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Published 2021-11-30
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The Iconic Photograph Was Taken Without Her Permission. She Had To Flee Her Country!

Surely many people will recognize the famous photo that has graced the cover of National Geographic magazine back in 1985. The photograph of the girl with green eyes, who would later become the symbol of the Afghan conflict, is one that sticks out to people and is recognizable around the world but not many people know the girl’s name nor the story associated with a famous photograph. And it is a story that since first being reported on, has allegedly been filled with lies. Who exactly is the girl and what had really happened? What does her life look like now and did she profit from her fame in any way? Read on to find out her story.

Steve McCurry’s Trip To Afghanistan

Steve McCurry is one of the most renowned photographers and without a doubt, his photograph of the Afghan girl is his most famous work. In 1984, National Geographic had sent the man over to Pakistan to take photographs for their story about the refugees from Afghanistan who had been sent to live there due to the Soviet-Afghan war taking place. Once he reached the place, Steve McCurry visited a refugee camp outside of Peshawar and he heard the sounds of children, coming from what he realized was a makeshift school and so he immediately went inside. As McCurry said himself, right away he spotted the girl who had a red shawl and green eyes. In the photographer’s own recounting of the story, he said he asked the teacher permission if he could observe the class and take some photos to which she had agreed. However, the man was captured by the girl’s green eyes and he wanted to take one of her alone...and so he did, claiming that the girl who was 10 at the time and not 12 like originally reported, was very curious about him. Soon enough, this photo would be recognized by everyone around the world. But just how well did it do? Read on to find out.

The Fame Of The Photo

McCurry took several photographs of the children and then a few more of the girl who had captivated him so much. Despite the fact she was covering her face with her shawl, he wanted to photograph her whole face. In the end, he got the photos that he desired. The following year in June, his now-famous photo was posted on the cover of National Geographic, and the magazine circulated to millions of readers worldwide. However, there was only a little mention of the girl. There was the original caption, “haunted eyes tell of an Afghan refugee’s fears” and in the text, there was another mention to her eyes that said they were “reflecting the fear of war”. The photograph of this young girl became an award-winning one and both McCurry and the publication sold it for enormous amounts. The Steve McCurry Studios prices their open edition 20” x 24” print of her for $18,000 and larger prints have sold at auctions for as much as $178,900. While the exact sum of how much the photographer has made from this photo is unknown, it must have been quite a large sum because in a 2015 interview he said, “From a financial point of view I could have retired 15 years ago and never work again.” As for the girl? After meeting with her again years later, in the past, Steve alleged that he paid for her immediate healthcare needs, paid for some of her children’s education, brought her daughter a sewing machine, and has said that he brought her a house.

Finding The Girl

For years people have recognized the image of the girl with the green eyes yet no one knew who she was. It wasn’t until 2002 that the world learned of her identity after National Geographic had decided to re-visit the girl from the photo and try to track her down. It was easier said than done, and once people got wind of what was going on, some pretended to be her, but they had a specialist who used iris recognition software to confirm her identity. The woman’s name is Sharbat Gula and by that time, she was already in her 30s according to the reports, and had a husband as well as children. The woman remembered being photographed when she was a child and it was revealed that she was only photographed twice in her life. First for the initial cover in ‘84 and then later in 2002 when she was photographed for the follow-up story. It was also revealed that she did not know about the cover or her fame until that day. But as it would later turn out, it would bring her more problems. Read on to find out why.

Northrup’s Video

In 2019 a photographer and a vlogger Tony Northrup wanted to make a video about the image that inspired him and millions of other people to talk about the plight of refugees but instead what he found was a different story about a girl who had been wrongly presented by National Geographic. Of course, the caption of the caption in the original report talked about the fear in her eyes and the fear of war, but as Northrup pointed out, chances were that fear was of McCurry. He pointed out that being a girl of traditional Pashtun culture, it would go against their rules and beliefs for her to reveal her face, share a space, make eye contact, and be photographed by a man that does not belong to her family.

