'Afghan Girl' Photo: Eyes That Made an American Teenager Look at the World

afghan girl steve mccurry

"Afghan Girl" by Steve McCurry

Do you remember this photo of the beautiful green-eyed Afghan Girl? I sure do.

In the summer of 1985, photographer Steve McCurry's photo of Sharbat Gula arrived in the mail on the cover of National Geographic magazine, which my mom insisted on subscribing to (and saving every copy).

Of course, I am thankful my mom was so insistent about it because in the age of the internet, I may never have laid eyes on this girl's face.

Had I seen other depictions from war investigatives? No doubt. But this is the one that made me stop and pause and feel something. Because she was a teen-aged girl just like me.


Now I wish I could say, I saw this photo of the 12-year-old girl in a refugee camp in Afghanistan and that it changed my whole life around, that I went on to fight against the wrath of war, to reach out and help those suffering in war-torn countries, but alas, this did not happen. What happened was far far more subtle than that. Instead I looked into the deep green of her eyes and considered --- surely amid tons of deeply charged teen angst of my 14-year-old self -- for a good long moment (and for years to come) that there are girls who are born with much harder lives to live than me.

I stepped outside of myself and away from the liquid eyeliner and the Madonna "Lucky Star" video long enough to contemplate war, refugee camps, the girl's dilapidated school, the clothes she must wear living in the Afghani mountains, and the fear and dread she must feel on a daily basis.

No, I didn't go onto to become an avid peace activist or fly across the ocean to be of service to those in desperate need. However, because of this photo, something did shift deep inside of me. I saw Sharbat. I saw her, and I became a witness to her struggle. Young girls everywhere, this young girl, were victims of war. They were not armed. In most cases, they were and are still not allowed to fight. But they are in it and must face its horrors every day. By fleeing, running behind their mothers, hiding in caves, or carrying their children.

While subtle, what happened to me was also much bigger, because from that day forward, something else opened up in me. I began to understand, and could not push away, the fact that war was also and always a part of this world in which we lived. In the deep green pools of Sharbat's eyes, that fact was made real to me. And then I knew, from that truth, none of us would never be free.

In 2002, McCurry returned to Afghanistan after 9/11 and found the girl 17 years later, now a woman and a mother of three, and took her photograph again.

The photo "Afghan Girl" is currently on display as part of a retrospective of Steve McCurry's brilliant work at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in England.

Do you remember this photo and your experience seeing it the first time?


Image via Steve McCurry

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