n assignment in disintegrating Yugoslavia 27 years ago, Steve Mccurry hired a small plane with the intention of shooting images from the air. One afternoon, while flying over Slovenia, his pilot swerved dangerously close to a lake. The plane’s wheels caught on the water and the aircraft crashed. Water filled the cabin and the fuselage began to sink. “My seat belt was stuck,” remembers Mccurry, “but an instinct for self-preservation kicked in and I was able to wrestle free.” He swam for the surface but his camera, with its evidence of the region’s unfolding ethnic conflict, remains 20 metres under water.
Mccurry made his name as a news photographer documenting human struggle in hotbeds of civil unrest. The first major conflict he covered was the Soviet-afghan War in the early 1980s. Mccurry had been exploring India for several months when he decided to cross the border into Pakistan. There, in a small village, he met a group of Afghan refugees, some of them mujahideen insurgents fresh from the battlefield.
During Mccurry’s time with the Afghan refugees, he photographed a 12-year-old girl, later identified as Sharbat Gula, whose parents had been killed in the Soviet bombing of Afghanistan. Her portrait was published on the cover of a 1984 issue of National Geographic and became one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. Some have likened her mysterious, piercing gaze to that of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. “I think the reason the picture resonated with people around the world was because it had a rare combination of emotion, beauty and sadness,” says Mccurry.
A group of insurgents eventually smuggled Mccurry, disguised in traditional garb and with film sewn into his clothes, into Afghanistan just as it was closing to Western journalists. His photographs were among the first to show the world the brutality of the Soviet invasion and occupation. Mccurry went on to document the Islamic insurgency in the Philippines, the Iran-iraq War, the Lebanese Civil War and the Gulf War.