Afghan Girl

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Afghan Girl
MediumKodachrome 64 colour-slide film, via Nikon FM2 camera and Nikkor 105mm Ai-S f/2.5 lens
SubjectSharbat Gula
OwnerSteve McCurry
The World of Steve McCurry exposition in Palais de la Bourse/Beurspaleis of Brussels in May 2017.

Afghan Girl is a 1984 photographic portrait of Sharbat Gula, an Afghan refugee in Pakistan during the Soviet–Afghan War. The photograph, taken by American photojournalist Steve McCurry near the Pakistani city of Peshawar, appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic.[1][2][3][4] While the portrait's subject initially remained unknown, she was identified by early 2002: Gula, an ethnic Pashtun from Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province, was a 12-year-old child residing in Pakistan's Nasir Bagh.

In light of the Cold War, the portrait was described as the "First World's Third World Mona Lisa"[5] in reference to the 16th-century painting of the same name by Leonardo da Vinci.[6][7] Gula's image became "emblematic" in some social circles as the "refugee girl/woman located in some distant camp" that was deserving of compassion from the Western viewer,[8] and also as a symbol of Afghanistan to the West.[9] CNN called it the 'world's most famous photograph'.[10]

Cover photo for National Geographic[edit]

Sharbat Gula was one of the students in an informal school at the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in 1984. Her photograph was taken by National Geographic Society photographer Steve McCurry, on Kodachrome 64 color slide film, with a Nikon FM2 camera and Nikkor 105mm Ai-S F2.5 lens.[11] The pre-print retouching of the photograph was done by Graphic Art Service, based in Marietta, Georgia. McCurry did not record the name of the person he had photographed.

The photograph, entitled Afghan Girl, appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic. The image of her face, with a red scarf draped loosely over her head and her eyes staring directly into the camera, was named "the most recognized photograph" in the magazine's history, and the cover is one of National Geographic's best known.[12] American Photo magazine says the image has an "unusual combination of grittiness and glamour".[13] Gula's green eyes have been the subject of much commentary.[8][14][15]

Identifying the subject[edit]

McCurry made several unsuccessful attempts during the 1990s to find and identify the subject of the photograph.[16] In January 2002, a National Geographic team traveled to Afghanistan to find her. Upon learning that the Nasir Bagh refugee camp was soon to close, McCurry inquired of its remaining residents, one of whom knew Gula's brother and was able to send word to her hometown. Several women falsely identified themselves as the Afghan Girl. In addition, after being shown the 1984 photograph, several young men erroneously identified her as their wife.

The team found Gula, then around age 30, in a remote region of Afghanistan; she had returned to her native country from the refugee camp in 1992. Her identity was confirmed by John Daugman using iris recognition.[17] She recalled being photographed. She had been photographed on only three occasions: in 1984 and during the search for her when a National Geographic producer took the identifying photographs that led to the reunion with McCurry. She had never seen Afghan Girl until it was shown to her in 2002.

A devout Muslim, Gula normally wears a burqa[18] and was hesitant to meet McCurry, as he was a male from outside the family. After finding Gula, National Geographic covered the costs of medical treatment for her family and a pilgrimage to Mecca.[19]

Subject: Sharbat Gula[edit]

Early life[edit]

Pashtun by ethnicity and from a rural background, Gula's family fled their village in eastern Nangarhar during the Soviet Union's bombing of Afghanistan when she was around six years old. Along with her father, brother, and three sisters, she walked across the mountains to Pakistan to the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in 1984 where she was photographed.[18]

2016 arrest by Pakistani authorities[edit]

On 26 October 2016, Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency arrested Gula for living in Pakistan with forged documents.[20] She was sentenced to fifteen days in detention and deported to Afghanistan.[21][22]

2021 evacuation to Italy[edit]

Following the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2021, women's rights were curtailed under their conservative rule, and high-profile women were threatened or intimidated. The Afghan Girl photograph had made Gula globally famous, hence her prominence put her in danger.[23] She sought assistance to leave the country, and was evacuated to Italy with the support of its government in response to appeals from nonprofit organizations.[23][24]


U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan[edit]

Interest in the photograph increased after the 9/11 attacks, when the George W. Bush administration began promoting Afghan women's rights during the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan.[16][25]

Photographs of Gula were featured as part of a cover story on her life in the April 2002 issue of National Geographic and she was the subject of a television documentary, Search for the Afghan Girl, that aired in March 2002. In recognition of her,[26] National Geographic set up the Afghan Girls Fund, a charitable organization with the goal of educating Afghan girls and young women.[27] In 2008, the fund's scope was broadened to include boys and the name was changed to Afghan Children's Fund.[28]


