Born in Philadelphia in 1950, McCurry became famous worldwide for the portrait Afghan Girl that appeared in 1985 as the cover of the June issue of National Geographic. Over the decades, McCurry has covered various conflicts—the Iran-Iraq War, the Lebanon Civil War, the Cambodian Civil War, the Gulf War, and the Afghan Civil War—and has extensively traveled around the world, especially in South East Asia and India. In his career, he has been awarded many prestigious prizes, such as the Robert Capa Gold Medal, the National Press Photographers Award, and Photographer of the Year in 2002. McCurry’s photographs are famous for their vibrant, frequently contrasting colors and the attention that he dedicates in recording the little, almost insignificant moments in life as well as the peculiarity of local cultural traditions and their ubiquitous significance.
We touch it, smell it, see it, and taste it. We produce it and we dissipate it; we buy it and we sell it; we chop it and we cook it; we cherish it and we waste it. In Italian it is cibo, in Spanish comida, in Mandarin Chinese 食品 (shípǐn), in Hindi खाना (khaana), in English it is food. The exhibition CIBO at the Musei San Domenico in Forlì, Italy, presents eighty images—the majority of which have never been printed or shown before—taken by the four-time winner of the World Press Photo Award, Steve McCurry.
The exhibition CIBO is organized in five sections: the life cycle of food, bread as primary nourishment, food production, food processing, and food as a unifying element in humans’ social lives. The aim of CIBO is to remind us that food is the unique and yet universal component that connects human beings across the globe. Whether we have too much or barely enough, whether it is produced through the efforts of a single person or of an entire community, food dictates our social, economic, and cultural lives. One need only think, for instance, of the many figures of speech and expressions that have developed in relation to food. In China, the equivalent of “How are you?” is “Chī le ma?” which translates into “Have you eaten?” In Italy, to distance yourself from someone you do not fully trust, one could say “We have never eaten together,” a phrase that underlines the importance of sharing a meal as the most effective way to know a person. In Hindi, the expression “To light a lamp full of ghee” means to rejoice because ghee, which is clarified butter and the most expensive fat, is used to light lamps only on very special occasions.
These examples show that food is not only about sustenance, but the necessary pathway we need to take in order to connect and understand other cultures. McCurry’s photographs not only show the physical strength required to harvest wheat, gather it, and transform it into an edible substance but also the heartwarming, tired faces of grape harvesters in Kosovo while they chat at the end of a working day in the vineyards. There is an almost religious devotion that emerges from the photographs of the Kashmiri saffron pickers bent over the small purple flowers and the attention with which an Italian farmer checks his olive trees in Umbria at dusk.
The importance of this exhibition lies not only in the celebration of McCurry’s skills as a photographer but also in the way his images force us to reflect on the importance of food and its, sometimes forgotten, value. The beauty and tranquillity of the floating vegetable market in Kashmir clash with the surgical lights and over-packaged items present in modern supermarkets. The stern look of the Mauritanian child who protectively holds three pieces of bread demands an explanation for the growing issue of food waste in developed countries. The necessity to act in order to limit, and eventually eradicate, the imbalance of food production and access around the world is clearly a primary concern for McCurry. “I have been traveling for more than forty years,” he said at the opening of CIBO, “and I still can’t describe the pain I feel when I see children who don’t have enough food.”
CIBO is on at Musei San Domenico in Forlì until January 6th, 2020.