The Emotional Pictures of Steve McCurry

“Most of my photos are grounded in people.  I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person’s face.”Steve McCurry

An outstanding photograph of a twelve-year-old Afghan girl whose haunting eyes and a tattered garment depict the horrors of surviving in a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1983. Photo by Steve McCurry

This is a stunning picture shot by Steve McCurry, an American photojournalist best known for this specific photograph of the “Afghan Girl” originally published in National Geographic magazine.  This girl with green eyes of fire sinks deep into our inner soul like a piercing dagger.  Such is the emotion stirred by the image.  The image has a life of its own and definitely evokes a story using time.  Such are the characteristics of a fine picture.

Roland Barthes’ book, “Camera Lucida—Reflections on Photography” explains that there are two main factors of excellent photographs; those that emphasizes studium and those that accentuates punctum.  Let me expand on both Latin terms.  Roland Barthes in his personal—subjective—examination of multiple photographs, proceeded to notice a duality that was characteristic of certain photographs: a ‘co-presence of two discontinuous elements’—what he terms, the studium and the punctum.

The studium refers to the range of meanings available and obvious to everyone; it is unary and coded, the former term implying that the image is a unified and self-contained whole whose meaning can be taken in at a glance (without effort, or ‘thinking’).  The studium speaks of the interest which we show in a photograph, the desire to study and understand what the meanings are in a photograph, to explore the relationship between the meanings and our own subjectivities.  In layman’s term these are picture which can be called “likables” or pictures that we enjoy or like.

On the other hand punctum (a Latin word derived from the Greek word for trauma) inspires an intensely private meaning, one that is suddenly, unexpectedly recognized and consequently remembered (it “shoots out of [the photograph] like an arrow and pierces me”); it ‘escapes’ language; it is not easily communicable through/with language. The punctum is a detail or “partial object” that attracts and holds the viewer’s (the spectator’s) gaze; it pricks or wounds the observer.

You’ve guessed it; the “Afghan Girl” is a quintessential example of a photograph with punctum.  Your eyes are unable to detach themselves from the penetrating green eyes of the girl.  This is what Steve McCurry captured in this spectacular photograph.  McCurry focuses on the human consequences of war, not only showing what war impresses on the landscape, but rather, on the human face. “What is important to my work is the individual picture.  I photograph stories on assignment, and of course they have to be put together coherently, but what matters most, is that each picture stands on its own, with its own place and feeling.”

Steve McCurry’s career was launched when, disguised in native garb, he crossed the Pakistan border into rebel-controlled areas of Afghanistan just before the Soviet invasion. When he emerged, he had rolls of film sewn into his clothes. Those images, which were published around the world, were among the first to show the conflict. His coverage won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad, an award dedicated to photographers exhibiting exceptional courage and enterprise.

McCurry continued to cover armed conflicts, including the Iran-Iraq War, Lebanon Civil War, the Cambodian Civil War, the Islamic insurgency in the Philippines, the Gulf War and the Afghan Civil War. His work has been featured worldwide in magazines and he is a frequent contributor to National Geographic.

After working at Today’s Post in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania for two years, he left for India to freelance. It was here that McCurry learned to watch and wait on life. “If you wait,” he realized, “people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view.”

I have selected for this blog post, an awesome video prepared by Koosje van Maaren, a Dutch photography student, entitled, “Steve McCurry Photography Presentation”, depicting Steve McCurry’s emotion-stirring images divided in five general topics:

  1. War Pictures
  2. Africa Pictures
  3. Children Playing
  4. Landscape Pictures
  5. Portraits

These extraordinary images are difficult to describe in printed words.  You have to view them and try to interpret what they mean to you.  The images narrate a dramatic story; they don’t need words, for their message is visual, strong and unequivocal.  Good Day.

Additional Reading:  Studium and Punctum – George Powell Photography:  Exploring The Photographic Aesthetic

2 thoughts on “The Emotional Pictures of Steve McCurry”

  1. I remember this photo – who could forget it? I admire McCurry, and find a good bit of wisdom in what he says. You can keep Roland Barthes. He’s pretty much a “love him or hate him” kind of guy, and I’m not in the “love him” group. He could analyze an angel to death and pluck all her feathers. I’d rather hear her sing. 😉

  2. Morning Linda:

    As we turn our pages to a new year, I’m inclined more and more to learn about photography and how to use it effectively in my blogging activities. There is so much to learn out there.

    Sorry you didn’t enjoy Mr. Barthes. At least we are on the same page with photography, other great authors and soothing poems.

    Happy New Year! I’ve cherished your cyber friendship in 2012. Expecting 2013 to be another great year.



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