Afghan Girl, A Life Revealed
With Steve McCurry
Photographer, National Geographic
Wednesday, April 10, 2001; 2 p.m. EDT
April's issue of National Geographic magazine features the rediscovery of the "Afghan girl," 17 years after photographer Steve McCurry took her picture, which became the National Geographic Society's most recognized photograph in its 114-year history. McCurry first met the girl with the haunting green eyes at a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984. Repeated attempts to locate her again and identify her had been unsuccessful until January this year when McCurry and a National Geographic team made a final visit to the refugee camp, which was about to be demolished, and through a series of contacts found her again.
Her name is Sharbat Gula, and she lives in Afghanistan with her husband and three children. The story of McCurry's search and his reunion with Gula appears in the April 2002 issue of National Geographic magazine, which is available on newsstands now. The issue also carries an article on Tibet with photographs by McCurry.
McCurry, who spends six to eight months a year traveling on assignment, was online Wednesday, April 10, at 2 p.m. EDT to talk about finding Sharbat Gula again and his life as a photojournalist.
McCurry's 22-year career as an award-winning photojournalist has taken to him to many areas of civil and international conflict, including Yemen, the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Beirut, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Kashmir. He does not describe himself as a war photographer, however. He focuses instead on the human consequences of war, showing not just what war impresses on a landscape, but rather the human face.
"I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person's face," he says.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: The discussion will start momentarily.
washingtonpost.com: Steve McCurry is joining us today from Tokyo.
Springfield, Va.: Mr. McCurry,
After all these years of searching, is it a little bitter sweet to have found who you were looking for? Do you feel that a large part of you is now laid to rest?
Steve McCurry: Well, actually, I have a sense of relief. For so many years, there was this question about what was the state of this young girl? The outpouring from all over the world was astonishing, so in fact, I am happy to finally have the answer and finally be able to have a chance to help somebody and hopefully, make a difference in somebody's life in a positive way.
Alexandria, Va.: This is an amazing story. It looks like she has had quite a hard life. Was she pleased to be found, and did she enjoy posing again?
Steve McCurry: I think that she was curious about why these foreigners were looking for her and I think also that her family thought this could be a great opportunity for them. After all, she spent 10 hours traveling over rough roads from Afghanistan to meet us in Pakistan.
Photographing women in this conservative culture is generally out of the question. But, I think she and her husband, again, felt that this could be a great opportunity. As you probably read in the story, her husband makes less than $1 a day working as a baker, so any financial assistance would be a godsend. So, despite the cultural reservations I think the benefits outweighed everything else.
Rockville, Md.: Did Sharbat Gula receive any money for being photographed the first or second time?
Steve McCurry: When we started this search and during the search there was no mention of money to her or her family. However, we did help her with immediate medical treatment for her husband and her children. I also bought her daughter a sewing machine the first time I met her because she requested it because she wanted her daughter to learn a trade or a skill. But there was no payment for the picture as such. However, I think we made it clear to her that we wanted to take some dramatic steps to make her life better. We started an immediate discussion about this.
Arlington, Va.: Hi Steve,
On all of your assignments, how do you overcome cultural differences to delve deeply into someone's story and life? This seems hard to do, and probably gets easier with practice, but isn't connecting with people and making them comfortable enough to take their photograph an art in itself? As an example, Sharbat appears very intimidated and troubled (which is very effective for the photo), so how did you get her to comply if she was feeling those things?
Thank you for your great work.
Steve McCurry: It's interesting that you would read those emotions into her expression. That's the ambiguity of photography is one of the great things about interpreting a picture. Her exact emotions in the original 1984 picture have always been a bit of a mystery. Although she agreed to be photographed back in February, as you read, we could not have done it without her husband's permission. Whatever emotion you see in her face was natural and whatever she happened to be feeling at that moment. I think that intimidation would not be a correct characterization of the situation.
Poland: People on which is a Web forum for the Polish edition of the National Geographic, argue about accuracy of the identification.
They say the upper lip and nose are of a different woman. Also, her eye look isn't that cutting-sharp and bright. Chin is shaped differently, and different are overall proportions of the face. Woman on the first photo had big eyes, the other woman doesn't.
