5 Captivating Photographs by Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry is a name synonymous with extraordinary photography that captures the essence of humanity and the world's diverse cultures.

Jan 1, 2024By Selin Oguz, BSc, Minor in Art History and Visual Culture

photographs steve mccurry


With a career spanning over decades, Steve McCurry has become one of the most renowned and influential photographers of our time. McCurry’s immense talent and unwavering dedication to capturing the human condition have earned him numerous awards and accolades, including the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal and the Centenary Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the Royal Photographic Society in London. Let’s explore Steve McCurry’s most famous photographs that have left a lasting mark on the world.


Who is Steve McCurry?

Steve McCurry with his camera
Steve McCurry with his Leica camera, via Journeys in Artistry


McCurry is an American photojournalist born in Philadelphia on April 23, 1950. His passion for photography ignited during his college years, leading him to a local newspaper where he worked before setting off on a journey to explore the world through his lens. Today, the photographer continues to inspire photographers and enthusiasts alike with his incredible photographic pieces and his commitment to storytelling.


Early Career

Young Steve McCurry via The Today Show


Steve McCurry’s official journey into photography began during his college years when he studied cinematography at Pennsylvania State University. After graduating, he perfected his skills in visual storytelling while working for a newspaper, laying the foundation for his future career.


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However, it was a life-changing trip to India in the late 1970s that truly ignited McCurry’s passion for documenting diverse cultures and the human experience. Upon reaching the Pakistani border during his travels, the photographer found himself in a quaint village, where a group of Afghan refugees extended a clandestine invitation to guide him into their war-torn homeland. The Russian invasion had closed off Afghanistan to Western journalists, but fueled by curiosity and determination, McCurry accepted the invitation.


For months, McCurry lived among the Afghani population, embedding himself with the Mujahideen and capturing their lives through his lens. He documented their struggles, resilience, and the harsh realities of war with unwavering dedication. Disguised in traditional attire and sporting a rugged beard, McCurry risked everything to cross back into Pakistan, his precious film sewn securely into his clothing.


This audacious act marked the beginning of McCurry’s extraordinary journey as a world-famous photojournalist. His bravery and empathy in capturing the human spirit and unguarded moments have since become hallmarks of his work. From that pivotal moment on the Pakistan border to the countless stories he would go on to tell through his camera lens, Steve McCurry’s indelible legacy as a master storyteller has touched the hearts and minds of people all over the globe.


1. The Afghan Girl (1984)

steve mccurry the afghan girl
The Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry, 1984, via CNN


The Afghan Girl photograph is undoubtedly one of Steve McCurry’s most famous works. This powerful image has left a profound impact on viewers worldwide and has become an emblem of resilience, humanity, and the plight of refugees. In 1984, while documenting the Soviet-Afghan War, McCurry found himself in a refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan. Amidst the hardships faced by the Afghan people fleeing the conflict, McCurry encountered a young girl with striking, haunting green eyes. Her name was Sharbat Gula.


The moment McCurry’s lens captured the intensity of Sharbat Gula’s gaze, a powerful connection was forged between the subject and the photographer. Her arresting eyes seemed to speak volumes about the struggles and resilience of her people, and the photograph became an instant classic.


McCurry’s mastery of composition is evident in The Afghan Girl. The direct and unwavering stare of Sharbat Gula draws viewers in, inviting them to witness her story and the turbulent backdrop of her life as a refugee. The background, though blurred, provides context to the setting without overpowering the subject, allowing Gula to remain the focal point of the photograph.


The Afghan Girl graced the cover of National Geographic in June of 1985, instantly propelling McCurry to international acclaim. The image became an iconic representation of the magazine’s commitment to telling powerful stories through photography. It resonated with readers, becoming one of the most recognized and celebrated photographs in the history of photojournalism.


2. Sri Lankan Fishermen (1995)

steve mccurry fishermen sri lanka 1995
Sri Lankan Fishermen by Steve McCurry, 1995, via Magnum Photos


In 1995, Steve McCurry captured an extraordinary moment of everyday life in Weligama, Sri Lanka. The image shows the traditional stilt fishing method employed by fishermen from the area. The composition of this photograph is simple yet breathtaking. Gracefully perched on wooden stilts, the fishermen cast their lines into the Indian Ocean below. The agitated waters and the fishermen’s precarious positions create a captivating visual narrative, portraying the difficulty of this vanishing fishing tradition.


