Remember her eyes—the girl in that photo?

Remember her eyes—the girl in that photo?

The ‘Afghan Girl’ Sharbat Gula

Sharbat Gula (Bibi) as she stared at us from National Geographic in 1985


Sharbat Gula in 2002

Sharbat Gula rediscovered in 2002


She stared out at us from the cover of the June 1985 edition of National Geographic magazine. She had the most arresting gaze and the most incredible green eyes. She gave a face to the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Afghans living in refugee camps in Pakistan.

The image of her face, with a red scarf draped loosely over her head and her eyes staring directly into the camera has been named ‘the most recognized photograph’ in the history of the magazine, and the cover itself is one of the most famous in National Geographic’s collection.


Women choosing shoes in Kabul Afghanistan, 1992

Women choosing shoes in Kabul Afghanistan, 1992


Refugee camp, Pakistan, 1990s

Refugee camp, Pakistan, 1990s


Today the ‘Afghan Girl’, Sharbat Gula, is a widow, mother of three girls and about 45 years old. After remaining a nameless mystery for almost two decades, she was rediscovered by Steve McCurry, the man who photographed her bewitching image all those years ago.

McCurry had unsuccessfully searched for her in the 1990s. He returned to the area in 2002, and with perseverance found she had returned to her mountain village of the Tora Bora in Afghanistan. With her then husband’s permission, she met with and was re-photographed by McCurry.

And that brings me to the main subjects of this post—McCurry and his vast collection of work.

Man and children on donkey, Maimana, Afghanistan, 2003

Typical transport in Maimana, Afghanistan, 2003

Balancing rock, Kyaikto, Myanmar, 1994

Monks with the balancing rock, Kyaikto, Myanmar, 1994

Fishermen, Weligama, Sri Lanka, 1995

Fishermen perched on poles in Weligama, Sri Lanka, 1995

Two weeks ago, when we were in Belgium, we passed by the Brussels Stock Exchange and saw that it was exhibiting more than 200 of McCurry’s images.

The ‘Afghan Girl’ has always been one of my favourite images and I found the prospect of the exhibition irresistible. So we joined the lengthy queue to visit The World of Steve McCurry, the most complete retrospective dedicated to this accomplished American photographer.

The large-format photos took us on a magical and, often, heartbreaking journey from Afghanistan to India, the Middle East to Africa, Cuba to the USA, Brazil to Italy, and much, much more.

Every visitor got an audio pack that had McCurry explaining 50 of the images. Of course, the spiels went by so quickly I can hardly remember any of them, but a consistent theme was people.

Gulf War, Kuwait, 1991

A man sifts through the office debris after a bomb in the Gulf War

Al Ahmadi Oil Fields, Gulf War, Kuwait, 1991

The Al Ahmadi Oil Fields burn in the Gulf War, Kuwait, 1991

Tsunami aftermath, Kesennuma, Japan, 2011

A man dwarfed by tsunami destruction, Kesennuma, Japan, 2011

McCurry’s work often focused on the human consequences of war. He covered the Iran–Iraq War, the Gulf War, the civil wars in Lebanon, Cambodia and Afghanistan, and more. (By the way, Poor John and I lived in Lebanon during its civil war.)

McCurry once said, ‘Most of my images are grounded in people. I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person’s face. I try to convey what it is like to be that person, a person caught in a broader landscape, that you could call the human condition.’

Monks, Hunan Province, China, 2004

Athletic monk bouncing off the wall in Hunan Province, China, 2004

Elephant and mahout, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2010

A mahout teaches his elephant to read (or so it seems), Chiang Mai. Thailand, 2010

Robert De Niro, New York, USA, 2010

Robert De Niro captured on Kodachrome transparency film, New York, USA, 2010

I do, however, remember one of his spiels fairly well. Kodak was discontinuing its famous Kodachrome transparency film and gave McCurry one of the last rolls to use in a series of portraits.  That roll was processed in July 2010 by Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, and the image in the exhibit is of Robert de Niro.

Lavazza, ¡Tierra!: the project, Ethiopia, 2014

An Ethiopian coffee farmer from the Lavazza, ¡Tierra!: the project, Ethiopia, 2014

Lavazza, ¡Tierra!: the project, Brazil, 2010

Brazilian coffee farmers from the Lavazza, ¡Tierra!: the project, Ethiopia, 2010

Another 150 photos covered some of McCurry’s other work, including his images for ¡Tierra!: the project.

