Behind the Cover: October 2013

A familiar face looks out from the October cover of National Geographicmagazine. 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.

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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

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