Imagine having such a famous face, but realizing that nobody knew who you truly were – your name, your story, or the background as to how you became so legendary.
In 1985, National Geographic posted a beautiful young woman on their magazine cover for June, courtesy of journalist Steve McCurry. She was a refugee in Pakistan during the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and she was merely twelve years old when the picture was taken. The picture was so hauntingly beautiful that people began comparing her to the painting of the Mona Lisa – but she was known merely as “the Afghan Girl”. She became a symbol of the refugee situation worldwide, and owned the notoriety of becoming the most recognized photo in the history of the magazine.
“I didn’t think the photograph of the girl would be different from anything else I shot that day,” McCurry recalled. Out of all of his subjects, she was the last to be approached by him based on her shyness.
Her identity was unknown, until National Geographic journalists decided to track her down in 2002. (McCurry himself tried to find her in the 1990’s, but was unsuccessful.) They finally located her in a remote region of Afghanistan after she was identified through a series of contacts that led to her brother and husband, who agreed to ask her if she was willing to be interviewed.
Her name is Sharbat Gula, and she only vaguely remembered being photographed. She saw the image herself for the first time in 2002, and mentioned that the only times she’s ever been photographed were through National Geographic – for the historic cover, and again during the reunion.
“I don’t think she was particularly interested in her personal fame,” McCurry said after speaking with her. “But she was pleased when we said she had come to be a symbol of the dignity and resilience of her people.”
Since the photo was taken, Sharbat was married and had four daughters, one who died during infancy. Her husband is named Rahmat Gul, and it was an arranged marriage. Sharbat’s brother reported that while she’s never known a happy day, the day of her marriage was probably one of the best. She said that living under the Taliban rule had provided a measure of stability after the terrors of the Soviet war.
Sharbat can write her name, but cannot read. One of her hopes for her daughters is that they’ll have a better opportunity at an education. “I wanted to finish school but could not,” she said. “I was sorry when I had to leave.”
And while she wished to not be contacted by the media again, and live her life the way she had prior to her knowledge of fame, she seemed appreciative of the fact that she stood for an entire group of refugees, and helps draw attention to the lives of Afghan women in general.
Her discovery was made into a National Geographic documentary, called The Search for The Afghan Girl, which you could watch here (uploaded by Steve McCurry himself!)
National Geographic also created a fund called the Afghan Girls Fund to help improve the education of women in Afghanistan, after hearing about Sharbat’s personal hopes and dreams. Since its inception in 2002, the project has been renamed the Afghan Children’s Fund, and aims to providing grants to help build schools and provide funding for educational publications and materials for children throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In short, photography can be a very, very powerful tool. Even today, the cover gives me chills – Sharbat’s expressive eyes are beautiful, but also illustrate how much she suffered at such a young age. What do you think of the cover photo?
Image Credits: Wikipedia (featured, reunion)