The Afghan Girl: Steve McCurry’s Enduring Portrait of Sharbat Gula

In 1984 Steve McCurry was approached by National Geographic to photograph the refugee camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The Soviet-Afghan War had been raging for five years, and had decimated the rural populations of Afghanistan. Millions fled the country as refugees, mostly to Pakistan and Iran. McCurry visited 30 camps just outside Peshawar and, although some of the camps had been established for years, there was still only basic shelter and facilities.

In the Nasir Bagh camp McCurry found a tent that had been set up as a girls’ school in which fifteen girls were having lessons. It was here that the photographer noticed one girl with particularly startling green eyes. He recalls ‘she had an intense, haunted look, a really penetrating gaze – and yet she was only about twelve years old. She was very shy, and I thought if I photographed other children first she would be more likely to agree… I guess she was as curious about me as I was about her, because she had never been photographed and had probably never seen a camera.’ He goes on to explain that ‘for an instant everything was right – the light, the background, the expression in her eyes.’ The brief moment, resulted in arguably the most widely recognised photograph of the twentieth century.

It is custom for Afghan women not to reveal their names to strangers, and so the photograph became known, simply, as The Afghan Girl. The image was first published as the cover to National Geographic’s June 1985 issue, the portrait of the unknown child in the red veil is an image so dynamic in its provocation, that it is as relevant and moving today as it was nearly 30 years ago. The Afghan Girl, without an identity or story of her own, quickly came to represent the suffering of children in war torn countries around the globe, and a symbol of the real consequences of such conflict on ordinary people. The image became the human face of conflict in the Middle East and a symbol of defiance in adversity.

In 2002, McCurry returned to Pakistan with a National Geographic television film crew to try to locate the enigmatic sitter, that had shaped both his career as a photographer, and shaped a generation’s understanding of conflict. When McCurry’s team arrived at the Nasir Bagh camp they found out that it was due to be demolished, but they were able to show photographs to tribal elders and camp authorities. With the help of the Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, who was from the same Pashtun tribe as the camp residents, McCurry talked to hundreds of people. He eventually found a man who knew the girl’s brother, Khashar Khan, who told him that she was in one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan, where American forces had been bombing. The man agreed to help bring her and her brother across the border.

When McCurry was reunited with the now thirty-year-old woman he instantly recognised her bright green eyes. This was the first time McCurry heard her name: Sharbat Gula. McCurry’s 2002 photographs of Gula appeared in a feature in National Geographic. The magazine funded her family’s trip to Mecca on the Hajj. McCurry founded the Afghan Girl’s Fund to work with non-profit organisations to help young women in Afghanistan. In 2008 the organisation widened its scope to include boys and changed its name to the Afghan Children’s Fund.

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