Behind the camera: Steve McCurry
Where: Nasir Bagh refugee camp just outside Afghanistan on the Pakistan border
Photo Summary: Sharbat Gula looking at the camera
Picture Taken: Steve states that he meet her two years before the 1985 cover but then in 2003 says that he took the picture in 1984
Sharbat Gula (Pashto: شربت گلا “sweetwater flower girl”) (Sharbat is pronounced as Sherbet in English) has only been photographed twice in her life. Once by Steve McCurry when he took her picture and again when he tracked her down almost 20 years later. Sharbat’s haunting eyes which got her on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic Magazine were not touched up in any way, there was no strobes or extra lighting used to take the shot. The cover became one of National Geographic most popular covers and came to represent the plight of Afghan refugees at the time.
Debra Denker and photographer Steve McCurry were covering the war in Afghanistan in the ’80s as Afghan Mujaheddin (“holy warriors”) fought the USSR’s Soviet army. After sneaking into Afghanistan to witness the ongoing war, they also visited the sprawling refugee camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border. In this conservative Muslim environment, Steve found it extremely difficult to talk to women who are not relatives, let alone get permission to photograph them. However, he was very determined to get a picture to have a visual representation of the Afghan refugee crisis from a female point of view.
I was kind of walking through the refugee camp one morning and I happened across a tent. Which was being used as an elementary school and there were about 15 to 20 students in a Pakistani structure.
So I went and asked the teacher if I could, umm you know photograph some of the students, if I could stay there for a while and she agreed and I noticed this one student, one young Afghan girl about 12 who had this very kind of haunted look in her eye and I asked the teacher about her and she told me her story, that she had to walk for about 2 weeks through the mountains of Afghanistan because her village had been ahh helicoptered, you know attacked by helicopter gunships and that umm that many of her family members had been killed and so they had this perilous trip through the mountains to get to this refugee camp and she was real traumatized and kind of freaked out as you can imagine. A 12 year old first she is in a village and then suddenly in another country…
So I think this particular portrait kind of summed up for me the trauma and the plight and the whole situation of suddenly you know having to flee your home and ending up in a refugee camp, you know hundreds of miles away.
National Geographic’s picture editor didn’t want to use the picture as it was too disturbing but finally relented and put the Afghan girl on the cover. The cover was and is a huge success. Steve recalls that “Right away, we got thousands of letters from people wanting to help her, send her money, adopt her, marry her,”. All these years later he still gets emails everyday wanting more information on the girl with the eyes.
Steve McCurry had tried several times to find the girl in his picture but was hampered by the remoteness of Afghanistan and the ongoing civil war. Finally in January 2002, along with a team from National Geographic he travelled to Afghanistan to locate the subject of the now-famous photograph. McCurry, upon learning that the Nasir Bagh refugee camp was soon to close, inquired of its remaining residents, one of whom knew Gula’s brother and was able to send word to her hometown. However, there were a number of women who came forward and identified themselves as erroneously as the famous Afghan Girl. In addition, after being shown the 1984 photo, a handful of young men falsely claimed Gula as their wife.
The team finally located Gula, then roughly age 30, in a remote region of Afghanistan. To confirm that Sharbat Gula was the same girl as the famous image the National Geographic EXPLORER team used the same iris-scanning technology and face-recognition techniques used by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Modern pictures of her were featured as part of a cover story on her life in the April 2002 issue of National Geographic and was the subject of a television documentary, entitled Search for the Afghan Girl, which aired in March 2002. In recognition of her, National Geographic set up the Afghan Girls Fund, a charitable organization with the goal of educating Afghan women.
When Sharbat was finally tracked down by the Explorer team she told of her life in war-torn Afghanistan. An ethnic Pashtun she was born around 1972 in a small village in Afghanistan. Her earliest memories include sounds of war, planes overhead and bombs falling. She remembers it as a time of hunger where she would rise for prayer at dawn and go to bed hungry. Sometime in the early 80’s, her village was attacked by Soviet helicopter gunships that killed her parents. Her, her siblings and grandmother hiked over the mountains to the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan.
She married Rahmat Gul in the late 1980s and returned to Afghanistan in 1992, eventually settling in the Taliban stronghold of Tora Bora. Gula had three daughters: Robina, Zahida, and Alia. A fourth daughter died in infancy. Sharbat has expressed the hope that her girls will receive the education she was never able to complete. McCurry has since set up a fund to see to her daughter’s education and any medical help they need.
Sharbat remembered Steve McCurry and getting her picture taken as it was the first time anybody had even taken her picture. Looking at the picture she recalled the holes in the red scarf she had worn, were from earlier in the day when she burned herself at the campfire. She recalls the time under the Taliban as peaceful and she regards the burka as a thing of beauty and a Muslim women’s duty to wear. While doing the interview she would not allow him to see her face, only lifting the veil when his face was behind his camera.
She had no idea that her face had become so famous and she had never seen her famous portrait before it was shown to her by the Explorer team in January 2002. At first, she was upset that her image was so widely seen, “but when I found out that I have been the cause of support/help for many people/refugees, then I became happy.” After meeting McCurry she stated that she wishes to live out of the limelight and, “will not give another media interview and she wishes not to be contacted”.
Sometime after McCurry found her she moved back to Pakistan. In 2012 her husband died from hepatitis C. While in Pakistan Sharbat purchased a fake ID so that she could purchase a home and educate her children. As tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan heightened the Pakistani government undertook an effort to force the millions of Afghani refugees to return to their war-torn country. Thousands of refugees were arrested for having fake IDs. One of the those caught up in this police action was Sharbat Gul. In the fall of 2016, she was arrested and spent 15 days in jail for possession of false papers. When the international media discovered her plight it caused headlines all over the world. Embarrassed the Pakistan government offered to allow her to stay but she refused and moved back to Kabul, Afghanistan in the spring of 2017. She told the BBC:
I told them that I am going to my country. I said: ‘You allowed me here for 35 years, but at the end treated me like this.’ It is enough. If I wanted to go back [to Pakistan], it will be just to offer prayer at the graves of my husband and daughter who are buried in front of the house we lived in.
As of 2017, she lives in Kabul under the protection of the Afghan government.
Steve McCurry born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1950 is an American photojournalist best known for his color photography. Throughout his career, he has covered many areas of international and civil conflict, including the Iran-Iraq war, Beirut, Cambodia, the Philippines, the Gulf War, and continuing coverage of Afghanistan. McCurry’s work has been featured in every major magazine in the world and frequently appears in National Geographic magazine. It was the Afghan war that launched his career when he snuck into Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. His pictures were some of the first to show the battle between the Afghan Mujaheddin and Soviet forces.
Copyright to this photo is managed by Magnum Afghan Eyes by Steve McCurry