The story of Steve McCurry’s iconic “Afghan girl”

Steve McCurry is the icon of contemporary photography. He was born in 1950 in Philadelphia, in the United States, where he began his studies as a filmmaker and discovered his passion for photography during his training. Compared to the film production, McCurry believes that photography is more spontaneous and more suited to his personality. Thus began his long journey made of places, people, cultures, stories and smiles. 

His works are colour pictures, with very bright and strong colours, at times they seem to be in contrast with the pain expressed by some of the protagonists photographed. According to McCurry, the relationship with the subject of the photo is fundamental, there must be chemistry, an immediate link between the subject and the photographer. Steve has never considered the camera as a political weapon, but rather he sees it as a useful tool for describing everything that is surrounding us. 

If we google the photographer’s name, the first image that appears on the screen is the very famous “Afghan girl” with emerald eyes. The picture taken in 1984, went around the world thanks to its appearance on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1985. Steve McCurry, as he himself admitted, owes his success to that magnetic expression that made his trip to Pakistan an unforgettable moment. 

Behind this photo there is an incredible story, almost a surreal story. Let’s go back a few years, McCurry is in a refugee camp in Pakistan; all around you can only hear screams, there is a lot of noise, people talking, others walking, then that girl, in the corner of the room, and those eyes so expressive to leave everyone breathless. In the photographer’s head there is no more noise, the confusion seems to have disappeared, there is only the gaze of that little girl, fixed in his mind. McCurry, convinced that it was the only photo he wanted to take that day, asks the teacher for permission to photograph the girl. The light was perfect, the background was perfect, the expression was perfect. So McCurry took the picture and gives life to the photo that made him famous all over the world. 

But here is the twist. In 2002 National Geographic decides to return to Pakistan with Steve to look for the orphan girl who had thrilled the whole world many years earlier. How many would have bet on the success of this project? Perhaps no one, the same team had doubts about the possibility of finding that little girl who had now become a woman. Yet, a couple of weeks after the researches started, a man claimed to be the woman’s brother. Umpteenth flop? Not this time, Steve McCurry finds those magnetic eyes that not even time has changed. The “Afghan girl” finally has a name, Sharbat Gula, and for the second time, after 18 years, she is immortalized by the icon of photography. And for the second time Sharbat Gula appears on the cover of National Geographic. Steve McCurry did something to help the woman who in 2016 received a home to live in from the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani. 

It is amazing how such an exciting story can be hidden behind a photograph, behind a face and behind a glance. 

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