Between Destruction and Breathtaking Beauty: Steve McCurry’s “Afghanistan”

Submitted by Andrea Bruchwitz

© Steve McCurry - Nuristan,1992, Portrait of a young man (l), Portrait of a Candy factory worker.

Deep in the mountains of Afghanistan, tribal feuds collide with political conflicts and colonial wars. In the country’s history spanning millennia, it has only experience a few short breaths of political unity. Amidst the rival tribes, between the Uzbeks, Hazara and Tajiks, renowned photographer Steve McCurry has created iconic images. The American has been traveling to Afghanistan for 40 years, often cloaked in the country’s typical garments to take touching photographs.

© Steve McCurry - Masar-­e Scharif, 1991, Dozens of pigeons fly around two people in the square in front of Hazrat Ali Mazar mosque.

TASCHEN publishing’s gripping new photo book Afghanistan provides a fascinating look at McCurry’s documentary journey. There is a lot more to discover than his world-famous “Afghan Girl” with the penetrating gaze from 1984. The book contains portraits and landscapes spanning four decades. Between the scars of war and shocking grief, there are glimmers of hope and moments of breathtaking beauty.

© Steve McCurry - Bamiyan, 2006, A man rides a donkey through a desert landscape.

This tome has a captivating arc. It pulls readers into the theme through McCurry’s black-and-white documentary photographs. Distraught children, tribes, and adults hold their weapons tight – a country at war. This visual prologue is followed by landscapes that slowly lead into an everyday life in which violence is all too common.

© Steve McCurry - Logar Province, 1984, men with weapons stand in front of a mountainous landscape.

Between the dramatic images of bombed-out buildings and blood-drenched children, there are appear brief moments of happiness. Photographs of juggling girls appear like a wave of hope. Roses sprout from spent cartridges, laughing children play in a rusty old Chevy. McCurry shows ancient Afghani traditions with a poetic atmosphere. We see camels ranging near a nomad’s tent, partridges fighting, and women speaking volumes through hands that peek out of their azure burqas.

© Steve McCurry - Bamiyan, 2003, Children playing in a destroyed minibus.

© Steve McCurry - Kabul, 1992, a portrait of a veiled mother with her son on her lap.

The TASCHEN book offers a panoramic view of the country’s beautiful landscape and the human emotions that play out between the ruins. Above all, Afghanistan shows the tremendous passion, awe, and endless curiosity Steve McCurry has for the country. Some critics may note that the book contains no descriptions, but it is exactly this that lets the pieces make their own powerful statements. They appear completely separate from western interpretation. Each photograph stands for itself – the appendix at the end reveals only the date and location they were taken. That is more than sufficient, as McCurry’s award-winning photographs depict the country’s everyday life in an honest, sometimes terrifying fashion with a painterly quality.

Steve McCurry once said “I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person's face.”

Steve McCurry: Afghanistan Hardcover, 256 Pages

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