Mental Floss

Some Strange Guy: Steve McCurry

Andréa Fernandes

On Tuesday, American photographer Steve McCurry celebrated his 59th birthday. At the request of reader Nerak, today's "Feel Art Again" takes a look at the famed National Geographic photographer behind the magazine's "most recognized photograph, "Afghan Girl."

1. Steve McCurry produced some of the first images of the Soviet war in Afghanistan by disguising himself as a native and sneaking over the Afghanistan border. McCurry was usually passed off as a native by his traveling companions, who would claim he was "deaf and dumb." Leaving the country, McCurry was worried his film would be discovered and perhaps confiscated, so he hid it on his person, sewing it into his clothes and turban.

2. For more than 15 years after photographing the globally recognized "Afghan Girl," McCurry had no idea who she was. Finally, in 2002, McCurry and a National Geographic team set out to locate the June 1985 cover girl. Despite several initial false leads, McCurry instantly recognized Sharbat Gula when they were re-introduced: her piercing eyes and the scar on her nose were dead giveaways. To McCurry, Gula's portrait "summed up"¦the trauma and plight, and the whole situation of suddenly having to flee your home and end up in refugee camp, hundreds of miles away."

3. McCurry, who lives in New York City, had just arrived back in the States from China on September 10, 2001. He spent the next day photographing the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, first from the roof of his apartment building and later at Ground Zero. He photographed all day, dodging officials because he had not had time to obtain press credentials. "It was almost like Pompeii," he said. "There weren't any people at Ground Zero, but all the stuff they had been doing was just frozen in time."

4. On average, McCurry makes about 40 to 60 trips each year. The frequent flyer has become skilled at packing lightly; he reportedly carries just one small camera bag with him on each trip. Packed inside that bag are 3 or 4 Nikon camera bodies, 6 or 7 Nikkor lenses, Kodak film, lens cleaning tissue, a tripod, a small flash, a cable release, fluorescent filter, a Leatherman, and a Swiss Army knife (with a corkscrew).

5. McCurry doesn't rush his photographs; as he puts it, "If you wait, people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view." He instructs aspiring photographers to see their subjects and "relate to them as real people, not somehow quaint or foreign." In fact, McCurry is often viewed as the foreign one in his travels, saying of his subjects, "They just think of me as some strange guy from some other part of the world, with a camera."

Slightly larger versions of the two portraits shown above, "Tahoua, Niger, 1986" and "Jodhpur, India, 1997", are available. Fans should check out McCurry's official site and his Magnum Photos site; the Steve McCurry Research Center; the McCurry galleries on Art Department and Musarium; the PDN Legends feature on McCurry; the George Eastman House podcast on McCurry and National Geographic's interview with McCurry; and National Geographic's follow-up on "Afghan Girl." "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.