The story of Steve McCurry & Sharbat Gula, the Afghan Girl

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Steve Mccurry - Afghan Girl, Pakistan, 1984
Steve Mccurry – Afghan Girl, Pakistan, 1984

Published on: Monday July 29, 2019

Last updated

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.

Steve Mccurry - Sharbat Gula, Nasir Bagh Refugee Camp, Peshawar, Pakistan
Steve Mccurry – Sharbat Gula, Nasir Bagh Refugee Camp, Peshawar, Pakistan, 2002

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.

Afghan refugee living in very bad condition in the Jaluzu camp
A typical Afghan refugee camp. Jaluzu camp, 2001
Photo: Abd al-Samy’a/archive.org

Video: Finding the Afghan Girl

4min 10sec

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.

Steve Mccurry - Sharbat Gula
Steve Mccurry – Sharbat Gula, 2002

John Daugman from Cambridge University, the inventor of automatic iris recognition, with photo print of eyes of the adult Sharbat Gula
John Daugman from Cambridge University, the inventor of automatic iris recognition, with photo print of eyes of the adult Sharbat Gula
Photo: Alexandra Boulat

Video: Interview with Sharbat Gula

2min 15sec

All images: Steve McCurry/nationalgeographic.com unless otherwise noted.

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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nasir_Bagh
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