National Geographic News
Behind the Cover: October 2013
By Jeremy Berlin
Associate Editor, National Geographic magazine
Published October 4, 2013

A familiar face looks out from the October cover of National Geographic magazine. It belongs to Sharbat Gula, better known as the "Afghan girl." Her intense, haunting portrait was taken by photographer Steve McCurry in 1984, when he met the orphaned Gula–then about 12 years old–at a refugee camp in Afghanistan.

The picture, first published on the cover of the June 1985 edition, became an instant icon. Small wonder, then, that National Geographic's editors chose to put Gula on the cover again for the 125th anniversary issue, which focuses on the power of photography. (See National Geographic magazine's update on Gula in "A Life Revealed.")

"For me personally, the Afghan girl photo is such a meaningful choice for the anniversary issue because she makes me wonder what she is thinking and what she has been through," says Editor in Chief Chris Johns. "We wanted to honor the impact this picture had on readers around the world. Great photos stand the test of time. It is as relevant today as when it was made."

"She is our Mona Lisa," adds director of photography Sarah Leen. "She is woven into our history, and we are woven into hers."

This time the Afghan girl has company on the cover. A pullout features more than 100 photos, most of which were published in past issues. Here's a bit of background on ten of the most intriguing.

British model Cassandra Wheatley holds a silicone mask of her face.

This photo of an unnervingly human mask was taken in 2002 by Leen, who was a photographer before she was a photo editor. She took this picture—of British model Cassandra Wheatley holding a silicone replica of her own face—for a story about the science of skin. The detailed, state-of-the-art mask captures the look, and nearly the feel, of real human tissue.

Photograph by Sarah Leen, National Geographic

Picture of Islamic women and a girl during the Feast of the Sacrifice

Facing the dawn, women (and a girl) from an An-Nadzir commune stand together at the beginning of Islam's Feast of the Sacrifice, which celebrates the Koran's account of God sparing the prophet Ismail. James Nachtwey took this shot in Sulawesi, Indonesia, in 2007.

Photograph by James Nachtewy VII, National Geographic

Picture of sea slugs called nudibranchs

A pair of colorful, seagoing slugs called nudibranchs—photographed 11 years ago by David Doubilet in Queensland, Australia—live fully exposed, with naked gills forming tufts on their back. They defend themselves with poisonous secretions and stinging cells. A career underwater photographer, Doubilet took the plunge early on. He began to photograph at age 12, the year his father took him to the Bahamas and he saw a coral reef for the first time. To capture the riot of color in the seldom-seen realm of the nudibranch, Doubilet decided to isolate them. "Nudibranchs are complex animals that are hard to grasp visually," says Doubilet. "So we gave them their own plexiglass mini-studio underwater and they wouldn’t have to leave their element."

Photograph by David Doubilet, National Geographic

Picture of bile being illegally pumped from a sedated bear

At a farm in Hanoi, Vietnam, bile is pumped from a sedated Asiatic black bear. The practice—a violation of national law—helps supply the insatiable demand for traditional medicines in Asia. Mark Leong took this picture for a 2010 story about Asia's wildlife trade

Photograph by Mark Leong, National Geographic

Picture of a California wildfire consuming a building, camper, and truck.

A raging wildfire in California reduces a building, a camper, and a truck to incandescent skeletons. In 1996, staff photographer Mark Thiessen began a personal photography project on wildland firefighters that took him to the front lines of wildfires every summer. To better understand the world of this little known subculture, he became a certified wildland firefighter.

Photograph by Mark O. Thiessen, National Geographic

Picture of a reconstructed Neanderthal woman.

This life-size reconstruction of a Neanderthal woman was created to illustrate "The Last of the Neanderthals," the cover article in the October 2008 issue of National Geographic magazine. Paleo-artists and scientific consultants used information from 38,000-year-old DNA preserved in cannibalized bones that suggested that at least some Neanderthals would have had red hair, pale skin, and possibly freckles. It took paleo-artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis about six months to complete the model, nicknamed Wilma after the redheaded Flintstones character. Taken by Joe McNally, the shot reveals a face not unlike our own.

Photograph by Joe McNally, National Geographic

Picture of two girls dress as lobsters at an annual festival in Maine.

Cheerful "crustaceans," complete with boiled-red shells and padded claws, get into the spirit of a pageant at the Maine Lobster Festival. The annual event began in 1947. Luis Marden took this photo for a story in 1952.

Photograph by Luis Marden, National Geographic

Picture of American explorer Robert Peary scanning the horizon near the North Pole.

In this 1909 photograph he took himself, Robert Peary scans the horizon from his camp near the North Pole. He was long credited as the first to reach the Pole, but not all historians are convinced that he actually did.

Photograph by Robert E. Peary, National Geographic

Picture of a tourist in China sitting on the back of a yak.

With a borrowed robe and faltering courage, Sha Mengxiang—a tourist in China's Qinghai Province—sits atop a yak for a portrait taken in 2006 by Fritz Hoffmann. Pilgrims sometimes circumambulate Qinghai Lake, the largest in China.

Photograph by Fritz Hoffmann, National Geographic

Picture of a man wearing cutting-edge contact lenses with digital maps of his own irises.

A pioneer in iris-recognition technology, scientist John Daugman wears special contact lenses with digital maps of his own irises. George Steinmetz took this photo of him in Cambridge, England, in 2002.

That same year photographer Steve McCurry located "Afghan girl" Sharbat Gula in a remote part of Afghanistan. Then he took her picture again—18 years after the iconic original. Daugman used iris-recognition algorithms to confirm that the two portraits were indeed of the same person.

Photograph by George Steinmetz, National Geographic

Published October 2, 2013

M. Gianni
M. Gianni

La Chica Afgana ha sido un emblema de ustedes , conocida en todo el mundo, pero nunca había visto de los osos pardos , que le sacan la bilis, sin anestesia a veces , algo horrible.. arcaico. El hombre es el depredador mas grande del planeta..!♥.

Gouri RoyChowdhury
Gouri RoyChowdhury

Till today my favorite National Geographic photo is  'The Afghan Girl.' 

Steven Wilson
Steven Wilson

Just grabbed my copy yesterday, it is a very meaningful and inspiring issue to me as i travel the road to discover my own world and others with my DSLR. One image could be filled with more  than 1 million words, but I like to leave it to the viewers to interpret what they see into their own.. Kind of like music, one song can have many meanings to different people. 

Nagraj V.
Nagraj V.

Powerful images convey more than million words...


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