Marco Werman: There are many great photographs, but I can think of only a handful of iconic photos. Robert Capas' picture of the moment a soldier is shot during the Spanish Civil War, or the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing Napalm during the war there. There is another iconic shot of a girl in Afghanistan. You know the one, she appeared in National Geographic. A scared face, half veiled, with otherworldly piercing green eyes. Photographer Steve McCurry took that photograph while covering the refugee crisis during the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. McCurry has a new book out, Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs, and he told us how that image happened.
Steve McCurry: It fascinates me in photography which pictures people connect with. My name is Steve McCurry, I'm a photographer. Well this is a story about the Afghan Girl photograph I made. I guess it was back in 1984. I was walking through this refugee camp and I noticed there was a school in a tent. And I heard these voices coming from the school and I wandered over and I went in, and I immediately saw this one incredible girl sitting off in the corner with this very beautiful face and these very, kind of haunted eyes. And I knew instantly that this was an incredible portrait possibility.
She kind of sat there, looked into my lens with this incredible expression. And the whole situation was perfect in sense of composition and the light, the background, the color of her shawl, and it was one of those rare moments where all the elements in a photograph come together and kind of align themselves into this perfect situation.
Eventually when I got back to National Geographic, about 2 months after making the picture, I was going through my film and I suddenly saw this incredible portrait. It was a bit disturbing, and there was this sort of traumatic quality to her expression. But I thought it really spoke to the situation of two or three million Afghan refugees living in these awful tents.
So eventually the editor put this picture on the cover of the June 1985 issue, and immediately we had thousands of letters pouring in, people wanting to know who is she, what is her name, how can we help her, we want to send her clothes, we want to send her money. There were even men that wanted to marry her. It was this incredible outpouring of interest, and that interest never subsided. I think people all over the world really connected with this picture. So I'm sure the first line in my obituary will be, Steve McCurry was the photographer of the Afghan Refugee Girl, bla-bla, bla-bla. And that will be pretty much it for me I suppose.
You know, I'm okay with that. I think that to have a photograph that people appreciate, connect with, can learn something from, have an emotional experience with, is a great thing. And I think any photographer would be proud to have made such a picture.
Werman: That's photographer Steve McCurry. Seventeen years later he reconnected with the Afghan girl, Sharbat Gula. She's married and living in Afghanistan. McCurry and Gula now stay regularly in touch.