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'Afghan Girl' photographer surveys his career

By Laura Allsop for CNN

  • Photos by Magnum photographer Steve McCurry are currently on show as part of an exhibition of his work in Birmingham
  • It includes "Afghan Girl," his best-known photograph
  • In 2002, McCurry successfully located the Afghan Girl and took her photo again
  • He defines an iconic image as one that is unforgettable

London, England (CNN) -- His image of a nameless green-eyed Afghan girl is one of the most famous in the world and put a human face on a brutal conflict.

American documentary photographer Steve McCurry was catapulted to fame when his image graced the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1985.

A year later he was signed to prestigious photographic agency Magnum and went on to win a slew of awards for his work.

Currently on display as part of a retrospective of his work at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, "Afghan Girl" has come to define his long and varied career.

McCurry was crossing the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan in 1984 shortly before a Soviet offensive when he came to a refugee camp near Peshawar.

He approached the girl, who was in a make shift school at the time, and took her picture.

I think iconic pictures stand the test of time, define a situation, a time, an era, an emotion.
--Photographer Steve McCurry

It was the first photograph ever taken of her and to date only one of two: the second was taken seventeen years later in 2002 by McCurry, following a long and arduous search to find the girl, now a mother of three living in the mountains of Afghanistan.

"I had tried to find her throughout the 90s," McCurry told CNN. "Because we didn't have her name, it became very difficult as you can imagine. A female, a girl, you know it was just very difficult and complicated ... and almost impossible."

Though the image inspired an outpouring of public interest ever since it first entered circulation, it was after 9/11 that McCurry made a more concerted effort to locate her.

"It was very emotional finding her. We were really quite astonished. It was like a miracle, finding her and finally being able to help her," he said.

It remains one of the highlights of the Philadelphia-born photographer's career, which has taken in documentary photography in war zones including former Yugoslavia and Lebanon and won him numerous prestigious awards such as the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad.

But Afghanistan -- the first country at war he ever visited -- still exerts a pull on him and he has returned many times since. His experiences in Afghanistan have been filled with nail-biting as well as inspirational moments.

"It depends on the kind of person you want to be and the kind of life you want to lead and there are always risks," he explained.

"You decide that basically this is what I want to do with my life and I'm going to try and minimize the risk but I'm not going to shy away from what I think is important.

Sometimes it's better to take a calculated risk than to withdraw and be timid and not try and get as much out of life as you possibly can."

McCurry's color-saturated images foreground the human in times of war. Eschewing sensationalism, his photographs are touching and often haunting images of people in extraordinary circumstances.

"Most people, if they like you, if they think your intentions are honorable, that it's a bit of fun, and they're curious, most people respond if they believe in you and what you're doing," he told CNN.

"People are flattered if you want to spend time with them and take their pictures. It's quite subtle. If people will sense that they can trust you, then you can shoot."

A sense of responsibility, and respect for his subjects, underpins his work.

"As a photographer, you want to serve, you want the story to be told, in the most accurate, balanced way, to inform and give people a voice," he said.

While many of his images document people in times of hardship, others in his portfolio are joyful explorations of situations on his doorstep as well as in far-flung places.

He is especially drawn to Buddhist cultures and is currently working on a book filled with images of Buddhism across the world.

McCurry told CNN that though "Afghan Girl" is his best-known image, there are others he is particularly fond of. Many -- such as a photograph of Sri Lankan fishermen balancing on poles out in the sea -- are on display currently in Birmingham.

As for his heroes of the medium, fellow Magnum photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa are enduring influences.

Asked to define an iconic image, McCurry replied: "I think iconic pictures stand the test of time, define a situation, a time, an era, an emotion.

You know, when you think back to Vietnam, you think immediately of two or three pictures.

So I think that's what an iconic picture is -- one that is unforgettable."