The 'Afghan girl" Sherbat Gula's popularity with Afghans

Curator's Note

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.


I really like your take on this infamous photograph, Aisha. While the photo has been quoted endlessly, especially in post-9/11 critiques of Orientalism, your analysis also performs what you understand to be the motivations for Afghans hanging this photo. In other words, it's also defiant. I see anger in the image as well, especially when we consider that the photographer says he spent "2 minutes" with Gula. I think it's the anger that is the unconscious haunting for Western viewers too, rather than most media readings of the haunting emerging from some essential aspect of Gula.

I agree Sara. That probably accounts for some amount of the photo's endless circulation in the West. I recently saw it printed on a towel. The second photo he takes of Gula seventeen years later is much more problematic in my view and opens a whole other can of worms in terms of representation and McCurry's 'expert' comments on Gula's life.

Aisha, thanks for this thought-provoking post. What I like about it is not only your reading of the photograph itself, illuminating how it holds various meanings dependent on the viewer's cultural positioning, but also the way you draw attention to a different story in the video, which is clearly centred on the photographer Steve McCurry. Ostensibly, it is the story of his return to Afghanistan in 2002 to find the refugee girl he photographed, against the ideological backdrop of the US-led occupation. But the other story it tells, and which your post brings out beautifully, is the afterlife of the photograph for Afghans themselves, visible in the background of McCurry's "hero's journey."

Thanks for your comments, Shohini. I am endlessly fascinated by how loaded this photo has become for scholars and the wonders it has done for McCurry's career. However, even more interesting is its reclaiming by Afghans (both in the Diaspora and in Afghanistan). McCurry in many ways positions himself as the de-coder of the original and new photograph, an expert of sorts on Gula's image and life.

This is a very compelling post, and your last sentence in particular is one that resonates strongly across this whole week. It's a fundamentally simple point but one with vast complexity given how easy it is for us (meaning both everyday people and media scholars) to become insulated within our own perspectives.

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