How One Photographer Captured A Piercing Gaze That Shook The World
As part of a series called My Big Break, All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.
In December 1984, a war was raging in Afghanistan; millions of refugees were fleeing to Pakistan to escape the fighting.
National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry was there — stationed at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to cover the crisis.
"There were, in some cases, tens of thousands of Afghans pressed together in these squalid, really terrible conditions," McCurry says. "No plumbing, no electricity, and they'd have to carry water, there was disease — it was just a terrible existence."
At one of those camps, near Peshawar, Pakistan, McCurry heard the unexpected sound of children's laughter coming from inside a large tent. It was a makeshift classroom for an all-girls school.
"I noticed this one little girl with these incredible eyes, and I instantly knew that this was really the only picture I wanted to take," he says.
She would become the subject of McCurry's iconic photograph "The Afghan Girl" — one of National Geographic's most popular covers.
"At first, this young girl — her name is Sharbat Gula — she put her hands [up to] cover her face," McCurry said.
Her teacher asked her to put her hands down so the world would see her face and know her story.
"So she basically dropped her hands and just looked into my lens," McCurry says. "It was this piercing gaze. A very beautiful little girl with this incredible look."
It was Gula's first time getting her picture taken. McCurry says she had never even seen a camera before.
"Her shawl and the background, the colors had this wonderful harmony," McCurry says. "All I really had to do was click the shutter."
But Gula didn't give McCurry much time to work. Just as soon as he captured a few images, she got up and left to chat with her friends.
"And that was it," McCurry says. "I didn't know exactly what I had. This was pre-digital and it was ... almost two months before I got back and actually saw the developed film."
McCurry showed two versions to his editor at National Geographic: The first was Gula covering her face, and the other was her staring directly into his lens.
"As soon as the editor saw the one of her looking into the camera, he really leapt to his feet and said, 'There's our next cover,' " McCurry says. "Occasionally in life and occasionally in my photography, the stars align and everything comes together in a miraculous way."
McCurry says that brief moment with Sharbat Gula in 1984 changed his life.
Seventeen years later, he located her and reunited with her in Afghanistan. That's when he discovered her backstory.
Gula was about 12 years old when he took her picture. Her parents were killed in a Soviet airstrike, so she traveled for weeks with her grandmother and four siblings to several refugee camps.
"For a young girl who was not only a refugee but an orphan, who was sort of anonymous — she really fell between the cracks of society there," he says. "I can only imagine how this affected her, having lost her parents and then being so far from home in a strange land."
"The Afghan Girl" ran on the cover of National Geographic in June of 1985. McCurry remains in touch with Gula and her family to this day.
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