Hong Kong Tatler - - Features -

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.

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