August 17, 2016

Taking Photographic Art to Another Level: Steve McCurry in Afghanistan

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 8.12.05 AM

By Stuart Mitchner

“HERAT AFTER TEN YEARS OF BOMBING,” Afghanistan, 1992. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of Steve McCurry.

When I wandered out of Friday’s heavy heat into the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, there she was, Afghan Girl, the banner image of “Unguarded, Untold, Iconic Afghanistan: Through the Lens of Steve McCurry.” Taken in 1984 at a tent school in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan, the National Geographic cover photo won world renown as a symbol of the plight of refugees everywhere. Part of the fascination is that it’s never as if you’re seeing her so much as she’s seeing you. You can stare at her all you want and she’ll outstare you, the force of her gaze never lessening, never letting go. The effect is intensified by the way the picture has been framed, the green backdrop a foil for the infinitely richer, more subtle shade of green in the eyes, the deep plum-dark earth tones of the head scarf setting off an expression that has been compared to the inscrutable smile of the Mona Lisa. But while Da Vinci’s woman appears mysteriously, remotely amused, there to be contemplated at your leisure, Afghan Girl is fiercely present, like a loaded weapon aimed at your eyes. It’s a reversal of the superstition: she’s the one stealing souls, not the camera.

Melville’s Afghanistan

If I were writing an essay on the wonders of the human face, I’d begin with a passage from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in which that unlettered savant Ishmael compares “a fine human brow” to “the east when troubled with the morning” and goes on (you can almost hear the whoosh as Melville spreads his wings) to observe that “in most creatures, nay in man himself, very often the brow is but a mere strip of alpine land lying along the snow line. Few are the foreheads which like Shakespeare’s or Melancthon’s rise so high, and descend so low, that the eyes themselves seem clear, eternal, tideless mountain lakes; and all above them in the forehead’s wrinkles, you seem to track the antlered thoughts descending there to drink, as the Highland hunters track the snow prints of the deer.”

What can you say to such strange lands of prose traveled in a single sentence? And why bring a great American novel into an exhibit of photographs of Afghanistan? For one thing, McCurry’s most powerful work is as extraordinary in its suggestiveness as that passage of inspired, over-the-top prose. An image like the ruins of a city in Herat After Ten Years of Bombing (1992) has the scope and depth of a bravura creation, as if the photographer had taken reality to another level, the way Melville does when he turns a whale’s brow into a literary adventure.

Another reason for Melville’s presence here is that Moby Dick is where I first heard of Afghanistan. Some 500 pages before I even got to the mountain lakes of that Melvillian rhapsody, I’d been disarmed by the spirit and sweep of the opening chapters and the play of the author’s mind, as when the jaunty Ishmael imagines the placement of his venture on “the grand programme of Providence” in which “whaling voyage by one Ishmael” appears in smaller print between two headlines, “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States” and “Bloody Battle in Afghanistan.”

“They’re Only Bombs”

If there’s an ounce of adventure in your heart, it’s hard to read those early chapters of Moby Dick without wanting to go to sea with Ishmael, or at least to put a pack on your back, take to the road, and end up, as I did, celebrating your 27th birthday in Kabul.

I had my birthday dinner at the Khyber, a cafeteria-style restaurant for Westerners that has, from what I can tell, survived the devastation revealed in McCurry’s photograph from 2002, Students Attend Class in Partially Destroyed Building in Central Kabul. My time in Kabul was before the Soviet occupation when the highway from Herat to Kandahar had been built by the Russians and the stretch between Kandahar and Kabul by the Americans. A New York Times story from 1996 refers to the “Cold War folly” of the project and the fact that Soviet tanks rolling down the highway in the 1980s, along with the pounding of heavy truck traffic, had reduced the road surface to “nothing but rubble stretching to the horizon, a roller-coaster of vast heaves and hollows” — which describes how it felt to this traveler before the Soviets thanks to riding all day and all night on 500 miles of crushed gravel and asphalt in a makeshift Afghan truck-bus with wooden seats.

