The Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry

Photo by Steve McCurry

At first the photo editor that worked on the June 1985 National Geographic magazine wanted to use the other photo for the magazine cover instead of the one that became emblematic to what was happening in the world in 80's. But shortly before the printing something made the magazine's editor to change his mind and choose the photo which later happened to define the whole generation.

Photo by Steve McCurry

Shot in 1984 at the Nasir Bagh refugee camp using Kodachrome 64 color slide film, with a Nikon FM2 camera and Nikkor 105mm Ai-S F2.5 lens, this portrait photo shows a 12-year-old Afghan girl—with both of her parents killed during a Soviet air raid in her native village—who had to flee to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and left there to live with hundreds of other refugees.

Back then Steve McCurry just started his career and covered events taking place in Afghanistan when it was occupied by the Soviet Union. When he crossed the border of Pakistan to work in a refugee camp, he once entered a tent where the girls' school was located. There he saw a beautiful girl with a wise brittle look and green stingingly burning eyes.

With his left hand—he never took photos with his right hand since it was damaged in his childhood—he made several shots of the girl who didn't wear any burka and went out of the tent. McCurry said he knew that he made a great shot, but he never could know that it was going to become a historic photo and bring him worldwide recognition.

Soon after the photo was published by National Geographic it was named "the most recognized photograph" in the history of the magazine. The author himself says that the photo represents "the trauma and plight, and the whole situation about people having to flee". The girl had to break through the mountains and forests with her grandmother, brother, and three sisters for nearly two weeks and stayed in two other refugee camps before she made it here, all of this at 11.

Steve wanted to find her and went to the surrounding regions twice during the 90s, but unfortunately he was unsuccessful. In 2002 he went to the same refugee camp and showed the locals the girl's photo on the 1985 magazine cover. One of them knew her brother and traveled to her native village to get her. The woman's eyes had to be checked using iris recognition to be sure that it was the right person.

Her name was Sharbat Gula and when she was found, at about 29, she said that up until this moment she has never seen her photo and never known that it turned into an iconic image. However, she remembers the moment when she was taken the photo very clearly as it was the first time ever she was photographed. Actually, the second time when she was taken a photo in her life was during reuniting with McCurry in 2002, 17 years later after her famous portrait shot was made.

Photo by Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry made so many impressive photos during his career, but it's obvious that people will remember him only for one shot. McCurry values and loves this fact. He says that's he's proud of this photo and feels happy. Steve McCurry and Sharbat Gula keep in contact every month up until now.

Later National Geographic magazine established Afghan Children's Fund, a charitable organization with the goal of educating Afghan children, in recognition of Sharbat Gula. Sharbat herself moved back to her native village, is married, and has three daughters.

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