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Visual Analysis: “Dust Storm” Photo by Steve McCurry


It should be noted that images can be analyzed differently depending on the approach and method employed. Nevertheless, any visual interpretation should be accompanied by content analysis to ensure that not only the artistic expression is investigated by also the social and cultural value of the canvas. The purpose of this paper is to decompose the image by Steve McCurry called “Dust Storm”.

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General Information

The photo was taken by McCurry in 1983 (the image can be found in the Attachment section). Its title “Dust Storm” correlates directly with what is depicted in the photo (“Steve McCurry’s iconic photographs #4,” 2012). After the picture was taken, it was disseminated further by multiple media including National Geographic, and participated in various national and international exhibitions. This photographer is known as one of the most popular artists in the medium of humanist photography.

The image under analysis is taken from PHAIDON, which is one of the global publishers in fine arts. It has been chosen since it is one of the author’s favorite images (“Steve McCurry’s iconic photographs #4,” 2012). The photo was taken in the desert of Rajasthan (India). McCurry was driving through this area when a sandstorm burst in the middle of a sunny day. He stopped his car intending to secure his equipment; however, instead of that, he decided to capture the moment, which was beautifully dramatic.


The image shows women dressed in national clothing who were working when the storm began. When the wind became strong, they had to huddle together to protect themselves from the sand that was obstructing their breath. The women are standing in the middle of a field and singing a religious song or praying (“Steve McCurry’s iconic photographs #4,” 2012). The immediate impression from the image can be concluded to a feeling that the wind will knock down anyone who has not found a hideaway.

Compositional and Technological Modalities

The vertical composition of the image is remarkable. The greatest attention is given to the six women in the center of the picture, and six trees in the background put their presence forward. The Indian women are dressed in bright national clothes, which contrast with the sand surrounding them. Nature is depicted in subtle colors with mild semitones, which favorably emphasizes the originality and beauty of the national Indian costume.

The expressive foreground has been created using a wide-angled lens (“Steve McCurry’s iconic photographs #4,” 2012). Two pots help to add volume to the image and produce an impression as if the viewer is present in the current moment and can feel the sand on their face. The rule of thirds, which helps artists to balance the objects and forms in the picture, has also been applied to make a powerful impression on the viewer. The photo can be divided into three parts both vertically and horizontally, which helps to emphasize the women standing in the center.

The use of color makes this photo memorable. Moreover, it is a self-sufficient element of the plot as it immerses the viewer in the place captured in the picture and allows him or her to feel the atmosphere using other sensory organs (Mitchell, 2005). The skillful use of red, white, and beige colors recreates the smells and sounds that are present at the time of the shooting. Three grounds (trees, women, pots) together with the brightness and contrast of colors express the volume and transmit the perspective due to which space seems real.

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When looking into the depth of the image, the viewer can analyze whether this image is about the situation, the culture, or the beauty, which differs from the usual ideas about what should be considered beautiful, which also coincides with Ivins’s assumption that photographers are visual reporters (1969). Thus, the photographer does not try to show his memories; he puts himself in the position of a narrator and allows the audience to dwell upon the setting and its meaning.

Social Modality

According to the article by Alpers et al. (1996), it is important to “read images emblematically and symptomatically, in terms of the most fundamental questions of social life” (p. 30). It can be assumed that by capturing six women against a background of six trees, the photographer tried to convey the harmony of the local population with nature. However, he also reveals their dependence on the natural environment and monsoons.

Notably, women are praying for the rain. Moreover, they have to unite to protect themselves from the dust storm since it is so strong that it can knock them down if they do not huddle together. Also, they shield each other from the sand. Therefore, it can be assumed that this image has a cultural and symbolic value. The viewer will be able to understand the Indian culture and population if he or she realizes the importance of rains for these people (Rose, 2001). Thus, in addition to a strong composition, the photo carries a significant meaning, which can be concluded to the idea that Indian people suffer greatly from natural hazards; nevertheless, nature can bring happiness to them.


Thus, it can be concluded that the image by Steve McCurry has a strong composition, which emphasizes certain elements of the plot. The structure and the colors stimulate other sensory organs to create an impression as if the viewer is present in the captured moment. The sand adds movement while the pots make the picture more voluminous. Also, the framing makes the scenery complete. Nevertheless, altogether these visual elements put the core of the photo to the forefront. The image reveals the harmony of the local population with nature but also shows their dependence on it.


“Dust Storm” by Steve McCurry
Image 1. “Dust Storm” by Steve McCurry (“Steve McCurry’s iconic photographs #4,” 2012).


Alpers, S., Apter, E., Armstrong, C., Buck-Morss, S., Conley, T., Crary, J.,…Wood, C. (1996). Visual culture questionnaire. October, 77, 25-70.

Ivins, W. M. (1969). Prints and visual communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Mitchell, W. J. T. (2005). There are no visual media. Journal of Visual Culture, 4(2), 257-266.

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Rose, G. (2001). Visual methodologies: An introduction to the interpretation of visual materials. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Steve McCurry’s iconic photographs #4. (2012). Web.

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