June 1985. Copies of the National Geographic magazine fell through the letter box with the usual heavy thud. Taking off the wrapper to reveal the familiar yellow edged cover, we first made acquaintance with “The Afghan Girl” – destined to become arguably one of the most recognizable faces of the 20th Century. Framed by her rust brown headscarf, those green eyes gazed steadily and intently, forcing us to look at her. She became an international sensation.
Photographed in Peshawar by Steve McCurry in 1984, the unnamed girl was an orphaned Afghan refugee, living in a camp with her remaining family. “I didn’t think the photograph of the girl would be different from anything else I shot that day,” he recalls when talking about the image. However, in one of those magical moments in photography, the subject, light and timing all aligned in that Cartier Bresson style “decisive moment”. Such was the power of this photograph that it has become a universally recognised image or cultural reference point. In 2008 she was a key image in Banksy’s street art “Cans Festival”. Still no one knew her name.
Years later McCurry set out to find her. Against all odds he was able to track her down, living back in Afghanistan, a three day journey from their original meeting place.
She is no longer the same anonymous girl. Her name is Sharbat Gula. Married at 13, or maybe 16 – ages are not recorded in the mountains of Afghanistan, she has carried four children. Three now survive. Yet despite a life of extreme hardship the same spark of challenge remains in the pictures taken by McCurry when they finally met again.
Beetles + Huxley gallery in London are currently showing a dazzling collection of McCurry’s images, including his portrait of the Afghan Girl. There are actually two images, which was a surprise. The second, with her reddish brown shawl half covering her face was the original cover choice, but a last minute decision switched the images. Renewing our aquaintance with the original image thirty one years on, that piercing look still has the power to make us stop and look.
Steve McCurry at Beetles+Huxley runs until 19th March and is free.
©Chez l’abeille 2016