The Afghan Girl – An Ancient Saga

Feature Article

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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The Better Way

Flash Fiction
Neatly folded and settled.
[Source – Pixabay]

Kavya was searching for a book to read, only to pass that foggy evening. She was in her grandma’s house for vacation. Nothing but memories was left of her grandparents. A faint image entered her mind every time she thought of them- she is sitting beside them and her grandma is reading a book, they are on the balcony, soon she falls asleep, nevertheless feels the warmth because of their presence.

She was young now and restless. An idea came to her, she imagined herself sitting the way her grandma was sitting and reading, she felt that if she copied it she would get some of the serenity that her grandma had on her face. Strangely, Kavya could now see wholeness and contentment in her grandma’s eyes; calmness on her face; as if she is telling everyone to have faith…to believe; even the old monotone photographs of her grandma spoke the same whenever Kavya looked at them.

Finally, she picked a book and went outside on the balcony. Pulling a chair towards her she sat on it. She sighed…what for…she had no clue herself. Was it something in her life or was she simply missing her grandma? Maybe she sighed because we sometimes do, without knowing that we did.

There were two more pages to finish the first chapter, checked Kavya. She always did so. Kavya didn’t count herself in the category of the fervent readers, but among those who read because others read, because books are there to read and because they know reading is a good habit. There is nothing wrong with being in this category; it is just that you lag in one or the other way.

Trying to sit in a comfortable position Kavya got up and dragged the chair but while doing so she dropped the book. The book was old and some pages peeped out as soon as it hit the floor. ‘Oh!’ said Kavya. They say what happens, happens for the good. While placing the pages properly she found a folded piece of paper. Curiosity made her eyes big. She opened it; her grandma’s handwriting spoke to her. The words were few. It said ‘Just smile…it is the better way’ and under it were her grandma’s initials.

How quickly can things change, how strangely can people change, how fast the light passes in the darkness, right? Kavya couldn’t believe that she was suddenly full of happiness; spirited to do anything. She looked at the piece of paper once again and said, ‘Thank you grandma…thank you so much.’ She got up and left the balcony.

Indeed, Kavya didn’t finish that book but then she had something else to complete. The old book is back on the shelf but the message is with Kavya, which will stay with her forever.

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