Her Belief Was Not Respected?

The vlogger had pointed out that originally the girl was covering her face when Steven walked into the tent where the school was. McCurry himself had acknowledged that saying in later interviews that she was shy but once again Northrup had pointed out that she was covering her face as she didn’t want to show it in front of a strange man. The photographer then asked the teacher to ask Sharbat to let her photograph him and to lower her hands. At first, she only lowered so much so that only her eyes were showing but allegedly Steven wanted to photograph her face, even moving her to a different spot with better lighting and posing her, as Tony described it, 80s’ glamour shot. On top of this, it was never revealed if McCurry ever got permission from Gula or her father/guardian for the photograph to be taken and didn’t even ask for her name. It was reported that when he went to get more film for his camera as he wanted to take more photos, the girl left. As she would later say in an interview, that was because she was angry at the stranger, adding that she was never photographed before.

Wrong Reporting?

In the follow-up 2002 National Geographic, there allegedly had also been some mistakes in the reporting. In the original article, it was written that her parents had died in Afghanistan after being killed when the Russian bombed their city and also that it was Sharbat’s grandmother who brought them to Pakistan. However, in 2017 the woman gave an interview to the BBC where she said that her mother had died of appendicitis in the village when she was 8, and then later her family which included her father, four sisters, and one brother, migrated to Pakistan. However, allegedly the follow-up photo shoot was also a little bit problematic. At first, NatGeo had brought in a female photographer, whom Gula was comfortable around but for the picture they opted to bring in McCurry. Despite wearing a burka at the time, for the photoshoot, she had her face showing, and allegedly she did not want to do this. According to Northrup, her husband convinced her to do this and, as McCurry sad himself in an interview: “Although she agreed to be photographed back in February, as you read, we could not have done it without her husband's permission.”

Brought Her Trouble

The woman continued living relatively peacefully in Pakistan. Unfortunately, she had lost her husband and daughter hepatitis C but she still had her three daughters and a son. However, in 2016 she was in some serious trouble after in October that year she was arrested by the Federal Investigation Agency for living in the country using forged documents. For this, she was sentenced to 15 days in detention and later was deported to Afghanistan. And it was the famous National Geographic photo that she blames for this. As she revealed in a 2017 interview, to her, the photo created more problems than benefits for her such as her imprisonment. Leaving was heartbreaking for the woman as she herself said that while she was born in Afghanistan, she saw Pakistan as her home. But what does her life look like now? Did she have any more trouble? Read on to find out.

Return To Afghanistan

Despite the fact she felt more at home in Pakistan, she was welcomed back to her native Afghanistan. According to media reports, once she crossed the border, she was flown to the capital Kabu, where she met with the former president Ashraf Ghani and his wife Rula, who held a reception for the woman at the Presidential Palace. She was also given a key to a brand new apartment as well as a $700 per month stipend. Speaking publically about this, Ghani had said that for him it was a privilege to welcome Sharbat back and that they are proud to see that she lives with dignity and with security in her homeland. Though while she might have been angry about the photo, to begin with, in the 2017 BBC interview she said that she was happy as it gave her honor and made her popular among people, as well as the fact that, according to her, the income from the photo has helped a lot of widows and orphans and she is proud of it. But despite those good feelings, she was still worried about the fact the cover could have put her at risk from the conservative Afghans who don’t believe women should appear in the media.

Escape To Italy

With the Taliban taking over Afghanistan earlier this year, many people had fled their country. And just as Sharbat was worried she would be at risk from conservative Afghans back in 2017 then she would be even more at risk now and so like many others, she wanted to leave and so the widowed mother-of-four who is currently suffering from hepatitis C had asked for help fleeing a request that the Italian government granted. According to a statement from the Italian government, after seeing her appeal, the Italian prime minister Mario Draghi had taken it upon himself and organized her transfer to the country. All within the broader context of the program for the evacuation of Afghan citizens. Now that the woman is in Italy, the office of the prime minister will help Gula get integrated into life in the country.

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