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Afghan Girl is a photograph by journalist Steve McCurry. The photograph has been likened to Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Mona Lisa and has been called "the First World's Third World Mona Lisa".
The subject of the photograph was called "the Afghan Girl" by the public until she was formally identified in early 2002 as Sharbat Gula (Pashto: شربت ګله) (pronounced [ˈʃaɾbat]) (born ca. 1972), an Afghan woman who was living as a refugee in Pakistan during the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when she was photographed. The image brought her recognition when it was featured on the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic Magazine at a time when she was approximately 12 years old.
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At the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in 1984, Gula's photograph was taken by National Geographic Society photographer Steve McCurry on Kodachrome color slide film, with a Nikon FM2 camera and Nikkor 105mm F2.5 lens. The pre-print photo retouching was done by Graphic Art Service, based in Marietta, Georgia. Gula was one of the students in an informal school within the refugee camp; McCurry seized a rare opportunity to photograph Afghan women and captured her image.
Although her name was not known, her 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 piercing sea-green colored eyes staring directly into the camera, became a symbol both of the 1980s Afghan conflict and of the refugee situation worldwide. The image 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.
The identity of the Afghan Girl remained unknown for over 17 years; Afghanistan remained largely closed to Western media until after the removal of the Taliban government by American troops and local allies in 2001. Although McCurry made several attempts during the 1990s to locate her, he was unsuccessful.
In January 2002, a National Geographic team traveled to Afghanistan to locate the subject of the photograph that had remained in the public mind for so long. 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 finally 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. She vividly 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 her famous portrait before it was shown to her in January 2002.
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 other sisters, she walked across the mountains to Pakistan and ended up in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984.
She married her husband, 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". Steve McCurry and Sharbat Gula keep in touch every month.
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, National Geographic set up the Afghan Girls Fund, a charitable organization with the goal of educating Afghan girls and young women. In 2008, the scope of the fund was broadened to include boys and the name was changed to Afghan Children's Fund.
In 2010, the South African photographer Jodi Bieber won the World Press Photo of the Year award for her photograph of Bibi Aisha, an Afghan victim of facial mutilation. In making the photograph, Bibi claimed inspiration from Afghan Girl. "For me, it was putting a moment of history in perspective. It was just one thing that added to the image", she said.
Steve McCurry: Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs. Phaidon Press 2013. ISBN 978-0714864624.