Modern Mona Lisa: Afghan Girl

Afghan girl

This image is considered by many to be the crowning masterwork of the National Geographic Magazine’s photographers. Taken (a perfect double meaning, as I will explain) by Steve McCurry in 1984, the image appeared on the cover of the June 1985 issue of the magazine, highlighting the refugees of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. She made an encore appearance in the October 2013 issue–the 125th anniversary issue of the magazine, a cover girl again. And in between, she has been used as a model for coffee table compendiums, wall posters and other ephemera.

America didn’t know much of Afghanistan when the photo was snapped. What we did know even then was that it was a place where empires go to die. After all, the Soviet Union’s excursion would set of an economic ripple that by 1989 would level the great rival of the Cold War. Afghanistan was more than the USSR’s Vietnam, it was its Waterloo. As for the girl in the photo, so perfectly composed, so innocent and fiery, so beautiful, Steve McCurry captured humanity in a way that Da Vinci did with his medium centuries beforehand.

National Geographic’s team took this image at a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984. Her tribe of Pashto Muslims were being exterminated by Soviet gunships. She was orphaned shortly before this photo was taken of her. She was 12, before her age of maturity, before her wearing of the veil, and before her child marriage, as we would learn some years later.

Over the prevailing 17 years, no one knew what happened to “Afghan Girl.” But in America, her image became a cultural icon. Determined to find what had become of the magazine’s most successful cover girl, McCurry headed back to Afghanistan in 2002, with a team of scientist, to try to find those sea green eyes. McCurry found her, amazingly alive. If you are interested, her whole story is recounted in the April 2002 edition of the magazine.

Le Louvre - Mona Lisa

For this posting, I began with a sense of wonder at this image–a true modern icon like that of the Mona Lisa. I thought of approaching it a bit like an art historian, expounding on the composition (filling the frame in a near-triangular composition), use of color (greens and contrasting reds with a sfumato background), medium (glorious old Kodak Kodachome!) and context (as described above). No one who sees this image cannot help but be arrested by those eyes. Only later do you notice the tattered clothes, the dirt and grime and the overall intensity. Like the Mona Lisa, the image has lost some of its impact over time. As a work of art, it is a masterpiece. And the same qualities that make the Mona Lisa an icon are the same for Afghan Girl. For nearly two decades, so little was known about the sitter for this portrait that wild speculation filled the void. And given her age, she remained forever young in the eyes of the Western World, a vibrant gem among the killing fields of Afghanistan.

But that art critique is as far as I could go, for at what expense do Westerners get to exploit the girl in this portrait for art’s sake alone? After all, this is a picture of a pre-adolescent Muslim girl, whose religion forbids the iconic fascination with a “graven image.” While it tells the story of refugees, and surely creates a sense of pathos, I can’t help but feel a bit like a slum tourist after gazing too long. Her adulation by photography critics seems intrusive, if not an exercise in cultural voyeurism.

When McCurry found her years later, she seemed so very worn, so cold. This is of course due to custom–to speak to a man outside of one’s marriage is grounds for death in Afghanistan. Most astonishingly, when asked if she had ever seen this image, she said she had not. What could have McCurry and National Geographic expected? The first image was a photographer’s dream–capturing that perfect instant, serendipitously, and winning accolades. Going back to relive the moment seems a bit like going on vacation to the same place over and over–the first experience can never be recaptured. And in this poignant case, the young girl has grown up. Time has been no friend. Her fearful eyes now flash contempt and confusion.

When I read the April 2002 issue again, I realized the bittersweet nature of this art.  I have been a subscriber of this magazine since I was nine years old–a gift from my great uncle who gave me the world each month in my mailbox. I love their work–they are a worthy institution. They are not above criticism though. Taken once, the photo is artful. Taken and used again and again, this work is exploitative of another culture, and plucks the woman from her context. She is no celebrity, though many have made money off of her. She is no victim either. She is a survivor within her culture. And that to me is the frame for this portrait–a true enigma, like Mona Lisa. We think we know her so well, and yet we do not know her at all.

(NB–I have left out her most recent photo from the less famous April 2002 edition of the magazine. Some things are best left alone. We even know her name, but even that seems like an invasion that I am not willing to pass onward through my own blog. And yet, I too cannot look away.)

Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sharbat_Gula.jpg (See ‘Fair Use’ Rationale)

Mona Lisa Photo credit: Gregory Bastien / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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