didn’t expect to learn.
As I walked through the exhibit, I came across a quote on a wall from McCurry that made me pause to think:
“I like to photograph simply relying on my powers of observation, it can happen anywhere. If you rely on observation, something interesting will usually happen!”
I didn’t expect to learn something about myself. As I wandered through the exhibit, observing the images and listening to McCurry’s audio descriptions of when he took the photos and why, it occurred to me that one can only truly observe if one is present and aware.
If you think about it, what do you observe when you walk down the street? Are you focused on whatever errand you must go on, whatever meeting you must attend, what you’re going to eat for lunch, what bills you have to pay? Do you take the time to observe (really observe) the people you pass, the dogs or cats underfoot, the leaves gathered in a pile, the birds in the tree, a bug flying in the breeze, a lone blooming flower, the sound of someone singing on their balcony? Do you live in the present moment?
Over the years, I have tried to live more in the present than to allow thoughts, obligations, stress, or worry to creep into my head and overtake me. But sometimes I forget. McCurry’s exhibit served as a gentle reminder to me that I am exactly where I should be at this moment.
Although I’ll never be a great photographer, I have been given the gift to live in Portugal and travel to places I’ve never been, and to write about my experiences and share them with others hopefully in an inspiring way. I have been given the gift of meeting people I would never have known if I hadn’t decided to step out of my comfortable space and try another path. And I would not have learned something about myself – by learning to be present in the moment without fear or worry or thinking too far ahead.
And that if I look around my ordinary surroundings in my little piece of the universe, and rely on observation without expectations or underlying agendas, I can see life and experiences and stories waiting to be told just about everywhere. And that’s precisely when something interesting usually happens!
About Steve McCurry Icons
The Icons exhibition in Lisbon ends on Sunday, January 22, 2023. Other exhibits of McCurry’s work can be found on his website: https://www.stevemccurry.com/exhibitions
PS: Muito Obrigada (many thanks) to David and Malou and Sameer and Michele for supporting Our Portugal Journey through Buy Me a Coffee. Your generosity and interest help to keep this publication free to subscribers.
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Until next time…