Afghan Girl

“Afghan Girl (Sharbat Gula), Peshawar, Pakistan,” 1984, by Steve McCurry, Fuji Crystal Archive Print. 

A young girl with piercing green eyes and a rust-colored veil caught the world’s attention back in 1985.

She was an Afghan refugee, an orphaned 12-year-old who’d fled with her grandmother and siblings to Pakistan after her parents were killed in the Soviet-Afghan War. Photographed in a refugee camp, her striking face and powerful gaze got her on the cover of National Geographic magazine, and she was lionized as a tragic child whose life was upended by war.

Her startling portrait, shot by photographer Steve McCurry in 1984, is now on view at Etherton Gallery. 

The beauty of photography is that it records moments in time. By memorializing the young Afghan girl and the war that changed her life, McCurry’s photo helps viewers reflect on a long-past moment. But photography can also remind us that past is prologue: we still have kids displaced by lethal international politics and parents killed by violence. 

The Philadelphia-born McCurry, now 68 and living in Tucson, has worked for years for National Geographic and other publications, and has long been a member of the prestigious Magnum photographers’ collective.

Known early on in his career as a war photographer, he’s exhibiting 34 splashily colored photos that are more about daily life than war. Shot originally in film, this set of iconic McCurry images testifies to his 35 years of working abroad in India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Tibet and elsewhere.    

The exhibition, which also features Japanese photographer Takeshi Ishikawa, is aptly called The Unguarded Moment. It does have intense McCurry portraits not unlike the Afghan girl’s: a Tibetan woman is elaborately ornamented in beads for a festival; an impossibly wrinkled Tibetan monk turns his gaze on the camera and in India so does a boy whose face is mysteriously painted red.

But even more interesting than these posed portraits are the virtuoso “unguarded” scenes of daily life serendipitously caught by the photographer. In the wonderful “Boy in Mid-Flight,” a young runner joyously leaps into the air as he rounds a corner in Jodhpur, India. A young man in Thailand, engrossed in reading a book, leans casually against his affectionate elephant.

Many of these works are small-scale close-ups of individuals, but sometimes McCurry stretches out for a long view. “Calcutta Tram, India,” from 1996, is a dense urban streetscape that brings to life the bustling streets in the metropolis now known as Kolkatta, one of the most crowded cities in the world.

McCurry especially favors groups of people doing the same thing at the same time, all in extraordinary color. Four nuns in pink walk in procession in Myanmar; three fishermen in Sri Lanka perch on stilts high above the roiling ink-blue sea; a clutch of six women in gorgeous orange robes huddle together in a dust storm in India. 

“Afghan Women at Shoe Store, Kabul, Afghanistan,” 1992, is a winsome picture of five women in burkas inspecting sneakers at an open-air shop. Seen from the back, their billowing burkas, each in a different color—blue, white, tan, green, pale blue—are almost an abstraction, and a lovely one at that.  

McCurry introduces us to real life in locales we know little about, but sometimes his photos—a kimono-clad geisha on an escalator in Kyoto, or those burka women buying tennis shoes—can be a little National Geographic-y, suggesting a sort of surprise that these people live in the modern world. But his pleasing abstraction of those burkas in particular and his uniformly exquisite compositions elsewhere help mitigate a tendency toward exoticism.

He deserves special credit for his work seeking out the Afghan girl years after their 1984 encounter. He found her again in 2002 in the mountainous borderlands between Afghan and Pakistan, as an impoverished mother, and at long last learned her name: Sharbat Gula.

McCurry’s lifetime body of work is both journalism and art. As a documentary photographer, he records time and place and people, and as an artist he renders the world beautiful. 

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