TODAY   |  October 11, 2013

Iconic photo of Afghan girl almost wasn’t published

Photographer Steve McCurry is known for his dramatic pictures, but the most famous shot he’s ever taken, a striking image of an Afghan girl, almost never got seen. He tells NBC’s Jamie Gangel that National Geographic’s photo editor selected another shot, but at the last minute, the magazine’s editor made a switch.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> we're back at 8:50, the iconic photograph the afghan girl has been seen around the world many times over and now the story is being revealed in a new book by the photographer steve mccurry . it's called untold, the story behind the photograph. jamie has the story. not only does he take beautiful pictures but he has an unusual way of taking pictures.

>> we will tell you all about that. savannah, the book is an extraordinary collection of amazing imagines and the adventures behind them but it turns out we almost never even saw that photo of the afghan girl .

>> reporter: for the last 30 years steve mccurry has been winning awards for his stunning photographs. none are more famous than this imagine, the afghan girl .

>> i knew it was a powerful portrait but i never dreamed in a million years this would become an iconic photograph.

>> reporter: but now according to his new book, mccurry reveals we almost never saw the photo. at the time he captured just a few frames and wasn't even sure they were in focus.

>> you had almost no time to take her picture?

>> i made a few pictures and she, after a few moments, got up and walked away. and i thought, wait a minute. i'm still shooting.

>> reporter: luckily, he got the shot. but at first, they picked a different photo.

>> so this almost became the photo, but at the last minute, it was this. what happened?

>> the picture editor at the time was in favor of this picture with her hands on her face. it turned out that the editor of the magazine at the time chose that picture and in a way the rest is history.

>> reporter: we almost never saw this photo.

>> we came within an inch of that being on the cutting room floor.

>> reporter: instead, it became one of the most famous photos in history.

>> you didn't know her name?

>> didn't know her name.

>> then 17 years later you decide we have to find her. but you weren't very optimistic.

>> i thought there's no way. and we got really lucky. it was like a miracle. she remembered my photographing her that day because it was the first time in her life she had ever been photographed. in fact, the second time in her life she was photographed is when we were reuniting with her in february of 2002 .

>> reporter: but what makes mccurry's work more extraordinary is something he's never talked about before, while he risks his life covering everything from war zones to monsoons, if you watch closely, you'll notice he shoots differently from other photographers. instead of using his right hand, he uses his left.

>> cameras are really designed for right handed people and i've always had to shoot with my left finger.

>> reporter: the reason, when mccurry was 5 years old, he had a bad accident.

>> i was playing on steps. i fell and the break was very unusual. there was nerve damage. it just never quite heeled properly.

>> reporter: the result, he lost most of the use of his right hand but mccurry says it never occurred to him that he couldn't be a photographer.

>> i've never really let it bother me. i think the lesson to be learned is you do what you have to do. you adjust and you know, with enough determination and desire and passion for your work, you just make it happen.

>> you picked a profession where you go into the most dangerous places in the world. you're carrying this equipment, you need to have a steady hand. have you ever thought to yourself i can't do this?

>> i've always just powered through the situation and i never let my hand slow my down.

>> reporter: mccurry's work speaks for itself. thousands of imagines and one he knows he'll always be remembered for.

>> you know when they write your obituary, the first line is going to be?

>> photographed the afghan girl .

>> is that okay?

>> that's fine. i'm happy with that. i think to have such a photograph is a gift.

>> it really is a gift for all of us. as for the story of steve's hand, savannah, he really has never talked about it before because he doesn't want it to define him. but it is a lesson for anyone with any kind of challenge out there, just go out there and do it.

>> and how extraordinary that he was able to find her after all these years?

>> it really was a miracle. a lot of people came through and pretended to be her, but he found the real one.

>> they recognized the scar on her nose.

>> there was a scar on her nose.

>> amazing story, thank you.