Spotlight

Desolate Ground: Steve McCurry’s Camels and Oil Fields

17th September 2021
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Words Flora Miller

17th September 2021

From smuggling rolls of film out of Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war in 1979, to documenting The Gulf War in the 1990s, Steve McCurry’s photographs reflect on the consequences and environmental cost of sociopolitical issues.

One of his most devastating images, Camels and Oil Fields 1991, documents the disastrous events of the first Gulf War. Capturing camels making their way across scorched, desolate ground, the photograph presents the devastation inflicted on the landscape by burning oil wells which had been set alight by Iraqi military forces. The image is divided horizontally into thirds. The horizon, lit up by roaring flames, marks a divide between the barren landscape and the billowing clouds of thick, dark smoke which fill over half of the frame. In the centre of the image, silhouetted against the raging fire, is a camel and her two calves searching for sources of food and water. Camels and Oil Fields is a desperate image, the animals appear helpless and are dwarfed by the fire which tears across their landscape. McCurry describes the scene in an interview, ‘Animals were left to wander among the burning oil fields, looking for food and water. I followed this family of camels for about an hour in my jeep, getting out from time to time to make photographs. I guess my motivation was to show the world this tragic, needless catastrophe.’

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    It is unclear at what time of day the image was shot, the thick black smoke cinematically expands across the sky and fills any possible cracks of light. Taken from a low vantage point the smoke appears vast and endless, lending the photograph a sinister presence. Describing the scene as an ‘end of the world scenario’, McCurry’s photograph presents just that. Reflecting later on his time spent shooting in Kuwait, McCurry stated ‘the darkness caused by the burning oil wells was like a moonless night…The photographs show a scorched, infernal place, but they don’t convey the fine mist of oil that hung in the air and coated my cameras, or the deafening roar of the burning wells.’ McCurry here aptly documents the devastating after-effects of the gulf war, framing the disaster from the perspective of the lives who tragically became collateral damage.

    FeaturedSteve McCurry

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    The ArtistSteve McCurry (born 1950) is best known for his evocative colour photographs that document both human struggles and joy. Having travelled the globe for over thirty years, McCurry has photographed warzones, burning oil fields, refugee camps, ship breaking yards and monsoons all over the world. A member of Magnum Photos since 1986, many of his images have become modern icons.

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