The Afghan Girl – An Ancient Saga

Photographs, phot + graph which is Greek for “light + writing”, are marvellous means to capture moments almost forever – a print may fade, a digital file may vanish – that shares, and if seen keenly expresses, the truth.

The truth has as many versions as the fish in the ocean, each one equally powerful, waiting to reveal itself to the one awaiting.

What did the Afghan Girl reveal to me?

The Afghan Girl, photographed by Steve McCurry.
It is ‘the most recognised photograph’ in the history of the magazine.
©National Geographic

This photograph was taken in 1984 by photojournalist Steve McCurry for the National Geographic magazine in a refugee camp for Afghani people in Pakistan, where he documented the ordeal of hundreds and thousands of them.

“Haunted eyes tell of an Afghan refugee’s fears”, these words, imprinted on the magazine cover, talk about her Present i.e. the war-torn Afghanistan of 1984-85, but her eyes are talking about an ancient saga which was and which still is unfolding.

It is the tale of a fierce innocent soul that struggles to survive, that dares to live.

Dorothea Lange who took the iconic photograph titled the Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936) while she was documenting the lives of Americans and migrants during the Great Depression also captured something similar; the struggling life of a thirty-two-year-old migrant mother of seven, her tired yet firm gaze reflects perseverance.

Talking about her technique as a documentary photographer, Dorothea Lange said –

“My own (sic) approach is based upon three considerations – First: hands off! Whatever I photograph I do not tamper with or molest or arrange. Second: a sense of place. Whatever I photograph, I try to picture as a part of its surroundings, as having roots. Third: a sense of time. Whatever I photograph, I try to show as having its position in the past or in (sic) the future”.

Dorothea Lange

An idea/ a concept with which I cannot agree more for both these photographs are real, deeply rooted in their culture and have a position in the past and the future… amazingly the present has faded.

The image of the Afghan Girl has stayed with me for all these years and somehow I can relate to her.

I am afraid and at the same time curious when I see this image, afraid because her fierce glare raises so many questions that cannot be answered and curious because I (and we all are in fact) am a part of this ancient saga.

While documentary photography documents facts, it is interesting to see that the fact when it comes to every living being is more alive and beautiful than a tailored presentation; there is a hidden true story behind every image documented.

In 2002, the mystery behind the identity of the Afghan Girl was resolved as the National Geographic team found out who she was.

Sharbat Gula, photographed by Steve McCurry (2002). [Source – Public Delivery]

Sharbat Gula aka the Afghan Mona Lisa lived a difficult life like millions of refugees in the world and only in 2017 was given a home by the Afghanistan government.

Similar was the story of Dorothea Lange’s migrant mother, who later lived a much secure life.

The subplots run along with the main storyline.

A pure photograph picks one strand from the ocean that has the power to reveal what the unfathomable ocean hides within.

For me, the Afghan Girl and the Migrant Mother are two such photographs.

The World of Steve McCurry exposition in Palais de la Bourse/Beurspaleis of Brussels in May 2017. [Source – Wikipedia Commons]

[Recently I completed a photography course (MoMA – Seeing Through Photographs) online and learned more about this fantastic field. I had researched and written about the Afghan Girl for an assignment.]


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