"Afghan Girl", Gula Sharbat, and Fragile Photographers

There has been a recent controversy in the Online Photographic Community. I use capital letters because this is the semi-formal body of Youtube photographers that seem to draw a ton of viewers and spend more time arguing about cameras than actually working gigs.

Tony Northrup posted a video (which has now been taken down but you can view a copy of it below) about the famous "Afghan Girl" portrait from a 1985 National Geographic cover.

"Afghan Girl" is a terrible title for the picture, what it should be known as is "portrait of Gula Sharbat". We can dispense with this generic "Afghan Girl" title, it's not a piece of stock photography and though Steve McCurry failed to record her name, he did the right thing and worked with National Geographic to find many years later.

The violation at the heart of the picture

In the video, Tony explains the violation at the heart of the picture.

However, let's just go through a few things that we can be fairly sure of:

1) Steve McCurry was a western white man with some degree of power in a poor foreign country

2) he was taking photos to "humanize" a humanitarian crisis

3) By religious and regional custom, the act of revealing her face to this man would be very strange and could easily make someone uncomfortable.

It's hard to know what happened for certain as the event occurred in 1985. Gula has stated somewhat recently that she is happy that the photo has helped bring attention to Afghanistan's refugee populations and that it eventually afforded her some material comfort. 

The arguments I’ve seen from people trying to poke holes in this story point to everyone else who may have been in the room except for Gula. McCurry may have taken other photos to "get her to relax" or get her familiar, but just because she can be polite does not mean that she is comfortable. Being surrounded by others in power does not mean that someone is necessarily able to say "no" even if they want to.

All of that seems particularly realistic to the situation. Granted, I have only pieced that together based on the details people have reported and also by the content of the photo itself. That iconic portrait is a valuable piece of the puzzle. Where western audiences saw "Afghan Girl" (with its depersonalizing title) and saw it as a powerful "ethnically ambiguous" "third world Mona Lisa" (good LORD can we please be less racist/colonist about this person?), to this viewer, it appears more as a defensive, oppositional stare. It feels invasive because it is invasive. And while framed within the context of a magazine cover, the subject of the photo can be presumed to be looking at no one. In reality she was looking at one specific person.

Tony has a pretty good read on the photograph itself. Whether by intention or accident, the photo has some of the classic trappings of a "cover model" photo that would have been on any magazine. He juxtaposed the posing and lighting with the person being photographed and that is what caused National Geographic to run it as a cover photo, as well as in marketing materials for decades. 

It's a good thing that Gula was, eventually, compensated. I'm glad that Gula is now happy with the photo. People can change their minds. But that doesn’t mean that the photograph itself was not a transgression.

Steve McCurry is a nice guy, and years later he helped to find Gula and give her her due. That doesn't mean that he probably did something kind of gross in the moment back in 1985. Because THIS IS what privilege and oppression are! It's a symptom of oppressive systems. Those systems act on us even when we are unwilling participants. It allows us to not feel the empathy we need to feel in that moment. It turns Gula into "an Afghan Girl."

Quick aside, why did McCurry not record her name? A person who he clearly saw as a good subject for a photograph, yet no name? This wasn't a quick snapshot of history in which you have no time or ability. The teacher was there, the translator was there... he could have gotten her name. He says he was friendly with her in their brief encounter and never got her name? Okay…

So, to recap: Tony Northrup, who posts of videos on Youtube and generally seems to court controversy with videos debating whether or not one should shoot in JPEG mode on DSLR or how ISO "is a myth" apparently really freaked everyone out by saying that this one particular picture has all of the trappings of a really gross thing that is actually pretty common in photography.

So that is my case for at least, in part, agreeing with Tony.  The part that feels even more damning however, is the reactions: the decrying, the categorical denial. The protectionism of this "good man," Steve McCurry. McCurry has even claimed that he is getting his lawyers involved.

 It is absolutely astonishing to hear Ted Forbes say that "being accused... it's like a trial with no jury" (We are ALL better than this!)...



This is baffling to me. The "I want to believe"… How hard is it to believe these factors may have played a role in the creation of that photography? Why don't we value that Gula, at first and for a time after, did not like that photo being taken of her? No one is saying that McCurry should be imprisoned or that he should never photograph again. This is a critical reexamination of a piece of media. That's just a smart thing to do.

I think Tony did a fine job of explaining his argument. Especially the point about how Gula Sharbat has come to make peace with the photo since she has been compensated for it, and it probably also helped her get out of prison in Pakistan.


The fragility of online photographers

The biggest tell here is that the comments are almost exclusively from men, and more specifically white men. Men who have never, in their entire lives, been the subject of a leering camera. To be honest, I haven't been on that side either! But at least I'm ready to take into account the strong possibility that this is an invasive picture. And the amount of umbrage I see these men taking is a HUGE tell on how fragile their egos are in this regard.

 No one else needs to go to bat to defend Steve McCurry from Tony Northrup. That's... just not a thing anyone else should really care about. But at the core is an indictment of a system and a way of producing images that, I think, has been subtly harmful for entire groups of people- primarily people in the global south.

 National Geographic made a pledge to reexamine its privileged western point of view and apologized for the dehumanizing portrayal of indigenous cultures in the past. And it still has a lot of work to do to make sure that the next generation of photographers aren't brought up with the spectacle of the other as a key feature of telling someone else's story.