STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
In 1978, Steve McCurry left his job as a photographer for “Today’s Post” in King of Prussia to freelance and travel the world.
A year later, he was a star in the world of journalism for being the only photographer in Afghanistan capturing what was going on during the Soviet invasion.
Later in 1984, he visited a refugee camp in Pakistan and gave a human face to a crisis affecting 6 million people with the “National Geographic” cover photo of the “Afghan Girl.”
As the new exhibition “Unguarded, Untold, Iconic: Afghanistan through the Lens of Steve McCurry” at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown points out, McCurry’s fascination with the Middle Eastern nation, which continues to have a high profile place in America’s consciousness, began with Michener’s historical novel “Caravans.”
“Unguarded, Untold, Iconic” offers thought-provoking perspectives on Afghan culture, food, religion and history with photos taken over a span of 35 years. During a media preview, the exhibit’s co-curator, Kelsey Halliday Johnson, said of the famous “Afghan Girl” photo: “She was actually quite scared of Steve.” She also said that “National Geographic,” sympathetic to the girl’s plight, paid for a pilgrimage to Mecca (a requirement for followers of Islam).
“Steve’s photographs were not only captivating, but they changed the way we see the world,” Johnson said.
Some striking examples include the 2002 images “Woman in Canary Burqua” and “Afghan Widows Bakery” (a rarity because it features the faces of adult Afghan women), both taken in Kabul; “A Missile is Launched During the First Phase of the Afghan Civil War,” taken in 1989 in Kandahar; and an Afghan craftsman in Kayan in 1993 turning Soviet bombshells into flower pots.
The Instagram account @stevemccurryofficial has 1.5 million followers.
McCurry’s sister, Bonnie V’Soske, who manages Steve McCurry Studios in Exton and the ImagineAsia Young Women’s Photography Initiative that he founded in Afghanistan, added that more than 30 years later, the woman from the picture “is living a good life now” and that she has children that are attending school.
Like her brother, V’Soske also found herself wanting to go to Afghanistan despite an unsettling top-secret call from the U.S. State Department on New Year’s Eve 1980 with a report that McCurry may have been killed, then a few years later reading an erroneous report from Reuters that he had been killed.
When it comes to what’s happening in Afghanistan, “be very skeptical about what you read in the press,” she said, elaborating that Afghans do the same everyday things Americans do, and want to live in peace. V’Soske, who used her skills and experience as an educator to teach English in Afghanistan, said that “it seems very safe most of the time.” However, she followed that remark with: “There’s always somewhat of a level of potential danger.”
When asked what her brother’s perspective was on the rise of the Taliban in that country, she mentioned the civil war that followed the Soviet occupation, and said: “Every time he would go, there was a power shift.”
“Unguarded, Untold, Iconic,” which also includes a selection of rugs designed by Afghan women through Azru Studio Hope and photography by 16- to 18-year-old Afghan girls, mentions that there were occasions McCurry had to sew secret compartments in his clothes to avoid having his film and negatives confiscated.
A roundtable discussion and a book signing with McCurry (the dates are yet to be announced), a lecture series, a film series and curator gallery talks are among the special programs complementing the exhibition.
Share your appreciation on social media with #McCurryAfghanistan and @MichenerArt.