The iconic photograph by Steve McCurry was featured on the cover of The National Geographic Magazine in June 1985. Sharbat Gula, the girl herself, has been likened to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa – “the First World’s Third World Mona Lisa”, if you will.
The story behind the photograph
Living as a refugee in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan at the time of the Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan in the seventies and after, Sharbat’s image was a portrayal of many cultural, political and social stratifications through the face of a young girl. She was approximately twelve when the photo was shot. Sharbat is Pashtun by ethnicity. Her parents were killed during the USSR bombing of Afghanistan when she was just six – and she soon made it into Pakistan after a walk across the mountains and ended up in Nasir Bagh, the refugee camp in Pakistan. At the time of the photo shoot, she was reluctant to meet Steve McCurry, since she deemed him a man outside her family. She was married soon after to Rahmat Gul, and had three daughters.
The photograph was captured in an informal school setting within the refugee camp. The striking thing about the picture is the cutting contrast between the red scarf and her piercing green eyes that look into the camera with a sense of defiance. In a subsequent interview, it came to light that Sharbat was angry at having been asked for a photograph – though she did consent to it. She had never been photographed before, nor after, until Steve McCurry and she met each other when National Geographic found her again, seventeen long years after the first photograph. For his part, McCurry recollected the soft lighting and the fact that Sharbat was the first one he noticed when he entered the school tent. The haunting image soon became the face of a land that would know war for years to come, as it had, in the years up until then. Ironically, though, Sharbat never saw the photograph of herself until National Geographic found her again.
In recognition of Sharbat Gula, the National Geographic set up the “Afghan Girls Fund” which functioned as a charitable organization to educate Afghan girls and young women. In 2008, the fund was broadened in its scope to include boys and was now called the “Afghan Children’s Fund”. In the time after, Sharbat has come to stand as the face of Afghanistan’s tryst with conflict, and has remained a pow the photograph was published, it remains a reminder of the bitterness that war brings with it.
For the photographer in you
Steve McCurry took the photograph in 1984, on a Kodachrome 64 colour slide film with a Nikon FM2 Camera and a Nikkor 105mm Ai-S F2.5 lens. Pre-print photo retouching was done by the Graphic Art Service in Georgia.
 Wendy S. Hesford, Wendy Kozol, ed. (2005). Just Advocacy?: Women’s Human Rights, Transnational Feminisms, and the Politics of Representation. Rutgers University Press. p. 1