Moreover, many of them don't believe in your use of the alleged facial recognition software. Can such software exist? What is its name and authors behind implementation and the theory backing this software up? On what basis could readers assume that it is reliable?
It's important to them, as many declared platonical love to her primer appearance, and they are afraid that she could have been an unreal, ephemeric phenomenon that existed for a short single moment in history, only for the purpose of taking that exceptional photograph.
Do you want to respond to these objections?
P.S. I will forward your answer to the public Web forum of Polish edition of National Geographic, where the mentioned questions originate from.
Steve McCurry: I needed no scientific proof to verify that this was indeed the same girl I photographed in 1984. If you look closely at the scar on the bridge of her nose and several of the moles -- which I understand generally don't change, regardless of age -- these were some of the things, which along with her recollection of that morning in 1984.
If I look in the mirror and remember the way I looked in 1984 and the way I look today. Unfortunately, the difference is rather dramatic. In '84 I had a thick head of brown hair and today, most of it's gone and mostly grey.
But, again, I think that people tend to change over almost two decades of time.
Washington, D.C.: In the issue, Sharbat is quoted as saying she was angry that you took her picture back in the 80s. How do you handle situations like that? I know you asked her permission, but do you ever feel like photos could be exploiting the subjects? How do you deal with those feelings? Thanks.
Steve McCurry: I had permission from her and her husband to take these photographs and I think that the fact that she traveled 10 hours from her village in Afghanistan to meet us in Peshawar, Pakistan, speaks for itself. Obviously, without her explicit permission along with her husband's, it would have been impossible to -- not only photograph her -- but to meet her.
Bethesda, Md.: How come we can track down this Afghan woman in a heartbeat but we can't track down Osama bin Laden?
Maybe we should send the Geographic reps (or AARP, they find everyone) to look for Osama.
Steve McCurry: If you read The Observer piece of approx. a month and a half ago, you would have learned that Sharbat Gula tutored Osama bin Laden's daughters -- and I suspect that he would still be in that same village in the vicinity of Tora Bora. In fact, I'm heading back that way in a couple weeks and trying to cash in on that $25 Million reward. Would you care to join me?
I think the way we actually found her was simply by showing her photograph from 1984 to many of the refugees that still live in that camp in Peshawar. The big break came from showing the picture to the elders of the camp. Once we had their cooperation and respect we eventually were able to find her.
Boston, Mass.: Hi- What is your method for earning people's trust before you take their picture? Do you start shooting immediately, or do take it slow? Thanks.
And what particular projects have given you the most personal satisfaction?
Steve McCurry: I think photographing people in these cultures, or indeed, anywhere in the world, is simply a question of treating people with dignity and respect. And getting comfortable with people and enjoying talking with them and being with them. Often a sense of humor can work wonders with putting people at ease and making them relaxed.
I think fundamentally you just have to enjoy meeting people and it's not any more complicated than that.
I think if I could name three of the most interesting stories I've worked on, it would be the Gulf War, my recent body of work on Tibetans, which was in the April 2002 issue of National Geographic and, perhaps, my 17 trips into Afghanistan over the past 22 years.
Rockville, Md.: Is it really true that the woman never saw her picture and never knew how famous it had become? And is it also true that she had never been photographed again after you took her picture when she was 14? These stories are floating around there and it would be great if you could clear up any confusion about these facts. Thank you.
Steve McCurry: This is absolutely the right information. Afghan villagers have little or no experience with photography -- especially the female part of the population, so indeed she was never photographed before or since the two times I photographed her.
Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Hi Steve,
I have really enjoyed following the Afghan Girl story. Then, as now, she serves as a powerful image and representative of the turmoil in Afghanistan.
On a different note: Do you work closely with other National Geographic photographers? How are stories assigned amongst you? How much input do get in terms of picking stories to photograph? I am a big fan of one of your colleagues, Joel Sartori, who did a great piece on Madidi in Bolivia. Do you all make up a clique of cool photographers? Do you ever collaborate on projects?
