in category Other People

Did the Afghan girl Sharbat Gula willingly pose for her infamous picture?

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I recently learnt that nothing about the photo is as it seems and I've never looked at it the same way since.  In 1984, Steve McCurry was based in Pakistan, employed by Nat Geo. During a field shoot, he stepped into an all-girls religious school in a village. There he spotted Gula's green eyes, though she tried to cover her face. McCurry asked her class teacher to tell her to co-operate. After being instructed to let him photograph her so she lowered her hands to uncover her face.  McCurry moved her to a spot with better light and background. The 8-year-old of rural Pashtun upbringing was made to show her face to be photographed by a foreign man she had never met. Tony Northrup, a photo blogger who told me this story: He poses her like an 80s glamour shot, shoulder tilted towards the camera... nice light to illuminate the eyes and direct eye contact - something that she would never ever do.  He wanted to take more pictures but Sharbat Gula got up and left. The eventual Nat Geo article never told her story or mentioned her name. The caption only said: "Haunted eyes tell of an Afghan refugee's fears."  That is false, as Northrup pointed out to me. The look in her eyes is that of a student interrupted at school by a male stranger invading her personal and cultural boundaries, and leaving without even having learned her name.  And as Gula later said herself, it was not fear in her eyes but anger.  McCurry has commercialised the image for huge profits. Larger prints have sold for over $150K each. Sharbat Gula received nothing until 2002  Our admiration for "Afghan Girl" and our neglect of its human subject for decades, reveals so much of the power imbalances / scope of exploitation behind journalistic trophy-hunting. And how naively we still view photographs without acknowledging what the subject is coping with, first and foremost: the photographer.

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