A 2019 article in the Indian magazine The Wire that described a 2002 interview with Gula says that she was angered by the photograph being taken and published without her consent. The writer for The Wire suggests that this is because "it is not welcome for a girl of traditional Pashtun culture to reveal her face, share space, make eye contact and be photographed by a man who does not belong to her family."[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "'Afghan girl' from famous National Geographic cover is given refuge in Italy". NBC News. 2021-11-25. Retrieved 2023-09-06.
  2. ^ Suliman, Adela (2021-11-27). "'Afghan Girl' from National Geographic cover evacuated to Rome, Italian government says". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2023-09-06.
  3. ^ Ruotolo, Hada Messia,Nicola (2021-11-25). "'Afghan Girl' from National Geographic magazine cover granted refugee status in Italy". CNN. Retrieved 2023-09-06.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ Ragobeer, Emily. "Afghan war: Iconic face of the refugee struggle". Retrieved 2023-09-06.
  5. ^ Wendy S. Hesford; Wendy Kozol, eds. (2005). Just Advocacy?: Women's Human Rights, Transnational Feminisms, and the Politics of Representation. Rutgers University Press. p. 1. ISBN 9780813535890.
  6. ^ Zoroya, Greg (2002-03-13). "National Geographic tracks down Afghan girl". USA Today. Gannett Company. Archived from the original on 2012-02-28. Retrieved 2012-02-14.
  7. ^ "Hollywood movie poster at the Kabul Cinema". Meridian International Center. Archived from the original on 2012-12-22. Retrieved 2012-12-04.
  8. ^ a b Cain, Maureen; Howe, Adrian (2008-11-03). Women, Crime and Social Harm: Towards a Criminology for the Global Age. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 87–. ISBN 9781847314703. Archived from the original on 20 February 2017. Retrieved 7 September 2015.
  9. ^ a b Ribhu (12 March 2019). "You'll Never See the Iconic Photo of the 'Afghan Girl' the Same Way Again". The Wire. Retrieved 31 January 2020.
  10. ^ Simons, Jake Wallis (2015-03-23). "The story behind the world's most famous photograph". CNN. Retrieved 2023-09-06.
  11. ^ "Portfolio". Nikon World (Summer ed.). Nikon. 4 (1): 9. 1988. OCLC 2265134. Archived from the original on 2013-06-20. Retrieved 2012-01-14.
  12. ^ McCurry, Steve (10 April 2001). "National Geographic: Afghan Girl, A Life Revealed". The Washington Post. OCLC 56914684. Archived from the original on 1 June 2013. Retrieved 2012-01-14.
  13. ^ "Photographer of the Year: Steve McCurry". American Photo. XIII (4): 43–54: 45. July–August 2002. Archived from the original on 2017-02-20.
  14. ^ In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits. National Geographic Society. 2010-09-15. pp. 355–. ISBN 9781426206474. Archived from the original on 20 February 2017. Retrieved 7 September 2015.
  15. ^ Rathgeb, Christian; Uhl, Andreas; Wild, Peter (2012-11-08). Iris Biometrics: From Segmentation to Template Security. Springer Science & Business Media. pp. 3–. ISBN 9781461455714. Archived from the original on 20 February 2017. Retrieved 7 September 2015.
  16. ^ a b Hesford, Wendy S.; Kozol, Wendy (2005). Just Advocacy?: Women's Human Rights, Transnational Feminisms, and the Politics of Representation. Rutgers University Press. pp. 1–. ISBN 9780813535890. Archived from the original on 20 February 2017. Retrieved 7 September 2015.
  17. ^ Daugman, John. "How the Afghan Girl was Identified by Her Iris Patterns". Archived from the original on 2012-01-12. Retrieved 2012-01-14.
  18. ^ a b Newman, Cathy (April 2002). "Afghan Girl: A Life Revealed". National Geographic Magazine. Archived from the original on 2012-01-13. Retrieved 2012-01-14.
  19. ^ "'Afghan girl' cameraman tells stories behind pictures". The Bosnia Times. October 30, 2013. Archived from the original on April 23, 2014. Retrieved July 26, 2016.
  20. ^ Boone, Jon (2016-10-26). "National Geographic 'Afghan Girl' arrested in Pakistan living under false papers". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Archived from the original on 2016-10-26. Retrieved 2016-10-26.
  21. ^ "Pakistan to deport National Geographic's 'Afghan Girl' Sharbat Gula next week". ABC News. AP. 5 November 2016. Archived from the original on 5 November 2016. Retrieved 5 November 2016.
  22. ^ Lynne O'Donnell and Riaz Khan (November 9, 2016). "Pakistan deports National Geographic's iconic 'Afghan Girl'". Toronto Sun. Retrieved 2016-11-13.
  23. ^ a b Gross, Jenny (November 27, 2021). "'Afghan Girl' from 1985 National Geographic cover takes refuge in Italy". The New York Times. Archived from the original on November 29, 2021. Retrieved 12 December 2021.
  24. ^ "National Geographic green-eyed 'Afghan Girl' evacuated to Italy". The Guardian. Associated Press. 25 November 2021. Archived from the original on 26 November 2021. Retrieved 26 November 2021.
  25. ^ Whitlock, Gillian (2010-02-15). Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit. University of Chicago Press. pp. 71–. ISBN 9780226895277. Archived from the original on 20 February 2017. Retrieved 7 September 2015.
  26. ^ Braun, David (7 March 2003). "How They Found National Geographic's 'Afghan Girl'". National Geographic News. National Geographic Society. Archived from the original on 12 January 2012. Retrieved 2012-01-14.
  27. ^ "National Geographic Society: Afghan Girls Fund". National Geographic Society. August 2004. Archived from the original on 2004-12-06. Retrieved 2009-03-15.
  28. ^ "National Geographic Society: Afghan Children's Fund". National Geographic Society. Archived from the original on 2011-12-24. Retrieved 2012-01-14.

Further reading[edit]

  • McCurry, Steve (2013). Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs. Phaidon Press. ISBN 978-0714864624.

External links[edit]