In 1984, photojournalist Steve McCurry captured the infamous portrait of an adolescent girl in a red headscarf staring at the camera with piercing green eyes. The photo debuted on the cover of National Geographic in June 1985, becoming the “most recognized photo” in the magazine’s history.1
Steve McCurry is an American photographer working and travelling across Southern Asia when the Soviet Union was gearing up to invade rebel-controlled Afghanistan. With help from those he met along the way, McCurry smuggled himself into Afghanistan wearing traditional and weather-worn clothes and concealing his film by sewing it into his garments.
McCurry was focused on covering the Soviet invasion and life behind the headlines of war and horror, leading him to visit over thirty refugee camps in search of an image to capture this turmoil. At the Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, McCurry found the 12-year-old Pashtun orphan seen in his most famous photo. The photo corresponded with National Geographic’s story about life along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The girl’s identity and whereabouts were unknown for many years after; in April 2002, McCurry and National Geographic found the girl in the photo, now an adult woman, Sharbat Gula, leading to a follow-up story. Sharbat remembered McCurry as he was the first person to ever photograph her. When McCurry told her about the award-winning success of the photo, Sharbat was not particularly interested in personal fame but was pleased to become a symbol of dignity and resilience for her people.2
Sharbat agreed to have her photo taken again during their meeting in 2002 (seen above) but since wished to remain anonymous and continue life with her (now late) husband and daughters. Every image has its story, yet the ‘Afghan Girl’ is even more significant given Sharbat’s story when the photo was taken and leading into today.
In 2016, Sharbat was arrested for using a forged Pakistani identity card – a common practice amongst the 1 million Afghan refugees who live in Pakistan without legal status. After being detained for two weeks, Sharbat and her children returned to Afghanistan. With Sharbat’s fame as the ‘Afghan Girl,’ her arrest received major media attention, resulting in humiliation for the Afghan government, who tried to redeem themselves by welcoming her back with permanent housing. The Afghan government continues to support Sharbat and her family while Sharbat encourages her daughters to receive proper education.3
Sharbat’s story is hopeful, yet there are many Afghan women forcibly returned without any family, job, home, or security for a stable life. As the Taliban regime continues to advance its control in Afghanistan today, this refugee crisis is far from over.4
Photo of the Week is a weekly series that showcases and elaborates on my photography, photography from my fellow creatives, and famous photographs.