Odyssey: impressions from Meet and Greet session with Steve McCurry and his exhibition

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Silent dialogue at the exhibition

On Tuesday, 19th June I was lucky to attend Meet and Greet session with Steve McCurry, one of the greatest photographers of modern era. It was hard to believe this humble person, sitting in front of the audience, was the author of the world’s most recognizable portray – the portrait of Afghan girl. There was so much in him – peace, sincerity, openness. And not even a hint of pride or superiority. Seeing a person whose eyes had seen so much, I suddenly felt connected to all the countries and events he photographed. I had such a desire to hug him and shake his hand.

When he kindly and patiently was signing prints for everybody I noticed he was left-handed with his right hand not fully functional. Can imagine what a challenge it must have been to take photos for a person with a limited hand functionality. Nevertheless, faces and scenes captured by his camera became immortal. Those are works of a real master.

The audience was quite mixed – glamorous girls and guys, Maltese elite that took a chance to present their designer’s outfits and tan, professional photographers and other interested in photography people. One thought got firmly stuck to my minds: what does the portrait of Afghan girl mean to the glamorous elite? A famous picture with the author’s signature to be hang on the wall? An image of the horrible life they had no idea about?

The event received strong publicity: newspapers along with bloggers complemented to McCurry’s incredible talent, describing his most famous works and explaining why the photos are so wonderful. Strange enough, both, bloggers and newspapers, mentioned same photos. Oh yes, I understand, photos of the Afghan girl and the Peruvian boy became iconic, they deserve fame, but still, there are so many more far less known photos of Steve McCurry that have so much life in them, such a story to tell. Amusing but true – photographs have a destiny too, some are luckier than others, some have won their ticket to eternity, others might be forgotten and rediscovered as paintings of Vermeer years after.

My feeling about the exhibition was pretty similar – great iconic images known for years. I wish there would have been a greater number of McCurry’s less famous photos. Unlike a painting, a photograph does not reveal more when presented at the exhibition, there is no “master’s hand touch” feeling, no brush strokes, in other words, no secret details that are only visible on the original. That is why, in my opinion, the exhibition should have presented not only photos with the name to public.

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Ahmadi Oil Fields, Kuwait

My favourite photo from the exhibited was the one of camels on the background of burning Kuwait oil. Such a piercing image! I think I know why McCurry’s photos penetrate so deep – beauty in them is inseparable from suffers and horror to such an extent that it is hard to discern what exactly is so hypnotizing about them – the horror of reality or the beauty of colours and composition. Photos of joy were there as well – beautiful, peaceful, inspiring.

My biggest question after the exhibition was about the Afghan girl. Her image has become iconic, no doubt, it will live longer than the model and will continue excite living ones with its mysteries. Despite miserable life, she was luckier than any beautiful girl from a rich family that saw wars on TV only. We are immortal as long as we live in minds of others. And that girl certainly got it, wonder if she realizes it herself.

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Children of the world

Last three years numerous times I was asked what my home country was. Three years ago guesses were correct or close to the truth: Russia, Ukraine, Poland. Then, as years passed, suggestions became various: German, British, Swedish, French, Czech, Dutch, Polish, Bulgarian, Romanian, Russian and even American (!). Many times I was approached in Maltese, in Germany I was asked for directions as well as in Southern Spain.

Sometimes I wonder what I would have been like if born in Sweden, France, Germany, Poland or Spain. How different would be my perceptions? How the country of origin does affect our minds, opinions, visions? Would we even recognise ourselves born in other corner of the word?

One thing I am perfectly sure about is I’d still get into odd situations and would have plenty of adventures. But what about education – would I be still proud of my universal academic education? And food preferences – would I think of pasta as of the tastiest thing in the world if born in Italy? And what about tolerance in general – would I pass by kissing boys without surprise if born and grown up in Netherlands? Would I be a fan of cruel psychotic Disney cartoons if was a child of USA? Probably, yes. Or how different my generation would be if not growing in times of a big change – USSR collapse?

These reflections convince me how much of true “us” is formed in certain surrounding and could be different. We could not choose where to be born but how much our individuality and our character depends on us? How possibly can we have such different family values varying from “wife is for life” in Malta and “wife is not a wall, it can be replaced” in Russia. It easily could be the opposite way… All these international battles to protect national identity and values seem so ridiculous.

Would I wish to be born somewhere else? I do not know, honestly. I learnt about other countries from books and they all seem imaginary. I cherish memories about my tough and full of hardship childhood. Nevertheless, Tolstoy and Bulgakov were loved as much as Robert Stevenson, Hans Andersen and Astrid Lindgren. At the age of 25 I decided to move away from Russia as I could no longer call it home. I realize some habits are changing, I am becoming Maltese in some way. Is it important to have a national identity?

Case study: workaholism

Workaholics were all around her, that’s why they became a natural object of observation. Almost a case study. They were so different in characters, all physical and mental parameters, except for one single obsession – workaholism.

One was a loud type. Every morning he turned to the office looking as, at least, Charles Darwin who had just published “The Origin of Species”. With his every word, every motion he sent a loud message “I am so busy!”. His desk had a full collection of paper, dust, envelopes, pencils and, probably, many more things, buried under a tick layer of everything else.

Another one was a diligent type. All life interests of this guy were sacrifices for work. Work was a kingdom and he was a king and a subject in one. Trying to perform a million of tasks with an excellent diligence, he enjoyed being busy in a masochistic way – grumbling about it every moment but still enjoying it. He felt nice about himself, he felt useful. Maybe once somebody told him that we live to work and he decided not to question it. Maybe work for him was a way to keep his minds busy and free from other thoughts and doubts. Actually, he was a nice guy, much nicer than other two.

The third one was a complete freak though. She never managed to reach her own standard of perfection. She exhausted herself chasing this perfection in every tiny detail. This case was particularly curious – all people around her were classified as “professionals” and rubbish. Professionals could be described as always polite smiling robots that were ready to perform any task given by their superiors.

These three had one (maybe the only) similarity – all of them were sure that being busy makes a person more important, more useful for society and that society needs to be grateful in one way or another. The first one was a biologist, the second – all about maths and physics, and the third one was an administration queen. The biologist, who called himself a scientist, was rather an expert in self-promotion. He made it look like there would be no phytoplankton in the sea without him (not the other way around, no). He demanded admission for lack of free time and was totally convinced in his importance. The administration girl did not even doubt that without her input the whole institution will stop. The maths guy really loved what he was doing.

That is it! When someone is really in love with what he is doing, he does it for his own interest. I love those nutty and inspiring guys who have a true deep passion for what they are doing, no matter whether it is science, administration or even being a cleaner – every labour is respected. Being a scientist does not necessarily mean a higher social importance. Great minds were appreciated in all times and I am one of most passionate admirers, but not all working in science-related areas have great minds. And if their main claim for admission is sweating for their own promotion (ops, I meant society) then it is a delusion to ask for admission.

Getting back to the obsession of keeping busy: “doing something is better than doing nothing” is ambiguous. It all depends how you define “doing nothing”. Sometimes sitting and staring at the sky has a higher intrinsic value than just looking at the monitor checking one more report that will dust on shelves. I believe, reduction of working hours may enrich us emotionally and culturally. Leaving slavery mentality to live for work behind, we can enjoy beauty of this world and cherish it much more.