In the Times account of a mid-90s journey on the highway between Kandahar and Kabul, a 12-year-old boy whose job was gathering up the unexploded bombs littering the roadside says “They’re only bombs. I’ve carried lots of them,” leading someone else to say, “Our children know them all …. Bombs, shells, mines, they’ve lived with them all their lives.”

The Beatles in Herat

The children I saw playing on the streets and alleys of Herat and Kabul belonged to a generation that had nothing to do with bombs, shells, and mines. At the same time, it’s possible to imagine that one of the boys or his older brother became the young Afghan soldier in McCurry’s photo from 1993 or perhaps the Mujahideen installing land mines in 1979.

Faced with that vision of Herat after a decade of bombing, I could be looking at a painting of a devastated metropolis from the time of Ghenghis Khan. When people used to ask me what I meant when I said I loved Afghanistan, I’d mention the first morning’s arrival in Herat and rhapsodize about the procession of camels I’d seen in the distance as the truck approached the city, and how exciting it was to imagine Tashkent and Samarkand a short journey away, and how fine it felt to lounge cross-legged on a wicker divan drinking tea in a delicately embellished cup and saucer while the cafe radio played the Beatles. People thought I was making it up. Paul McCartney singing “Michelle” in Afghanistan? What about the Taliban?

Obviously, these were questions asked after 9/11 and the American bombings and around the time McCurry photographed kids attending class in the ruins of a building in Kabul. The splashes of yellow and red covering the ruined rooftop walls to which a fragment of blackboard has been attached remind me of the mural my friends and I got free room and board for painting, in the dining room of a hotel that was almost certainly destroyed during the factional fighting of the nineties or the American crush-the-Taliban campaign.

The Twin Towers

A photograph museumgoers will find hard to ignore is Men in Tea Shop, taken in 2002 in Puli Khumri, a city in Baghlan Province, northern Afghanistan. What holds your eye isn’t the presence of six turbaned, bearded men, it’s that they’re seated in front of an enormously enlarged color photograph of the lower Manhattan skyline showing the Twin Towers, windows alight, against a sky of so florid a shade of red you have to wonder if it’s been painted by an artist suggesting an ominous connection between the still-standing towers and the satanic-looking central character in whom McCurry saw a resemblance to Osama bin Laden. While the other men appear unaware of the image on the wall, the bin Laden lookalike seems to be savoring it.

McCurry witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers from the window of his Greenwich Village apartment. He was also among the first photographers on the scene. And a year later in Afghanistan, he walks into the tea shop and sees the big image on the wall and a man with a face like bin Laden’s. While McCurry’s photographs of the ruins of Herat and the rooftop classroom in Kabul suggest narratives, Men in Tea Shop seems to cross over from photojournalism to storytelling, a distinction McCurry has made in his own defense after being accused of staging or doctoring some of his photos, including even Afghan Girl.

In a recent article on the subject in TIME, McCurry says, “I’ve always let my pictures do the talking, but now I understand that people want me to describe the category into which I would put myself, and so I would say that today I am a visual storyteller. The years of covering conflict zones are in the distant past. Except for a brief time at a local newspaper in Pennsylvania, I have never been an employee of a newspaper, news magazine, or other news outlet. I have always freelanced.”

In the Michener exhibit, which runs through October 23, what you see is the work of a photographer who, at his most inspired, took his art to another level. The stories are there for you to imagine, whether or not you’ve set foot in Afghanistan. Speaking in McCurry’s defense, Sarah Leen, National Geographic’s director of photography said of the Afghan Girl cover of the June 1985 issue, “No other image in my memory is so immediately recognizable and loved by such a large number of people across the globe.”

The Michener has interspersed passages from Caravans, James A. Michener’s 1963 novel about Afghanistan, with McCurry’s photography. Michener and McCurry are both from Southeastern Pennsylvania, and McCurry has said that reading the novel was among the numerous prompts for his first trip to Afghanistan in 1979. It’s also worth mentioning that three of the children being schooled in the rooftop ruin in Kabul are girls. In fact, the women of Afghanistan have a gallery to themselves at the Michener where rugs woven by women from designs by artists including the late Michael Graves of Princeton are displayed along with a selection of work from Imagine Asia’s Young Women’s Photography Initiative.