Since you’re reading this blog, I assume you have access to the internet, so humor me for a minute. (Or don’t and just keep reading.) Go to Google and search “green eyes.” Then add another descriptive word, such as “amazing green eyes,” “intense green eyes,” “striking green eyes,” or even “haunting green eyes.” There’s one pair of green eyes that shows up at some point in every search.
Meet the “Afghan girl.” In June 1985, she was featured on the cover of National Geographic, and her piercing green eyes have seared themselves into the memory of anyone who has seen her portrait. While her eyes are a strikingly beautiful shade of green, it’s impossible to ignore the fear and emotion behind them. Many people know the “Afghan girl” and her eyes; few know her story.
During the 1980s, war in Afghanistan forced many to seek refuge in Pakistan. Steve McCurry, a National Geographic photographer, was in Pakistan to cover the story. He saw thousands of refugees living in small quarters, rationing food and water while combating disease and unsanitary conditions. From one of the larger tents, he heard children’s laughter and went to check it out. There, he spotted a 12-year-old girl with incredible green eyes. When he raised his camera, the girl covered her face. The girl’s teacher then told her to lower her hands so the world could see her face and learn her story. McCurry was able to take only a handful of pictures before the Afghan girl stood up and left. She had never seen a camera before, had never been photographed, and didn’t really understand the concept.
McCurry developed the pictures when he returned home, not knowing how they would turn out. When he showed the editor the picture of the Afghan girl looking straight into the camera, the editor said they had found their next cover. The Afghan girl became representative of the suffering in those refugee camps, but no one knew her name.
Seventeen years later, McCurry and a small team set out to find the Afghan girl. After showing her image around a refugee camp near the village of Peshawar, a man who had lived in the camp with the Afghan girl brought her back to the village. McCurry recognized her immediately, and he wanted to know her story – not the story of Afghanistan and the suffering that she had represented for 17 years, but her own unique story.
Sharbat Gula is a Pashtun whose parents were killed by a Soviet bombing when she was 6 years old. She had hiked through snowy mountains with her grandmother, brother, and three sisters to reach the refugee camp over twenty years earlier. They hid from enemy attacks in caves until they could reach a safe camp. In the 1990s, Sharbat returned home, disappearing from the public eye as a result of purdah, and she was married at 16. She now has three daughters and a son, and her hope is that one of her daughters is able to be educated.
Perhaps the saddest part of this story is the fact that Sharbat has no understanding of the impact made by her portrait. She had not even seen the iconic picture until her reunion with McCurry. Since she is not married to him, Sharbat was unable to look or even smile at McCurry. This made it incredibly difficult for McCurry to convey the importance of her image, but he is very grateful that Sharbat survived the war. To this day, they maintain contact.