15th Sep 2018
In 1984 Steve McCurry was approached by National Geographic to photograph the refugee camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border. He 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 but he noticed one girl with particularly startling green eyes. He recalls: “I spotted this young girl. 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 because at some point she wouldn’t want to be left out. 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. After a few moments she got up and walked away, but for an instant everything was right – the light, the background, the expression in her eyes.” That moment when ‘everything was right’ resulted in arguably the most widely recognised photograph of the twentieth century.
The Afghan Girl, as the photograph has become known, became the human face of conflict in the Middle East and a symbol of defiance in adversity. First published as the now famous cover to National Geographic’s June 1985 issue, the portrait of Sharbat Gula 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 represents the suffering of children in war torn countries, and the real consequences of such conflict on ordinary people.
In 2002 McCurry returned to Pakistan with a National Geographic television film crew to try to find the Afghan Girl. When they arrived at the camp where McCurry had photographed her they found out that it was due to be demolished but they showed 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. As it is custom for Afghan women not to tell strangers their names, this was the first time McCurry heard her name: Sharbat Gula. When Gula removed her veil McCurry was shocked by how time had changed her face: “I still had an image of her as a twelve-year-old girl, and this was a woman of thirty, one who’d lived a very hard life. People age quickly in the conditions she’d been living in, and it was a little discomfiting to compare the mature Sharbat Gula with the unchanging face in the photograph.” McCurry’s 2002 photographs of Gula appeared in a feature in National Geographic. The magazine funded her husband’s and her 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.