Afghan Girl

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Sharbat Gula is the subject of Steve McCurry's Afghan Girl. The photograph was shot in December 1984.

Afghan Girl is a 1984 photographic portrait by journalist Steve McCurry which appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic. The image is of a young woman with green eyes in a red headscarf looking intensely at the camera. It has been likened to Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Mona Lisa[1][2] and has been called "the First World's Third World Mona Lisa".[3] The image became "emblematic" of "refugee girl/woman located in some distant camp" deserving of the compassion of the Western viewer.[4]

In early 2002 the subject of the photo was identified as Sharbat Gula (Pashto: شربت ګله‎) (pronounced [ˈʃaɾbat]) (born ca. 1972), also known as Sharbat Bibi,[5] an Afghan woman who was living as a refugee in Pakistan during the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when she was photographed.

National Geographic [edit]

The June 1985 National Geographic issue, as it was published.

Gula was one of the students in an informal school in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in 1984. Gula's photograph was taken by National Geographic Society photographer Steve McCurry on Kodachrome 64 color slide film, with a Nikon FM2 camera and Nikon 105mm Ai-S F2.5 lens.[6] The pre-print photo retouching was done by Graphic Art Service, based in Marietta, Georgia. McCurry did not record the name of the person he had photographed.

The picture, titled 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 history of the magazine, and the cover itself is one of the most famous of the National Geographic.[7] American Photo magazine says the image has an "unusual combination of grittiness and glamour".[8] Her green eyes are the subject of frequent commentary.[4][9][10]

McCurry made several unsuccessful attempts during the 1990s to locate her.[11] In January 2002, a National Geographic team traveled to Afghanistan to locate the subject. McCurry, upon learning that the Nasir Bagh refugee camp was soon to close, inquired of its remaining residents, one of whom knew Gula's brother and was able to send word to her hometown. However, there were a number of women who came forward and identified themselves erroneously as the famous Afghan Girl. In addition, after being shown the 1984 photo, a handful of young men erroneously identified Gula as their wife.

The team located Gula, then around the age of 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.[12] 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 pictures that led to the reunion with Steve McCurry. She had never seen the Afghan Girl image before it was shown to her in January 2002.

Sharbat Gula[edit]

Pashtun by ethnicity, Gula's parents were killed during the Soviet Union's bombing of Afghanistan when she was around six years old. Along with her grandmother, brother, and three sisters, she walked across the mountains to Pakistan and ended up in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984.[13]

She married Rahmat Gul between the age of 13-16, and returned to her village in Afghanistan in the mid 1990s. Gula has three daughters. A fourth daughter died in infancy. She expressed hopes that her children will be able to get an education. A devout Muslim, Gula normally would wear a burka and was hesitant to meet with McCurry, as he was a male from outside the family. When asked if she had ever felt safe, she responded "No. But life under the Taliban was better. At least there was peace and order." Until the National Geographic team found her again, she had never seen the photo of herself as a child. When asked how she had survived, she responded that it was "the will of God".[13]

In 2015, local newspapers in Pakistan reported that the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) canceled the Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC) to Sharbat Bibi and two men listed as her sons. Reports claimed the national ID cards had been issued illegally. A NADRA source is quoted as saying "They may not be her sons but this is a common practice among Afghan refugees whereby they list names of non-relatives as their children to obtain documents." A relative stated that the family lives in Pakistan, but "We travel between Pakistan and Afghanistan depending on the security situation."[5]


Interest in the photo increased after 9/11 attacks when the Bush administration began using woman's rights to help promote support for the war in Afghanistan.[11][14]

More recent pictures 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, entitled Search for the Afghan Girl, which aired in March 2002. In recognition of her,[15] National Geographic set up the Afghan Girls Fund, a charitable organization with the goal of educating Afghan girls and young women.[16] In 2008, the scope of the fund was broadened to include boys and the name was changed to Afghan Children's Fund.[17] After finding Gula, National Geographic also covered the costs of medical treatment for her family, and paid for the costs of a pilgrimage to Mecca.[18]

Afghan Girl Steve McCurry 1985. This photo was used on a famous cover of National Geographic Magazine. The identity of the girl was unknown until 2002. Her name is Sharbat Gula and she was 13 years old at the time. Her parents had died in the Soviet bombing in Afghanistan and she was living in refugee camp in Pakistan.[19]

In popular culture[edit]

Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish released an instrumental song "The Eyes of Sharbat Gula" in their 2015 album Endless Forms Most Beautiful. The song was inspired by McCurry's Afghan Girl photo.


  1. ^ Zoroya, Greg (2002-03-13). "National Geographic tracks down Afghan girl". USA Today. Gannett Company. Retrieved 2012-02-14. 
  2. ^ "Hollywood movie poster at the Kabul Cinema". Retrieved 2012-12-04. 
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ 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. Retrieved 7 September 2015. 
  5. ^ a b Ismail Khan (February 25, 2015). "Pakistan issues CNIC to Nat Geo's famed 'Afghan Girl'". DAWN. Retrieved 7 September 2015. 
  6. ^ "Portfolio". Nikon World (Summer ed.). Nikon. 4 (1): 9. 1988. OCLC 2265134. Archived from the original on 2012-11-27. Retrieved 2012-01-14. 
  7. ^ McCurry, Steve (10 April 2001). "National Geographic: Afghan Girl, A Life Revealed". The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company. OCLC 56914684. Archived from the original on 2012-11-27. Retrieved 2012-01-14. 
  8. ^ "Photographer of the Year: Steve McCurry". American Photo. XIII (4): 43–54: 45. July–August 2002. 
  9. ^ Geographic, National (2010-09-15). In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits. National Geographic Society. pp. 355–. ISBN 9781426206474. Retrieved 7 September 2015. 
  10. ^ Rathgeb, Christian; Uhl, Andreas; Wild, Peter (2012-11-08). Iris Biometrics: From Segmentation to Template Security. Springer Science & Business Media. pp. 3–. ISBN 9781461455714. Retrieved 7 September 2015. 
  11. ^ 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. Retrieved 7 September 2015. 
  12. ^ Daugman, John. "How the Afghan Girl was Identified by Her Iris Patterns". Retrieved 2012-01-14. 
  13. ^ a b Newman, Cathy (April 2002). "Afghan Girl: A Life Revealed". National Geographic Magazine. Retrieved 2012-01-14. 
  14. ^ Whitlock, Gillian (2010-02-15). Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit. University of Chicago Press. pp. 71–. ISBN 9780226895277. Retrieved 7 September 2015. 
  15. ^ Braun, David (7 March 2003). "How They Found National Geographic's 'Afghan Girl'". National Geographic News. National Geographic Society. Retrieved 2012-01-14. 
  16. ^ "National Geographic Society: Afghan Girls Fund". National Geographic Society. August 2004. Archived from the original on 2004-12-06. Retrieved 2009-03-15. 
  17. ^ "National Geographic Society: Afghan Children's Fund". National Geographic Society. Retrieved 2012-01-14. 
  18. ^ "'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. 
  19. ^ "Famous Photographs". 

Further reading[edit]

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

See also[edit]

External links[edit]