3. Shaolin Monastery (2004)

steve mccurry shaolin monastery 2004
Shaolin Monastery by Steve McCurry, 2004, via Magnum Photos


Steve McCurry’s 2004 photograph taken at the Shaolin Monastery in Hunan Province, China, captures the essence of martial arts, spiritual discipline, and the playfulness of the human spirit. The image features young Shaolin monks, dressed in traditional orange robes while partaking in various activities. The focal point of the photograph is a monk, captured mid-air as he bounces off a wall above others. His position exudes a sense of dynamism while others remain serene and unbothered. The monk’s precise and focused movements are frozen in time, while the surrounding architecture and natural elements add depth and context to the scene. This photograph has been widely celebrated for its portrayal of the ancient art of Kung Fu and the harmony between body and mind.


4. Camels Under a Blackened Sky (1991)

steve mccurry camels blackened sky kuwait 1991
Camels Under a Blackened Sky by Steve McCurry, 1991, via Magnum Photos


Camels Under a Blackened Sky is a captivating photograph taken by Steve McCurry during the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991. The image offers a poignant glimpse into the devastating environmental and human impact of the conflict on the nation of Kuwait.


In the wake of the Gulf War, Kuwait was left grappling with the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion and the subsequent retaking of the country by coalition forces. During this tumultuous period, retreating Iraqi troops engaged in a scorched-earth policy, igniting hundreds of oil wells across Kuwait. These oil fires created apocalyptic scenes of blackened skies and billowing smoke that engulfed the landscape.


Against this surreal backdrop, McCurry came across a remarkable scene featuring a group of camels calmly traversing the scorched terrain. The composition of the photograph is nothing short of striking. The juxtaposition of the stoic camels against the ominous blackened sky creates a sense of surreal beauty tinged with tragedy.


The image captures the resilience and adaptability of these desert-dwelling creatures, seemingly undeterred by the chaos surrounding them. McCurry’s skillful use of light and shadow adds depth to the photograph, emphasizing the contrast between the camels’ serene presence and the desolate, smoky surroundings.


Camels Under a Blackened Sky not only highlights the environmental devastation caused by the oil fires but also serves as a symbolic representation of hope and endurance amidst the ravages of war. The photograph has been widely celebrated for its artistic composition and the poignant message it conveys about the impact of conflict on both the natural world and the beings that inhabit it.


5. Man at the Holi Festival in Rajasthan (1996)

steve mccurry man at hindu holi festival
Indian Holi Festival by Steve McCurry, 1996, via Magnum Photos


This image of a man at the Holi Festival in Rajasthan is a mesmerizing photograph captured by Steve McCurry during the exuberant and colorful celebration of Holi in India. The image perfectly encapsulates the joy and spirit of this ancient Hindu festival, which marks the arrival of spring and the triumph of good over evil. In the photograph, we see a jubilant man covered in vibrant color from head to toe, partaking in the exuberant revelry that characterizes the Holi Festival. The festival is renowned for its playful tradition of throwing colored powders and water at each other, creating a kaleidoscope of hues that symbolize the coming of a new season and the renewal of life.


McCurry’s impeccable timing and keen eye for capturing the essence of human emotions are both evident in this photograph. Against a backdrop of vivid colors and fellow festival-goers covered in red powder, the man stands as a vibrant focal point. The photograph beautifully captures the dynamism and energy of the festival, as if freezing a fleeting moment of unbridled happiness.


The work transcends being merely a photograph of a festive event. It becomes a portal to the heart of a cultural celebration, inviting viewers to partake in the contagious delight of Holi and the sense of unity and joy that it brings to this community. This photograph has been widely celebrated and exhibited, cementing its place as one of Steve McCurry’s most iconic works. It serves as a vivid reminder of the universal power of celebration and the shared experience of joy that unites people from diverse backgrounds and cultures.


Steve McCurry’s Ode to Humanity

steve mccurry india
Rajasthan, India by Steve McCurry, 2009, via Steve McCurry’s website


Steve McCurry’s photographic journey has taken him to every corner of the globe, where he has captured timeless moments that resonate with people of all backgrounds. Through his lens, he has shown human experiences, shedding light on the beauty, resilience, and interconnectedness of our world. McCurry’s work continues to inspire and ignite our curiosity about the vast and diverse planet we call home. His photographs serve as a reminder that even in the face of adversity, beauty and humanity can shine through.

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By Selin OguzBSc, Minor in Art History and Visual CultureSelin is a writer and photographer based in Vancouver, Canada. When she isn’t writing all things art, she is either traveling, meditating, or reading old classics on her couch.