Archive for October, 2009

Occupational Hazards

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2009 by stevemccurry

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photo by Borut Sraj

One of the scariest experiences I’ve had in my career was crashing into a frigid glacial lake in the former Yugoslavia while on assignment for National Geographic.

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A twilight moon rises above the Kamniske mountains and Slovenia’s Sava River Valley, Slovenia.

I had hired a small, ultra-light, two-seater airplane in to do aerials over Bled Lake in Slovenia. The pilot flew down to the surface of the lake, very, very close — in fact so close that I told him to go up because we were only about five feet from the water.  If I had wanted to be that close I could have hired a boat, but it was too late. The wheels got caught in the water and we couldn’t pull out. We went down and as soon as the fuselage and the propeller hit the water, the propeller blew apart.

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Rijeka, Croatia, 1989

We flipped upside down in the 40-degree water in the middle of February and immediately began to sink. The cockpit was not enclosed. The seatbelt was a jerry-rigged homemade device and I hadn’t studied it and couldn’t get it off me.

I realized I was going to die. I guess that part of your brain concerned with self-preservation kicked in, and I slid underneath the contraption, literally went underneath, and was able to swim to the surface. The pilot made it, but didn’t attempt to help me.  My passport and equipment went to the bottom. Fortunately the pilot and I were picked up by a fisherman within ten minutes. Days later the plane was raised but all of my equipment is still 60 feet down.

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Picture of me in Lubiana before going to Lake Bled where my plane crashed.

There was another airplane incident in Africa.  Again, I was on assignment photographing the Sahel, that band of land that separates the Sahara Desert from the grasslands of the Savannah.

We got lost flying from Timbuktu in Mali back to the capital of Bamako. We had left in a sandstorm and started flying along the Niger River. I guess the pilot’s navigational instruments weren’t working. He literally could not find his way back to the capital.

 

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Chari River in the Sahel region near N’Djamena, Chad.

I watched him circling and I started to wonder what was going on.   He came back down through the clouds. It was getting dark and there was a huge thunderstorm right in our path.  The pilot dropped the small craft to search for his bearings.

Fuel was getting low, and we could never make it back to Timbuktu.  To the south, an enormous black wall of clouds loomed from the horizon – a monsoon storm.  In vain, for a half an hour we scanned the landscape searching for an opening.  We had no radio contact, and and no navigational equipment.  We prepared our last thoughts.

Finally, the pilot spotted a millet field, agonizingly small, but flat.  As we thundered in, I watched the wheel of the plane miss a six-foot hole by a few steps.

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Muddy field, Mali

We shuddered to a stop with a few hard bounces.  Villagers ran out from the surrounding bush in wonderment as the sky opened up.   We slept on the plane that night, and finally found a vehicle to take us back to the capital city of Bamako, fourteen hours of bone-rattling roads.

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Niger River, Mali

 

Preposterous Grandeur

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 19, 2009 by stevemccurry

In Christopher Kremmer’s  book, The Carpet Wars, he writes this about Afghanistan:

“A landscape might be denuded, a human settlement abandoned or lost, but always, just beaneath the ground lies history of preposterous grandeur. . . They are everywhere, these individuals of undaunted humankind, irrepressibly optimistic and proud.”

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Herat, Afghanistan, 1992

The beautiful city of Herat has been inhabited for over two millennia and has been fought over by invaders from Alexander the Great to the Soviets which picked Herat as one of their first battlefields.

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Bala Hisar Fort, Herat, Afghanistan, 2002

When I photographed there, it looked like Dresden after World War II.  But the war with the Soviet Union had ended by the late 1980′s, and families had started to return from Iran and other countries to rebuild their homes.

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A young man returns to his hometown of Herat, 1991

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School boy, Herat, 1991

Herat has always been considered to be a cultural center where the arts, literature, architecture, and knowledge flourish.   Herat is a treasure trove of ancient forts, citadels, mosques, and minarets.

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October, 2009

It is a privilege to have an exhibition of my photographs going on now at the Charhar Suq Cistern in Herat.  The Aga Khan Foundation is rebuilding the huge caravanserai in Herat which has four big branches.  Right in the intersection is the place called the Charhar Suq cistern.

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Herati women looking at my picture of an orphan from Kandahar, October, 2009

During the first week, more than 1,800 people visited the exhibit along with 800 local high school students  field trips organized by the Afghan ogranization, Education Support Organization.

Greatest Show on Earth

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on October 12, 2009 by stevemccurry

The Kumbh Mela has been called the world’s largest act of faith and the greatest show on earth.

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Allahabad, 2001

Millions of pilgrims, sadhus and saints, politicians, and tourists arrive on foot, in private jets and helicopters, by taxi, horses, cars, and bikes to the largest gathering on the planet.

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Allahabad, 2001

Pilgrims believe that bathing in the river will cleanse them of their sins.  Many shave their heads, so there are thousands of barbers to help them for a few rupees.

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Allahabad, 2001

While visiting India, Mark Twain remarked that, “Pilgrims plodded for months in heat to get here, worn, poor and hungry, but sustained by unwavering faith.”

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Allahabad, 2001

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Haridwar, India, 1998

I  will be leading an expedition to the Kumbh Mela Festival from March 4 – 16, 2009.  The main attraction of this workshop and expedition is the Kumbh Mela festival.   We will be focusing on the images that participants take every day and I will help participants to put together a Mela portfolio. Over the course of the days in Haridwar we will witness the auspicious bathing day where people will travel from all over India via trains, buses and road to bathe in the Ganges.   This trip is almost sold out.  For information please contact hillary@stevemccurry.com.