¡Tierra! coffee is from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms. The coffee’s name comes from Lavazza’s social responsibility project. It was created in 2002 to improve the social and environmental conditions and the production techniques of small communities of coffee growers.

Earthquake damage, Mingun Pagoda, Mandalay, Myanmar, 1994

Earthquake damage at the Mingun Pagoda, near Mandalay, Myanmar, 1994. This pagoda is unfinished and is considered the largest pile of bricks in the world

McCurry’s exhibition goes through Sunday and I can’t find any references to a future showing. If you hear about one—GO!

P.S. I took these all photos of Steve McCurry’s photos. No way I could include all 200 here. I’ve tried to show a cross section of places, faces and circumstances. 

Child, Angkor, Cambodia, 2000

Clever way to carry a child in Angkor, Cambodia, 2000

Child, Timbuktu, Mail, 1987

A young boy in Timbuktu, Mail, 1987


Tom C. Purcell Added Jul 13, 2017 - 10:47am
Interesting article and well done. 
Aside, that little girl with the stark green eyes ended up looking a bit masculine, didn't she?
Stone-Eater Friedli Added Jul 13, 2017 - 11:14am
Welcome and thanks for that fantastic article and these images ! I can guess some message in it - is there ?
Nancy E Head Added Jul 13, 2017 - 1:09pm
Wonderful images--snippets of history, of life!
Dannl Yoder Added Jul 13, 2017 - 2:04pm
Wonder when these  legendary photographers will show up and take heart wrenching photos of the "white privileged" in Appalachia?
I could not care less about the "cultures" of brown skinned nee'r do Wells.
Maybe you didn't notice, no whites in the images?
There is a reason for that.
Peggy Bright Added Jul 13, 2017 - 8:48pm
Thanks folks for taking the time to read this piece and comment. It's the first item of mine that's been posted on Writer Beat. 
Not sure how to reply to individual comments, so will reply in general. Dannl Yoder makes a good point about the need to record and photograph the diverse regions and cultures in our own countries. 
Tom, she did end up looking rather masculine. Not an easy life. 
Stone-eater, Steve McCurry always said he was interested in showing the human condition, and his career kept him mostly in the Asia. 
Dannl Yoder Added Jul 13, 2017 - 9:33pm
Post many more, Peggy!
Peggy Bright Added Jul 13, 2017 - 11:35pm
Dr. Rupert Green Added Jul 14, 2017 - 1:27am
Nice.  The depiction of humanity brought similarly joy to me as this song has
Dino Manalis Added Jul 14, 2017 - 12:16pm
Very nice, Afghans deserve a better future, but the Taliban continue to expand their control over large parts of Afghanistan, which is why we need a military base there, Karzai asked for one, to prevent what happened in Iraq.  Afghan and Pakistani troops should be permanently deployed along their border with U.S. drones overhead to stop the Taliban from crossing and wreaking havoc in both countries.  They may have tunnels within the mountains.  Pakistan ought to allow American soldiers to go after the Taliban, Waziristan should not be without security, which would lessen the usage of drones.  Afghanistan and Pakistan remain cradles of terrorist activity, causing numerous refugees to flee from their homelands.
Jeff Michka Added Jul 14, 2017 - 7:06pm
Danal Yoder, the self proclaimed Amish Nazi sez: Maybe you didn't notice, no whites in the images? There is a reason for that.-Maybe the photog found few "white people" save soldiers from western nations in Afghanistan, or like I, found the whites he could locate, boring photo material, at best. Wow, the sales potential of a National Geo cover with a white woman pre-food stamp prostitute and pre-pill head, neither fascinating or special, worthy of "recording" on it.
Jeff Michka Added Jul 14, 2017 - 7:12pm
Hey, Yoder...There already was a lot of pics taken of "poor white people" at great cost to the government taken during the Depression in the 30s.  Other than being "digital" and new, how could you tell 30s Appalachia  from that in 2017?  The empty cases of Dr. Pepper?
Jeff Michka Added Jul 14, 2017 - 7:13pm
Nice McCurry retrospective, Peggy.
Dannl Yoder Added Jul 14, 2017 - 7:23pm
@Jeff M.
Where are you man! I will come and get you!
Just like last time, just drop the gun and welcome you to earth. No one gets hurt, okay Jeff?
Dr. Rupert Green Added Jul 15, 2017 - 6:44am
@Jeff. "Where are you man! I will come and get you!"
