Arts, Culture & Media

I can't promise you this photo will change your life, but it did for the photographer


"The Afghan Girl" by Steve McCurry first appeared on the cover of National Geographic in June, 1985. It's now one of the most recognizable photographs in the world.


Steve McCurry/Phaidon

I've got a book recommendation; it's by photographer Steve McCurry.

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The book is, "Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs."

Sure, there are amazing photos in it. But that's not what kept me up reading at night. It was the words. They tell the story behind the iconic photos he's taken over the course of his distinguished career.

And one story had me gripped. The story of the "Afghan Girl." I remember first seeing the image in a stack of old National Geographic at my grandfather's house in rural Oregon. You can't forget it. It's the image of Sharbat Gula as a teenager, taken in 1984 at a refugee camp on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Her green eyes pierce through the page. 

He says he got the picture by happenstance. 

"I was walking through this refugee camp and I noticed there was a school in a tent," he says. "I wandered over and went it. I immediately saw this one incredible girl sitting off in the corner with this very beautiful face and these very haunted eyes. And I knew instantly that this was an incredible portrait possibility."

The following seconds moved along perfectly. The composition, the light, the colors all worked together. He snapped his shutter a couple times. Then it was over.

Two months later he found himself at National Geographic's headquarters in New York. The picture was incredible. It landed on the cover in June of 1985.

Letters from readers were sent into Time by the thousands. McCurry believes the intensity in her eyes spoke to the condition of the war. 

"Eyes, for me, in a photograph are one of the most expressive parts of people," he says. "I think there are incredible stories written into our faces."

McCurry thinks the photo will be the first line in his obit. And he's just fine with that.

Seventeen years after the iconic photo made the cover of National Geograhic, McCurry reconnected with Gula in Afghanistan. She's married. She has children. And her eyes still burn bright.

The two keep in constant touch. 

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    Sharbat Gula, the Afghan Girl, in Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, 1984.


    Steve McCurry/Phaidon

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    Steve McCurry in monsoon floods, Porbandar, India, 1983.


    Steve McCurry/Phaidon