Sharbat Gula, the face of the Afghanistan tragedy
Not many people would know which face to match with the name Sharbat Gula, yet her image is quite popular. As a young refugee in Afghanistan, she was photographed by the National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry. This photograph of the green-eyed girl that even the photographer would not identify came to be the face of the Afghanistan tragedy. Simply referred to as the Afghan Girl, it would become the most identifiable photograph of the National Geographic magazine. Looking at the eyes of the Afghan Girl, and knowing the history of the region she is from; one cannot help but see defiance in the face of adversity.
First appearance in 1985
The Afghan Girl made her first appearance on print media on the June 1985 edition of the National Geographic magazine. This picture remains relevant today as it were those many years ago. In her eyes, one can see the suffering of children during war and to a larger extent, the negative side of conflict. How did she find herself on the cover of such an established publication?
The story behind the photo
In 1984, Steve McCurry was commissioned by National Geographic to take photographs of refugee camps along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He made rounds in 30 camps and the common scenario was typical of many camps around the world. At the Nasir Bagh camp1, where a girls’ school had been set up, McCurry came across a class of 15 girls. Among them, one stood out for her startling green eyes – his camera snapped. Her look can only be described as haunted, penetrating and intense.
When McCurry took Sharbat Gula’s photo, she covered her face with her hands. Her teacher to reveal her face so that the world would see it and know her story.
Video: Finding the Afghan Girl
The Afghan girl revisited: How Sharbat Gula was found many years later
With the worldwide popularity of the Afghan Girl came the trip that would track her down seventeen years after the shot was taken. Many people presented themselves as the girl in the picture but McCurry had visual pointers to the real Afghan Girl. Actually, this trip was timely as the camp where the girl had been photographed was on the verge of being shut down. The National Geographic crew spoke to hundreds of people even to some that said that the girl was dead. One man breathed a sigh of relief into their mission – he not only knew the girl but her brother as well. He was even willing to bring her to them since the area in which she lived by then was dangerous.
Digital iris recognition confirmed that she was indeed the Afghan Girl and national geographic did have goodies for her and her family. Can a face age this fast within a span of two decades? McCurry was shocked but such is the reality of misery.
Video: Interview with Sharbat Gula
All images: Steve McCurry/nationalgeographic.com unless otherwise noted.
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