When we think of Afghanistan – if, indeed, we do – it is through a lens fractured by war. That’s not surprising. For much of the last two millennia the land that we now call Afghanistan has been embroiled in some sort of conflict, whether fighting off outside invaders – Persians, Arabs, Mughals, Sikhs, Russians, Brits – or with itself, hardy tribes clashing on battlefields already stained with the blood of their ancestors.
Steve McCurry first visited Afghanistan in 1979, the year after the Soviet-backed Marxist revolution, which exploded into a prolonged and bitter civil war. Then, he was smuggled over the border from Pakistan, disguised in Afghan robes. He has been going back every since, pointing his camera deeper and deeper into the heart of the country, producing images that both confirm and explode our monochromatic impression of a place he clearly loves.
He took his most famous photograph in 1984. “Afghan Girl” is a portrait of a young refugee, one of an estimated six million who fled the war, mainly to Pakistan and Iran. With a rust-coloured scarf wrapped loosely around her face, she stares at us with defiant aquamarine eyes. That image has been on the cover of countless magazines and books – but not this one, “Afghanistan”, published by Taschen, for which McCurry has chosen a more light-hearted cover star. An older man, a photographer, sits on a simple bench, beside his ancient box-camera, beneath portraits he has taken of younger, handsome men. McCurry has provided no words inside – there is an essay at the back by William Dalrymple – but the cover says it all: this is a portrait of a country in all its colourful, tragic, occasionally whimsical beauty.
The book is not organised in chronological order and, at first, you wonder how and why he has chosen to arrange his photographs – all bold, large, single- or double pages – how he has. But, leafing through the pages, it starts to make sense. Before the title page, the pictures are all in black and white, of warriors and mullahs. These are followed, though, with two magnificent landscapes, lit by golden sunlight, which seem to urge us to let go of our preconceptions and peer though his lens into a world that is more rounded, more real, more emotional than we could previously have imagined – had we taken the time to do so.
Logar Province (1984)
McCurry is not one for words – or fancy captions. This, like most of his other captions, comprises just a date and a location, leaving us to fill in the gaps. Logar is one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, on the eastern side, kissing the border with Pakistan. It has seen more than its share of bloodshed. A Swedish journalist, who visited two years before this photograph was taken, said, “Everywhere in the Logar province the most common site except for ruins are graves.” The mountains are both the backdrop and the focus of this picture; the three men – warriors, or maybe shepherds – look out across the vast, blighted valley as if to say: this is our land, this is what we are dying for.
The capital of Faryab province in the north, near the border with Turkmenistan, Maimana (or Maymana) was close to the front line in the Afghan civil war between the Taliban and opposition forces. The woman in this picture is clearly not taking any risks of being caught by the religious police. Shrouded in her mustard-coloured burkha, one hand also seems to be pulling it close to her body from within. Her house has no comforts or plumbing – there is just a small, basic sink outside, served by a metal jerry can. The composition and the colours are clearly McCurry; her burka matches the makeshift material door, the blue of the frame picks out the flash of ikat on her tunic and in her other hand she holds a red patterned purse which brings a top note of vibrancy to a dismal scene, a reminder, perhaps, that life is not all dour.
Peshawar, Pakistan (2002)
This was taken 18 years after McCurry’s first Afghan girl and is both her mirror and her inverse. This girl, presumably another refugee, is about the same age and, like the first, stares into the camera with a level gaze and clear blue eyes. But the colours have been reversed: this girl wears a green hijab, with just the neckline of rusty-red peeking through. And her gaze is more resigned, more diffident, less defiant, as if the years of Sharia law under the Taliban, followed by the American-led NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, had robbed her of any hope of returning to her country.
The capital of Afghanistan is an ancient Silk-Road city and seat of learning at the head of a valley high in the Hindu Kush. But over the years and decades and centuries of fighting and sanctions and insurrection, much of it has been reduced to rubble. In this picture, a young orange-seller displays his wares on the boot of a bullet-strafed and abandoned car. It looks cold – he’s huddled into his grey coat – and he’s looking away from the camera with an expression of resigned wistfulness. A lantern represents warmth, life and hope.
This is a scene of exquisite simplicity. A man rides his donkey through the extraordinary badlands in the geographical centre of Afghanistan. Bamiyan was a major trading post on the Silk Road, at the most westerly point of Buddhist expansion. There are buddhas carved into the cliffs and what remains of the City of Sighs – pillaged by Genghis Khan in 1221 – still lures pilgrims from far afield. What makes this picture extraordinary is the golden light – either morning or evening – which exaggerates the illuminated peaks and shadowed troughs of the landscape. The man and his steed give it scale – a small unit in a vast, empty, beautiful land.
At last, joy. Young women, wearing rich red velvet tunics and coloured hijabs, are juggling – possibly in some sort of class – with tennis balls. They are standing on the edge of what looks like a well-tended park. Although they are concentrating on what they’re doing, the colours, and particularly the light on the woman in the centre, speak to a brighter future for women in their country.
Afghanistan by Steve McCurry (Taschen), hardcover, 26.7 x 37 cm, £59.99/$69.99, out August 11th