Steve McCurry: Joel is indeed not only a great photographer, he's also a really nice guy. I have many good enduring friendships with a number of National Geographic photographers. I often will write my own proposals for stories, stories which I'm passionate about and which have particular meaning to me.
Over the last 22 years, most of those stories have taken me to Asia, which is the part of the world that speaks to me the most and which I find the most fascinating. I think the best work at the Geographic is done by these photographers that have a strong interest in their particular subject matter.
New York, N.Y.: Dear Steve My name is Jan Schultz. We went to high school together. I am now living in Florida with my dog, Scooter. Do you remember me?
Steve McCurry: I do indeed recall going to school with you at Penn State University. I think we used to go the movies together now and then. I think we went to see Citizen Kane or something of that nature. I must admit that I have an allergy to dogs, but I do love cats, but I do get along quite well with cats.
Ontario, Canada: What was her reaction about being told of the photos popularity?
I imagine for you it was like finding a long lost relative, constantly looking for her in a fast sea of faces. Did she remember you? What do her children and husband think of her popularity?
What was your reaction to what she has become during her life -- of her lifestyles, hardships if any, etc.
Steve McCurry: She did remember me because this was the only time in her life she had ever been photographed and possibly the only foreigner she'd ever come in contact with, but I don't think the photograph has had a great significance to her. Remember, that she is illiterate and magazines, newspapers, television is not part of her world. She had never heard of National Geographic Magazine and I think her reaction was indifference mixed with a bit of embarrassment and curiosity or bewilderment.
She indeed has had a very difficult life. Her parents were killed when she was just a small child. But, her story is not much different than many of the millions of other Afghans who have also suffered and whose stories may never be told. If we can make even a small difference in her life in a positive way this would be a good thing. But, her story is duplicated literally millions of times and we need to stay the course and help these people through this dark chapter in their history.
Albany, N.Y.: I saw your special on TV and you said that donations were being accepted. Where can donations be sent and what will they be used for? Thank You.
Steve McCurry: The donations are to the Afghan Girls Fund and will be going to Afghan girls during that age of around 12 to 20. The idea is to target some of these girls who missed out on education under the Taliban regime. This fund is separate from Sharbat Gula and is really targeted at Afghan girls all over the country.
You can get the address from The National Geographic Web site.
Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Sharbat Gula seems to have had a sad life, though I guess this is not an uncommon experience for women of her generation. The article in National Geographic made her sound very sympathetic to the Taliban and resigned to her unfortunate lot in life. I know she mentioned her hope that her children would be educated and have a better life. What does that concept mean to her?
Steve McCurry: Again, this is a mother with her three children living in a very small village in Afghanistan that does not have electricity and when they want water, they have to go out to the well and draw it. I think her concept of peace and security is simply being able to live her life without threat of bombardment. These are very simple people and they simply want to be left alone. It's true that many of the people in Afghanistan, particularly among the Pashtun, were sympathetic to the Taliban -- primarily because they established a security. Unfortunately, they went a bit nuts and started terrorizing minority groups and took themselves way too seriously. And ignored anything to do with human rights.
Falls Church, Va.: What has been your most dangerous moment as a photojournalist?
Steve McCurry: Without question, the most dangerous time in my photographic career was doing some aerial photography over a lake in Slovenia. And crashing into that lake and nearly drowning. It was one of those instances where you know you're going to die and you wish you could rewind the tape.
Otherwise, everyday covering the war in Afghanistan was dangerous and often you have to question your sanity for being there in the first place.
Takoma Park, Md.: I read your National Geographic article about Sharbat Gula. It's amazing that you found her. We have her first picture on our refrigerator at home. Does she have copies of the pictures you took of her? Did you send her the article about her, so that someone can read it to her (and maybe someday she can read it herself)?
Steve McCurry: Yes, we left a copy of the original 1984 issue with her picture on the cover. We've been working with an excellent Pakistani journalist who would be happy to translate this to her. Although she's not quoted in the story, but even so, she would probably be interested in knowing about the piece from that issue.
Steve McCurry: Thanks for your questions and your interest. Let's try to be vigilant about this situation.
© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company