I’m sure most of you have seen the viral image of the Afghan Girl that ended up on the cover of National Geographic. Photographed by Steve McCurry nearly three decades ago, this photo has become a staple symbol that many people can immediately think back to when hearing the words Afghan Girl, or referred “the girl with the green eyes and a headscarf,” as one woman I asked called her. Let me tell you a little bit about why that image makes me seethe and why I detest every bit of its existence.
First, when a photo like this one becomes famous and garners this level of attention, the person who is photographed ends up becoming a mere accomplishment of someone else. The individual photographed loses the agency they have as a human being and goes on to become a symbol of whatever it is that the photographer is trying to convey, with or without the models’ permission.
The photographer may come off as someone who is caring—someone who is trying to present the story of people who would otherwise not be heard. Nevertheless, Steve McCurry was not trying to get a story out, he was trying to make a story out of what he saw, based on his own thoughts, his own interpretation, and his own point he was trying to make.
This hypothesis became solidified when 17 years after this photo was taken, the name of the woman in it was still unknown. When he had photographed her to present this woman and her story to the world, McCurry did not even bother to ask her what her name was. SEVENTEEN YEARS AFTER THIS PHOTOGRAPH WAS TAKEN, someone finally cared enough to find it out. Sharbat Gula is the name of this woman whose face has become familiar, whose story remains a mystery, and whose photographer has become extremely, extremely famous. So famous that even after National Geographic discovered who this woman was, she still couldn’t speak for herself. Steve McMurry spoke on her behalf when HE was interviewed about her and her life. “She’s had a hard life,” he said. She didn’t say that though, her photographer who did not even previously bother to ask her what her name was did.
Perhaps the most irritating thing about this photograph is Steve’s analysis on her emotions in the photograph, in which he interprets his photography very analytically, instead of being able to talk about his experience with that woman and her stories. In his interview, he says, “the ambiguity of photography is one of the great things about interpreting a picture.” What would have probably been easier, less intrusive, and more humane would be talking to her about the emotions that she was feeling at the time the photo was taken, instead of even taking that away from her and interpreting them for her.
This photograph is the perfect example of the betrayal that is a result of Western photographers in third-world countries. Developed nations essentially project whatever the want to portray onto less powerful individuals in order to meet their own needs and quotas. Through this process, they end up basing their actions on creating these illusions, which are all that we end up seeing. We are brought the hand-crafted, curated story.
I was watching a Bollywood movie with my family a while back and saw a scene that I didn’t really think much of until I saw this image and read about Steve McCurry. In the movie, a man went to India to explore and see what “true Indians” were like. He refused to see the Taj Mahal because he wanted to see the poor, hungry, real India. Real India. This twisted, pathetic, demeaning view was this foreigner’s real India, and the only one he was willing to document to share with the rest of the world.
How did we become a society in which people who are removed from a culture are the only ones who can portray it and comment on it? When did the voices of people who actually live those lives die out, making them merely symbols and ideas for other, removed individuals to pick apart, discuss, and represent?
Sharbat Gula has been reduced completely to a photograph to interpret, an idea, and just somebody else’s trophy. Instead of even being referred to by her name, she is called “Afghan Girl” because no one bothered to find out what her name was for 17 years. Afghan Girl, what a two-dimensional representation of an individual. Lastly, not only is she represented as such an idea, even when she is found and learned about, she is STILL spoken about through the photographer. She is still not given her own voice, yet it has been interpreted, just as the photograph was.
So, who really is Sharbat Gula?