I take above as bantering that cannot be dealt with using a superior argument or rhetorical knockouts?
Peggy Bright Added Jul 15, 2017 - 9:56am
Afghanistan does deserve a better future. I had the chance to go there in the 1970s and have always regretted not doing so. 
I hope the above is bantering. Otherwise, I'm out of here.
Tom C. Purcell Added Jul 15, 2017 - 11:21am
Peggy, sometimes on WB, that stuff is banter and sometimes there is underlying malice, especially if Michka has plenty of Vodka in his bloodstream.  Either way, it seems obvious you're strong and smart so please stick around!
Dannl Yoder Added Jul 15, 2017 - 11:53am
Your comments are welcomed. Make them often.
 Be aware Challenges will often sting, but if you recall the most famous quote from Doctors: "this may sting a little".
Dannl Yoder Added Jul 15, 2017 - 12:02pm
@ Peggy sage advise from Tom, indeed. It is banter, shadow boxing, sparring, if you will for instance, why do you think Afghanistan desereves a better future!
They did what to earn it? Compared to Miners in Appalachia who died without the mere pretense of billionaire owners to rescue them after s cave in.
Leaving children in squalid conditions, without shoes, without proper clothes and owing the company store the bill their daddy still the same Billionaires.
I can take you to Appalachia, dear heart and show you gardens planted and worked, where under the pretense of "Union" someone came by in a company tractor with a drag plow and destroyed it.
Why do you think Afghanistan deserves a better future! Who will pay for it? What is a better future! HBO?
Stone-Eater Friedli Added Jul 15, 2017 - 12:39pm
Why do you think Afghanistan deserves a better future! 
Because they've been a punching ball since the Seventies between the Soviets and the US. They were an open and friendly society before.
As was Libya or Iraq, in fact.
I know people from those countries, so no hearsay.
Jeff Michka Added Jul 15, 2017 - 5:04pm
Peggy. Nazi Tom Purcell slanders: especially if Michka has plenty of Vodka in his bloodstream.-Nazi Tom and his new pard, Danal need to say things like this and even more because I'm fervently and consistently anti-Nazi.  Tom want calm lengthy and "polite" conversations about the beauty of Nazism and the Third Reich so it becomes 'normal to be nazi" on WB.  HE'S JUST ANOTHER NAZI SPEWING SLANDER THAT IS OF COURSE, BASED IN A Desire to keep a point so it eventually becomes "true" to anyone reading his poison. Real Geobbels of him.
Michael B. Added Jul 15, 2017 - 7:13pm
Cool post. I've been a fan of National Geographic since I was a kid, both for the articles and the often stunning photography. The journalists, whether they are male or female, have big brass balls to do what they do. I remember very well what a stir that cover caused; one can tell at a glance what the effects of war have on people. I've read several accounts of American backpackers traveling through Afghanistan in the 60's and 70's, and if they were not enthusiastically welcomed, they certainly weren't bothered or harmed, either. Times have obviously changed, and going on 40 years of more-or-less continuous war will forever alter those lands.
Peggy Bright Added Jul 16, 2017 - 1:30am
Thanks Michael. 
Dannl, I'm not going to enter into a see-saw discussion with you on the matter of miners of Appalachia and people of Afghanistan. Both have been hard-done-by in the extreme and by forces beyond their control. Both deserve a better future.
Autumn Cote Added Jul 17, 2017 - 8:18am
Please note, the more personal responses you offer the more likely your articles will remain popular and commented upon.  As always, many thanks for your participation with Writer Beat!
Saint George Added Jul 17, 2017 - 6:49pm
They were an open and friendly society before.
Afghanistan was never an open and friendly society in its entire history. Long before the US or the Soviet Union were the British; long before the British were Muslim Arabs, Mongols, Indians, and Macedonians.
Jeff Michka Added Jul 17, 2017 - 9:16pm
Afghanistan was never an open and friendly society in its entire history.As you mentioned, the Brits tried what the old SU an US  twice in the 19TH C and once in early 20s in the last C.  Other than having a regional holiday celebrating the "Relief of Jalalabad," prune juice and prune dishes served liberally in celebration, they also had similar results to old SU and US.