As the video suggests, Sherbat Gula’s image is arguably the most beloved and famous National Geographic cover photograph in the history of the magazine. For over twenty years, she was solely identified as "the Afghan girl.” To many academics, Gula's photo has become a symbol of misplaced pity, used in the service of First World photographers to ‘capture’ the passive, nameless silent sufferer of the Third World. Indeed, McCurry has been quoted as recycling all kinds of Orientalist clichés about Gula and the photograph, including such tropes as the ‘timelessness’ of the image and the remarkable ‘warlikeness’ of her ethnic Pashtun people. Comments like McCurry’s have only served to cast Afghan women in a narrative that begs Western intervention. However, for many Afghans in the Diaspora, Gula’s ‘haunted’ eyes have in turn haunted them.
Surely it’s not self-pity that drives Afghan to hang reproductions of this photograph in restaurants, business and homes. Instead, for most Afghans the feeling projected onto the photograph is of a different nature (Gula is not quoted in the original article nor in this video thus all ‘readings’ of her facial expression and feelings are assigned and not inherent qualities). For Afghan viewers, this photograph arises out of a particular context and not a timeless one (as McCurry may suggest): it was taken about six years into the ten-year Soviet Invasion. Her look has become the embodiment of a defiant, and perhaps even angry look of a refugee girl. For some, it stands for the very time-specific experience of survival amidst war-time suffering. Gula’s photograph is testament to the fact that spectatorship is reliant on subjective positions and experiences, influenced by a viewer’s gender, ethnicity, class and position in society – and that depends on what society we are talking about in the first place.