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Allahabad, 2001

The Mela will be filled with all sorts of interesting characters: Sadhus, naked Babas who use the sky as their garment, animated beggars, street performers, people from every caste and sub caste of India. Old and young people all attend, and some very old people attend who are hoping to die while they attend the Mela so they can be cremated right there on the Ganges.

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Ujjain, India

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Steve McCurry and Sadhu in Allahabad, 2001

Kunar Province, Afghanistan, 1979

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 10, 2009 by stevemccurry

American Photo Insert B&W008I traveled with  the Afghan Mujahadeen in 1979, who were determined to resist and undermine the Marxist puppet central government.  This was before the Soviets invaded.

American Photo Insert B&W007We  traveled as much as thirty miles a night subsisting on tea and bread with an occasional bonus of goat cheese or yogurt.  The only drinking water was what we scooped out of an irrigation ditch.

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American Photo Insert B&W001These are the proud men of Kunar Province girding for war in a place where ancient absolutes still prevail. Adapted from Owen Edwards in American Photographer magazine, 1980.

B&W Photograph001Steve McCurry and Commander Abdul Raluf

Abdul Raluf, standing to my left, was the commander of the Asmir Garrison in Afghanistan’s Kunar province.  In September 1979, Commander Raluf and his 300 soldiers at a strategic outpost on the border with Pakistan, switched sides, killing the provincial governor, stripping the garrison of weapons and supplies, and joined forces with the Mujahideen. It took another ten years for the Afghan government to fall.

The Afghanistan Dilemma

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on October 4, 2009 by stevemccurry
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Nuristan, Afghanistan, 1979

 I slipped into Afghanistan across the border with Pakistan in 1979. I went with a couple of guides who did not speak English; I certainly didn’t speak Dari or Pashto so our only form of communication was improvised sign language. I was woefully unprepared. Among my belongings were a plastic cup, a Swiss Army knife, two camera bodies, four lenses, a bag of film and a few bags of airline peanuts. My naiveté was breathtaking, yet my Afghan guides protected me and treated me as their guest. That was my first experience with the legendary Afghan hospitality.

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Village in the Hindu Kush, 1980

I went back when the Russians invaded.   I traveled with many different mujahadeen and militia groups. We mainly traveled at night to avoid being spotted by the Soviet helicopters. Most of the time we walked, but a few times we were able to borrow horses. I was always astonished at the continual pipeline of weapons and supplies going into Afghanistan from Pakistan around the clock. Rockets, mortar rounds, ammunition, were carried in by camels, donkeys, and fighters. It was only later that we found out the staggering amount of money supplied by the U.S. to make it happen.

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Jalalabad, 1988

There was a deep camaraderie amongst the fighters who were on the greatest mission of their lives.  They weren’t looking at the calendar, waiting to go back home on R & R to see friends, family, girlfriends.  They didn’t worry much about casualty numbers. The harder the fight was, the stronger they became. Walking in the snow without boots high up in the Hindu Kush was commonplace. Those men were as tough as it gets, yet they could be gentle and tender with children.

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When I went back over the border into Pakistan, I had blisters, saddle sores, and filthy clothing into which I had sewn rolls of film, which were among the first images of the conflict. Over the years, I went back more than dozens of times on assignment for National Geographic, Time Magazine, ABC News, and other news outlets.  I have spent time in Afghanistan during invasions, retreats, truces, and relative peace. Almost every time I returned, the power centers had shifted. In a great game of musical chairs, elders, warlords, criminals, and mullahs’ power grows and diminishes as predictably as the phases of the moon.. Whole groups change sides when the terms are right.

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Ahmed Shah Massoud, 1992 

Afghans have to be versatile; they are survivors who are wily, clever, smart. They are the original survivors. They outwit, outplay, and outlast their adversaries.

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Kandahar, 1989

As much as outsiders have tried to “re-form” the country in their own image, Afghanistan  has been able to absorb the blows of superpowers, and remain essentially the same. The interesting thing to me is that the people trying to change it,  change more than the country does even after Herculean efforts of well-meaning governments, NGO’s, and coalitions. Look at the Soviet misadventure for evidence.

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Road to Kabul, 1992

Maybe one definition of hell is that is the place where more effort produces fewer results. Five years ago, I could drive from Kabul over mountain passes in safety to the central highlands town of Bamiyan. Today, the only recommended way is to fly – if you can get a flight with the United Nations Assistance Mission. Today we have many more soldiers, contractors, and NGO’S than we did five years ago, yet it is far more dangerous today than it was then. We are getting fewer results with more boots on the ground. That tells me that we do not understand the country, the people, the terrain, the language, the religion, the culture.

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Chitral Valley, 1988

We are in their country, but many times we are not behaving as guests should. The recent story of the contractors responsible for the embassy security in Kabul having drunken sex orgies adds fuel to the Taliban fire. It was embarrassing to see American troops trying to do good by distributing gift to refugees during Eid, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan.   Well-meaning troops  gave a trash bag full of stuffed animals to one refugee  family, when what the family needed was food and basic necessities.

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Near Pakistan border, 1984

Everyone wants Afghans to live their lives in a peaceful country where families can thrive, but our ideas to achieve that goal are often built on faulty assumptions.   The president will be damned if he agrees to send more troops, and he will be damned if he doesn’t. He may be a one-term president if the war goes badly, and who will decide if and when we “win.”  The concept of winning is dangerous. Do we win, or do the Afghans win, and do they even want that victory as we define it?  The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The problem is that intentions which are based on faulty assumptions are doomed to failure.

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