It’s Art, mate: Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’

“..the camera is only a tool in the same way that the brush is a tool, and one capable in the hands of an artist of conveying thought, feeling, expressing individuality, and also the usual attributes of art in their degree.” ~ Henry Peach Robinson.

Steve McCurry is known as, and refers to himself, as a ‘photojournalist’; he went to Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, embedded, dressed as a native, and took photos: that was his job; he was there to document. One day in 1984, in a Pakistan refugee camp, he came across this girl and took her picture. Happy accident? No. Go to his website and look at the other portraits filed, tellingly enough, under ‘Fine Art Prints’. The man may like to see himself as a jobbing snapper, but he knows he’s not. He’s an artist, and he can’t help it.

The image caused a sensation when it appeared on the cover of National Geographic, and its unknown subject (she was not identified as Sharbat Gula until 2002) soon became a poster-girl for Amnesty International and the plight of refugees world-wide. But why this one, one of so many? Apart from an obvious emotional response to what we were told in the accompanying article was an utterly dispossessed young girl ( a far more emotive subject than a boy), our primary response is surely to beauty, to that of the girl herself and of the image as a whole. But the ‘aesthetically pleasing’ does not trump the ‘moral’, it gild’s it. Only art does this. The piece has been compared to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, but a Raphael, with its vibrant pallette, still grace and clarity, would be more apposite. Conforming in compostion to the ‘rule of thirds’, it is a symphony of jewel-like reds and greens from the back-ground to the dress to the skin-tones to those dazzling blue/yellow-flecked eyes, all thrown into relief by the dark mingling of hair and shadow. Red and green: diametrically opposed on the colour wheel, and used always to bold effect. Compare Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Julius II:

And bold she certainly is, expressing to the full Robinson’s ‘feeling’ and ‘individuality’: the eyes, the firm set of the mouth, all betoken such defiance, such dignity; she’s a tattered Madonna (that girl thing), future mother of proud and, as we in the West remain acutely aware, indomitable warriors. Down she may be, but never out.

All of which is a great deal to hang on the shoulders of a twelve year-old girl, but of course we don’t, we hang it on the image. We invest the image and we invest in it; we respond to it as art, and this, in the end, is what makes it such.


A very fine photographer, Steve McCurry:

Interview with Steve:

(Thanks, Tha Dubdiggah)

5 thoughts on “It’s Art, mate: Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’

  1. photography has a quality about it that says ‘you can’t own me’. By that I mean that the image itself exists outside the photograph. The photograph does not ‘own itself’ (its content) in the way a painting or even a collage/montage does. Photography as art. Its an ongoing discussion.

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