Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Sharbat Gula and Me

I first saw her in June 1985 - as did the world at large - when she appeared on the cover of National Geographic. I guessed she was about my age and I was fascinated, and envious, of her beauty.

At that time, boys walked right by me to chat-up my friends, so attractiveness was something to be dissected and tentatively copied. This girl, without make-up or the enhancements of Photoshop, had a face that could launch a thousand ships. What was her secret?

I’d like to pretend that I was not a shallow teenage girl and that I went on to read the article and educated myself about the world she came from. But I did not. Her image, however, I could not overlook.

I spotted her again in a bookshop several years later. She was on the cover of National Geographic’s 100 Best Pictures. The image chosen to sell a superlative selection from an archive of most compelling photographs on the planet. Not bad, mystery girl.  

And life rumbled on.

Then last year a friend suggested I read A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. The story of two Afghan women, it spans three decades and rips your heart out. My mystery girl was back. In trying to picture Mariam, the spirited girl in the novel, my mind returned time and again to this photograph.

Where was that copy of National Geographic?

A quick hunt in the attic put my hands on it, and with a shudder I found out, at last, that the girl in the picture was a refugee. From Afghanistan. Her age and origin placed her much closer to the world of A Thousand Splendid Suns than merely looking like I imagined one of the characters to look. 

The National Geographic article said very little about her, though, and I wondered what had happened to her since 1985.

The Internet is a wonderful thing. Five minutes searching and the full story is now in front of me.

Steve McCurry was the photographer. He had the briefest moment to take this photograph in a Pakistan refugee camp. When he did, he had no idea the image would become one of most famous in the world. He did not ask her name or her story. So for 17 years this photo has simply been known as the Afghan Girl.

But - and you can see why - people wanted to know who she was, and if the horrors in the news had engulfed her. So in 2002 McCurry went back to find her. And remarkably, he did.

She has survived.

Her name is Sharbat Gula (in English, sweetwater flower girl) and her story does not dilute the power of the photograph, it explains it. Do take time to read it here, at the National Geographic website.

So why did I pick this as My Favourite Photograph? 

Her looks still floor me, of course. And how ironic that a beautiful female face has become an ambassador for a place where female faces are hidden. But now I also recognise that her authenticity is part of the shock. My world is saturated with contrived and posed images; the ones I take as well as those pushed at me from all sides. The real and potent emotions caught here – this was the first time she had been photographed - are astonishing, and astonishingly apposite for a girl escaping Afghanistan.

My six year old daughter saw the photo for the first time as I was researching this blog, and said “she looks very angry and very sad”. Sharbat Gula was also six when Soviet bombing killed her parents.

Which brings me to her relevance. Not just to recent history but, I predict, to a headline I will read next week. I do hope I can look at this image again, one day, and add "relief" to the layers of emotions it evokes.

Passing on the Meme

“My Favourite Photograph” is an internet meme where bloggers - erm - post a favourite photograph. I was tagged by @kellyfairy to take part when she posted a wonderful photo from her wedding on her blog A Place of My Own. I initially posted a personal photograph to take-up the idea, but then decided I was being lazy. So this is my second go.

I like this meme. It’s very versatile. I invite any bloggers our there to consider themselves tagged, but extend a special invitation to:

Serene Babe in It's All About We
Nene Labeet in La Beet
Debra Snider in Women at Work 
Kara in Karacornflake 
Laura Anderson in Miss Read  
Miss Whistle in Miss Whistle   
Titan Red in Really Should Know Better
Inshin in Inshin's Blog

As ever, please only take part if you know you'll find this richly rewarding. 


  1. I really enjoyed this blog entry.

    Besides the fact that the picture is amazing and worthy of a reminder, the style & content reminds us how an image can have a very powerful effect on us - and that can be so unique or we can see how similar we all are underneath !

  2. Thank you La Beet for writing your take on this meme. A most enjoyable read awaits you over at


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