Positions and Practice PHO710 Topic 4: READING PHOTOGRAPHS :A tale of two Afghani girls....

Updated: Sep 4

The first of the two photographs, Afghan Girl, is a portrait of Sharbat Gula, also known as Sharbat Bibi, shot in 1984 by photojournalist Steve McCurry. It appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine in June 1985. [1]


Gula was 12 years old and a devout Muslim when the photograph was taken in Nasir Bagh, a refugee camp in Pakistan where she and her family had fled the bombardment of their town during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The photograph was taken without her consent. McCurry noticed Gula's piercing green eyes in a classroom of young girls and decided that he wanted to take her portrait. Gula was removed to separate room, where her headdress was rearranged to show her face. Gula later revealed that she was angry at having her devout Muslim faith and beliefs ignored and suppressed in order for this uninvited foreigner to take her photograph.


In the photograph, Gula is looking at the camera with anger and distrust and is looking uncomfortable at being photographed by McCurry.


It later transpired that McCurry never even knew Gula’s name, until much later -17 years later. Gula’s fortunes suffered several highs and lows after the photograph was published; she was prosecuted as an illegal alien in Pakistan; she was married to a baker and returned to Afghanistan; some time after his death she was gifted a lavish house in Kabul by the Afghan government, only to have to leave it when the Taliban returned in 2021. Fearing persecution as an Afghani who had become famous despite having no desire to do so, Gula secured asylum in Italy in 2021/2 for her and her children.


McCurry and a crew from National Geographic returned to Afghanistan in 2002, to find Gula, which they succeeded in doing, tracking her down to her hometown. For the first time, Gula was asked how she felt about having the photograph taken, and she confirmed that she was angry, as a young girl of Pashtun culture and a devout Muslim, she should not have been in the company of a man from without her direct family and should not have revealed her face, made eye contact or been photographed. She fled the room to avoid having further photographs taken, later explaining that she was also “nervous and very sad”.


The subject of the second photograph, Bibi Aisha has a different, but no less harrowing, story than Sharbat Gula.


In the photograph, we see the mutilated face of a young Afghan girl. She looks scared and distrustful. Promised to a Talib fighter by her father at the age of 12, to discharge an obligation, Bibi was married at 14. She was abused and maltreated by her husband’s family, to the point where she escaped from the outhouse she shared with the family’s livestock. Her neighbours however turned her in and she was imprisoned. Her father retrieved her and returned her to her husband, but he extracted a promise from them that she would be better treated, before allowing her to be taken back. Instead of honouring the promise, the

husband and his father and brothers took her into a clearing in the mountains, held Bibi down and cut off her nose and her ears, leaving her mutilated and alone to die in the mountains.


Somehow she managed to make her way to her grandfather’s house, where she was hidden, eventually being taken by her father into American Military care and then into private care. She had many operations and procedures to reconstruct her nose between 2012 and 2014, and was adopted by an Afghani-American family with whom she lives in Maryland, where she aspires to become a Police Officer.



[1] The Photographs (National Geographic Collectors). Publisher, National Geographic Society; Illustrated edition (1 Oct. 2008). Language, English. Hardcover, 336 pages. ISBN-10, 9781426202919. [2] TIME Magazine Cover: What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan - Aug. 9, 2010 - Afghanistan - Taliban - Women




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