Afghanistan is a rugged, violent land with a tragic history and some of the most photogenic people on the planet. Photographer Steve McCurry has been documenting its story for almost 40 years. His powerful images have made him famous. (Remember “Afghan Girl” – the green-eyed beauty with the haunting look on the cover of a 1985 National Geographic?) This year, a beautiful coffee-table book called simply Afghanistan delivers a collection of McCurry’s best.
It starts immediately – no title page – with a series of black-and-white, high-contrast images of mujahideen fighters, many of them children, staring you down. Next, his supersaturated color work: A boy sells oranges on the trunk of a battered car. Women navigate life in colorful burqas. Girls gleefully juggle in a park. Soldiers stand on a rocky outpost, with the Hindu Kush mountains in the distance. McCurry gives viewers a deep look into this complex society – the many ethnic groups, the warfare, and the dry, harsh landscape.
It should be noted that earlier this year, McCurry was accused of digitally altering some of his images. Dozens of his pictures were discovered to have been manipulated, including by the use of cloning (where parts of a photo are removed or replaced). McCurry countered by saying he now considers himself a “visual storyteller,” not a photojournalist.
As a photojournalist myself, I am conflicted. In the Digital Age, the integrity of photos is more important than ever. But I can’t deny that in this book, McCurry captures the essence of the country with his painterly images.