McCurry, Meiselas, and the Mystery of Imagination in Documentary Photography

I have always loved photography’s ethereal quality. I cherish the medium’s ability to turn reality into fiction and create a world of imagination from concretely real things. Several years ago, my parents gifted me a copy of National Geographic’s “Asia and Oceania: Around the World in 125 years.” My history-loving, faraway imagination was seduced by the book, transporting me to the mountains of Kashmir, ports of Victoria Harbor, and jungles of Bagan to live a multitude of lives I had never before conceived of.

Of the photographers represented in the compilation, one of the most notable is the American photographer Steve McCurry, who is most well known for his portrait “Afghan Girl,” a dazzling work which takes as its subject a green-eyed young Afghan refugee in the early 1980s. Despite its stunning composition, the photo has become highly controversial in recent years after some of McCurry’s coercive tactics, which he employed to make his subject Sharbat Gula pose for the photo, surfaced.

The public’s concern with the photo in recent times reflects a broader objection to photographic practices that can be interpreted as exploitative, such as projects which do not aim to accurately reflect a given reality but instead capitalize on its attraction to a foreign audience. McCurry’s larger body of work, which in some cases reflects this tendency, is nevertheless defining of a genre of photography that meaningfully contributes to the global photographic ecosystem. The work he did in Afghanistan is a clear example of why.

Beginning in 1979 with the Soviet invasion of the country, a brutal, 10-year-long war fought between the US-backed Mujahideen and Soviet forces wreaked havoc on the country, killing anywhere between 500,000 and two million Afghan people. Still, McCurry’s work at the time, which included trips to 30 different refugee camps on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, evokes for some a sense of wonder about this beautiful region and its people. To this day, the large, heavy book of wonders in which I first found his work lives on my dorm room desk.

McCurry’s work is defined by both beauty and simplicity. In many ways, it ignites ideas of hope and intrigue about the harshest places in the world, which is a valuable and necessary way of constructing empathy for the breadth of the world’s inhabitants. Moreover, it attempts to accomplish this in an apolitical way by foregrounding essential aspects of the human experience such as beauty, love, and family, as opposed to the political conditions that experience exists within. In Maimana, Afghanistan, one of his photos shows a man and his three children riding aback a donkey, smiling as their pastel-colored clothes blend in with the blue-gray sky and green field. We will likely never know where they went and why they were so apparently happy at the moment McCurry’s shutter clicked, and that is the point. All the viewer can do is lose themself in the possibilities of what lay beyond the frame, what joys found homes in their faces.


Last year, my Dad pulled me aside and said, “This will blow your mind.” In his arms was a copy of Susan Meiselas’s “Nicaragua.” (Meiselas, like McCurry, is associated with the prestigious photography collective Magnum Photos.) Opening the book for the first time, it was difficult to comprehend the vividness of what I was seeing. On every page were documentations — pure documentations — of some brutal moments in the Nicaraguan Revolution in 1979. Unlike McCurry’s inviting depictions of Afghanistan, Meiselas’s work in Nicaragua highlights instances of violence. She doesn’t attempt to glorify the time period; she portrays Nicaragua in 1979 to be what the world least wanted to see: a bloodbath.

The revolution saw the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), a group of USSR-backed socialists, overthrow the Somoza regime, only to then fight a continued bloody battle against the US-supported Contras. This period of violence was ultimately responsible for 50,000 deaths, or two percent of the Nicaraguan population.

As I slowly flipped through the pages of Meiselas’s book, I saw armed guerillas in the streets, citizens tied up in dark rooms, and lifeless bodies of all ages in pools of blood. It was a much more difficult reality to lose myself in than McCurry’s beautiful depictions of central Asia, largely because I didn’t want to. Even more confusingly, however, was the realization that both Meiselas’s bravery in Nicaragua and McCurry’s optimism in Afghanistan, which both “documented” similar Cold War issues only a few years apart, did so in entirely different ways. As such, they provoked two diametrically opposed feelings of hope and the harshness of reality. While McCurry’s inviting style caused me to want to immerse myself in the beauty of a faraway place, Meiselas’s portrayal of a similar issue made me conscious of the brutalities of war. Both methods are necessary and have a place in photography.

Meiselas’s work leaves little room for speculation. Everything that the viewer is meant to understand is contained within the frame, a reality made possible by the gravity of her chosen subject. Throughout her project, Meiselas depicts people in a variety of environments and how they have been impacted by the revolution, leaving few stones unturned. As a result, there are very few uncertainties regarding what this time period in the Central American nation actually looked like to the American photojournalist. Moreover, Meiselas chronicles destruction extensively, while her fellow Magnum Photos colleague McCurry barely touches on the subject. As a result, rather than view Nicaragua with an extrapolatory eye, I see the nation exactly as Meiselas saw it: ravaged by war, brutal, and bombarded with strife. Who was responsible for this destruction and how the Nicaraguan Revolution may have occurred differently is a topic that Meiselas recalls avoiding defeatedly, primarily due to a humble, accepted, ignorance. “I wasn’t doing anything that gave a feeling for what in fact was going on there. Not going on in the world of events, but going on in terms of how people were feeling,” she writes.

This distinction is critical and one that all photographers should be aware of. At the end of the day, even documentary photography is an expression of the artist’s perception rather than an objective account of a moment in time.

For viewers of global events from afar, both artists and their respective documentary styles illuminate the realities of people trapped by the hands they have been dealt. In photographic form, as in McCurry’s work, pictures highlight to observers that humans far and wide are far more similar than their divergent experiences might imply, catalyzing senses of sympathy and appreciation. On the other hand, as Meiselas shows, it is equally crucial to understand the complexity and extent of hardships throughout the world without romanticizing the tragedies of others. In order for the photographic medium to evolve, photographers of the 21st century will need to reconcile this dichotomy in work that is both imaginative and grounded, hopefully igniting decades of further curiosity about the world’s most faraway places in minds old and young alike.

—Alexander J. Gerstenhaber’s column “F4: The World in Pictures” is an appreciation of the photography that tells untold stories about the joys, hardships, and realities of the world’s people.