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Humanity beneath the Bullets

Steve McCurry in Afghanistan

For almost four decades, Magnum photographer Steve McCurry has travelled to and through Afghanistan, capturing the country’s vertiginous landscapes, its bustling cities, isolated rural communities, and its relentless experience of conflict, from clan and ethnic fissures to the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989) and the current U.S-led war in Afghanistan, the longest foreign war in U.S. history. McCurry tells TASCHEN about finding human stories in such precarious circumstances and about the close calls he has encountered along the way.

Can you tell us about your first trip into Afghanistan?
Well, my first encounter was in 1979, with some refugees in Pakistan, who were living [there] because their villages had been bombed. I didn’t really have any thought about going into Afghanistan but once they explained the situation of what was happening and they invited me to come in and witness this for myself, I decided to take them up on their offer and spend a couple of weeks there surveying the situation. What I saw there was shocking, it was village after village which had been bombed, destroyed. They were completely empty, and it appeared that there was a systematic attempt to empty the countryside of these people and drive them into neighboring Pakistan.

And it was quite a dramatic border crossing?
That’s right. I didn’t actually know these people I was going into Afghanistan with. They were all armed, we were going to this conflict area, and I went in without my passport. We just literally walked across the border. There was no communication or roads, there was no electricity, and it was quite a harrowing experience. I really wondered if I’d ever come back.

As I got to know the people, I became much more confident and comfortable and realized that they were sincere and honest and they were just simply trying to get somebody from the outside world to see what was happening and hopefully tell that story to the rest of the world. There was a sense of adventure… going into kind of unchartered territory.

So at that point nobody was really covering the Afghan situation?
There were very few photographers or journalists covering this story. The fighting was in mountainous, remote areas, so it wasn’t really something which was grabbing the world’s attention until later that year, when the Soviet Union decided to invade Afghanistan, bringing in thousands of troops, and it suddenly became this huge story around the world.

Can you tell us a little about how you first navigated the terrain? How did you get around and meet subjects?
I was always with a group of Mujahideen who helped me with traversing the landscape, and with food and shelter. They didn’t control what I was photographing or what I was seeing, but I really needed to be with the group. Otherwise you’re just by yourself without the ability to communicate. On more than one occasion, I was taken to be a Russian spy and that was a very uncomfortable situation, so I always needed to be with somebody who could help me. Otherwise, there were no maps, no GPS.

Did a clear picture emerge of what you wanted to find, to get to say, villages, the countryside, or cities?
I was interested in places like Jalalabad, I was interested in areas which had been contested, where the fighting was going on, where refugees were flowing out of the country, where villages were still being bombed. I was more interested in the human dimension of the story than the actual fighting. There was a steady stream of refugees every day flowing out of Afghanistan and – again - there was this systematic attempt to bomb all the villages so that there would be no support, local support, for the fighters. They felt that they could wear down the Afghan people into submission. So it was a real struggle to the death and to witness this first hand was really extraordinary. At night there was a steady flow of arms and ammunition flowing into Afghanistan, from Pakistan: thousands of camels and donkeys and horses, were laden with rockets and armament. It was quite a big production. I think that the US military spent three billion dollars plus to support the Mujahideen.

You would go on to return to Afghanistan on many, many occasions. Could you talk a little bit about what captivated you in the country? What was it that kept compelling you to revisit and explore the country?
Well, it appeared that this evolving story was moving very rapidly and I was thinking that in a matter of weeks, the story might come to a conclusion. So I wanted to go back and see the conclusion. Little did I know that it would go on until today. But once you get to know the people, the terrain, something gets hold of you. It’s something you become involved with and you want to follow and see how it develops. Every year there seemed to be a new chapter in the story, and, even till today, the story is not over. I mean, nobody knows exactly how this thing is going to end.

Tell us more about the country’s terrain.
Well, the whole landscape, particularly on the Eastern side, with the Hindu Kush, it’s very mountainous, very dramatic, with villages nestled into valleys. It reminds me of the Rocky Mountains, or Colorado or Arizona - really extraordinary, and really beautiful.

Were there occasions where you felt severely in danger?
I was at a hotel room one night when armed gunmen came into my room and stole all of my belongings. That was a bit frightening, knowing that any moment they could just shoot me. I was also stopped at gunpoint a couple of times, driving down the road. And then of course, being in so many different battles, where bullets and rockets and bombs were dropping all around. It’s a very dangerous place.

And what are your thoughts about Afghanistan at the moment? Do you have plans to go back any time soon? What are your predictions for the country?
It’s very difficult to walk the streets, because you’re always worried about being kidnapped or taken hostage. When I was there the last time, I was there for three weeks and I didn’t see one foreigner on the streets of Kabul. Everybody’s been told that it’s extremely dangerous to be out on the street. I felt like I was in the twilight zone. And I only had one assistant translator with me, I didn’t have armed guards. So it’s a risk.

And if the situation changes, I think it will probably go more in the direction of the Taliban’s favor. The Taliban aren’t going anywhere. This is their home. I think it’s just a matter of time when there will have to be a political settlement, or they’ll eventually win the day.

Where do you see a distinction between photojournalism and art? How do you see yourself—and these Afghan photographs—in that context?
I see myself as much of an artist in the way I look at the world in my own particular way. Most of my pictures are not published in magazines or newspapers. They’re mostly in my books and exhibitions. I go where I want to, go to places that fascinate me, go to places that I want to learn something from and photograph and be with the people and see what these places are like. But I think that there’s a documentary element as well—documenting people and life. Even in New York, I wander around and take pictures. I’ve always been fascinated by human behavior, animal behavior, how people relate to the environment, how they relate to their pets and other animals, and for me the most enriching part of my life is wandering the streets of a village or city or the countryside and just seeing how people live. Just yesterday, I walked around Washington Square Park in New York City and photographed people reading on a park bench, performance artists, people napping, lovers in the grass. What ever people do, I think, is utterly fascinating, whether it’s in New York or Havana or Calcutta or Cape Town or Moscow. I see more of a continuity, more of a similarity, a kind of commonality of people around the world. Whatever race or religion, in the end we’re all pretty much the same.

You once said that you could summarize your philosophy in a nutshell: you need to be in the right frame of mind and be curious. Do you still stand by that?
Wandering and exploring and observing, your mind has to be clear. You get into this wonderful zone of being in the moment, the sounds and things you see, and that’s when I think, your observation becomes very keen, and suddenly you respond to things in the world that touch you, that have meaning, that are amusing, or perhaps sad, or somehow reveal something about the human condition.

© all photos: Steve McCurry