Many are familiar with the 1985 cover of the National Geographic in which an Afghan girl is shown staring at the camera, appropriately titled as ‘Afghan Girl.’ The photographer, Steve McCurry, took the photo of the green-eyed girl eyeing the camera intensely in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp located in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The girl is now 40-year-old Sharbat Gula, and has taken refuge in Italy after fleeing Afghanistan due to the Taliban takeover.
In 2015, Gula experienced some trouble regarding her identity documents; according to the BBC, she was arrested by Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency after a two-year investigation in Peshawar. The fraud that she committed was the obtaining of ID cards for her and her alleged two sons. According to the same site, a source had said: “they may not be her sons, but this is a common practice among Afghan refugees whereby they list names of non-relatives as their children to obtain documents.” As a result, she was sentenced to fifteen days in detainment and deported to Afghanistan. The Afghan government at the time promised to take care of her financially, but this ceased once the Taliban took over in 2021. Following the takeover, the Italian government granted her refugee status and let her seek asylum with her family in their country.
Back in 2002 during an interview when Gula was first identified years after her encounter with McCurry, she had indicated that she was angry at the photograph being taken without her consent. In an article written for The Wire, Ribhu and Raghu Karnad report that the fear in her eyes weren’t due to the warlike circumstances she was living in; it was because of McCurry’s (a stranger) sudden request to take a photo of her despite the action being looked down upon in traditional Pashtun culture. McCurry entered the all-girls school and was fascinated by Gula’s piercing eyes. He asked her class teacher to “instruct her to cooperate,” and after being compelled to lower her hands, she was able to be photographed by McCurry. However, the photograph went on to make McCurry’s career and catapult him into stardom, while Gula was left in her dire situation.
Photojournalism can produce exploitative events like this; a similar situation occurred in South Sudan, when Kevin Carter took a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a hunger-stricken boy trying to reach a feeding center but being followed by a vulture. Carter was given worldwide recognition for his photo; nevertheless, he took his life weeks after it was published. Photojournalists often take photos of people in dreadful circumstances but do little to nothing to alleviate their pain; instead, they just use it for their benefit whether they’re conscious of this or not.
It is not fair that Gula had to live a life of fear and danger while McCurry was able to receive praise for his photo. She was the subject and should’ve been rightfully compensated. Instead, she was subjected to decades of fleeing in search of safety for her family. Her recent refuge in Italy can be seen as good news, but her situation should serve as a lesson for exploitative photojournalists so that upcoming generations do not make the same mistakes as he did.
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