Photos by Steve McCurry: Photographer Discusses Afghanistan’s Agony

  • Legendary photographer Steve McCurry has visited Afghanistan more than 30 times. 
  • McCurry told Insider he is “heartbroken” about what has happened to the country in recent weeks. 
  • He hopes to return to the country soon and believes Afghans will have the strength to move forward.

Over the span of almost four decades, Steve McCurry has witnessed Afghanistan in war and peace. 

The legendary American photographer became one of the first to capture the brutal Soviet-Afghan conflict in 1979.

In the years that followed, he accompanied Mujahideen fighters into the remotest parts of the country, photographed Afghans as they tried to rebuild their lives, and documented the hardships of all those affected by the war.

Steve McCurry Afghanistan

Returning war refugees coming to find work in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2002.

© Steve McCurry/Magnum Photo

But as the Taliban took control of Kabul last month, sparking chaotic evacuations and two deadly suicide bombings, McCurry couldn’t help but feel heartbroken.

“It’s really devastating to see the situation now,” McCurry told Insider from his home in Pennsylvania.

“My experience in Afghanistan was always very good. The people are wonderful, hospitable, hardworking, and have a great sense of humor, but things just went terribly wrong.”

Steve McCurry Afghanistan

Hindu Kush Mountains, Afghanistan in 1984.

© Steve McCurry/Magnum Photo

The last time McCurry visited Afghanistan was in 2016. At the time, he captured a much more peaceful life. Women walking unaccompanied on the streets, little girls in school, and a generation that only heard stories of what Taliban rule used to look like.

“People had hopes, dreams, and were aspiring to do something. There was kind of a normal aspiration that you would expect in literally every other country in the world,” he said. 

“But now it’s become very dark for a lot of people. Their hopes of becoming whatever their dreams were have been dashed,” he added.

Steve McCurry Afghanistan

Kabul, Afghanistan in March, 2016.

© Steve McCurry/Magnum Photo

McCurry, originally from Pennsylvania, has been a photojournalist since 1979. He’s taken portraits of celebrities and politicians, covered armed conflicts like the Gulf War and the Afghan Civil War, 

But his claim to fame came in 1984 when he took a picture of 12-year-old Sharabat Gula, also known as “Afghan girl,” in a refugee camp in Pakistan. 

Steve McCurry Afghanistan

Afghan Girl.

© Steve McCurry/Magnum Photo

The photo was featured on the front cover of National Geographic multiple times and became one of the most recognized images ever. But it is by far his favorite.

“It was popular when it first came out,” he said. “But the phenomena around it grew over the years. It is a fine picture and it’s better to be remembered for one than not at all.” 

McCurry and a team from National Geographic tracked down Gula in 2002 as part of a documentary.

Steve McCurry Afghanistan

Kunduz, Afghanistan in 2003.

© Steve McCurry/Magnum Photo

In 2016, Gula found herself in the spotlight again after being arrested by Pakistani police on suspicion of forging an identity document. A year later, the Afghan government gave a house in Kabul and a $700 per month stipend. 

McCurry does not know where she is now.

“I keep coming back because Afghanistan is such a fascinating story, an important story. It’s human, I think has huge human and political and geopolitical and human parts to it.”

Steve McCurry Afghanistan

Mujahadeen fighters pose for a group portrait in Afghanistan, 1980.

© Steve McCurry/Magnum Photo

But McCurry is hopeful. He plans on going back within the next few years and says he believes Afghans will “pull through this.”

“They’re some of the most resilient people I know. They have a great deal of dignity. And I think that the vast majority will, you know, gathered the strength to move forward,” he said.

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