How They Found National Geographic's "Afghan Girl"

David Braun
National Geographic News
Updated March 7, 2003
This story was first published a year ago, in March 2002, when the
National Geographic Society announced that the "Afghan Girl" had been
A National Geographic EXPLORER documentary airing in the
United States on Sunday, March 9, 2003, tells the whole story,
including an interview with Sharbat Gula.

She was one of the world's most famous faces, yet no one knew who she was. Her image appeared on the front of magazines and books, posters, lapel pins, and even rugs, but she didn't know it. Now, after searching for 17 years, National Geographic has once again found the Afghan girl with the haunting green eyes.

The mysterious Afghan girl whose direct gaze has intrigued the West for so long is Sharbat Gula. She lives in a remote region of Afghanistan with her husband and three daughters.

Sharbat was located nearly two decades after her picture appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1985. She had no idea her face had become an icon, said Steve McCurry, the photographer who made the famous portrait for National Geographic in 1984, and who tried to find her again during many subsequent trips he made to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

McCurry's photo of the girl was selected as the cover of National Geographic 100 Best Pictures.

In January 2002, a National Geographic team returned to the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan, where Sharbat Gula was originally photographed, to search for her. She was identified through a series of contacts that led to her brother and husband, who agreed to ask her if she was willing to be interviewed.

Sharbat has been photographed on only two occasions: in 1984 and at the reunion with Steve McCurry this year. She had never seen her famous portrait before it was shown to her in January.

"This is the face that so captivated not only National Geographic readers but also anyone who saw her image around the world," said Boyd Matson, host of the National Geographic television show EXPLORER, who was with the group that met with Gula.

"We've known her face, but we've not known her story, not even her name," he said.

Final Search

National Geographic set out to make one last concerted effort to find the "Afghan girl" before the refugee camp in Pakistan where she had last been seen was demolished.

From the camp, the trail wound through several villages and into at least one dead end, until someone recognized the girl on the cover of National Geographic and said he knew her brother.

"The second I saw the color of her brother's eyes, I knew we had the right family," said Matson.

Because Sharbat Gula lives a traditional Muslim life behind the veil, she was not allowed to meet men outside her family. But the Geographic team was given permission to send a female associate producer to meet Sharbat and photograph her face.

Matson said that when he compared the photograph of the woman with that of the girl, he was certain it was the same person. "The irises of the eyes, the moles and scar on the face—all indicated this was the person we were looking for," he said.

Still, to make sure Sharbat Gula was the girl who had been photographed 17 years earlier, the EXPLORER team obtained verification through iris-scanning technology and face-recognition techniques used by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

After Sharbat's family granted permission for her to meet with the man who photographed her 17 years ago, McCurry knew immediately, even after so many years, that he had found her again. "Her eyes are as haunting now as they were then," he said.

"She remembered me, primarily because she had never been photographed before I made the image of her in 1984, or since then," he said.

Sharbat Gula recalled the experience of being photographed as a child, she told McCurry, because she remembered how her head covering was full of holes after being scorched by a cooking fire.

When they met again, McCurry told Sharbat her image had become famous as a symbol of the Afghan people. "I don't think she was particularly interested in her personal fame," McCurry said. "But she was pleased when we said she had come to be a symbol of the dignity and resilience of her people."

The award-winning photographer said his original image of Sharbat had seized the imagination of so many people around the world because her face, particularly her eyes, expressed pain and resilience as well as strength and beauty.

Sharbat Tells Her Story

When Sharbat agreed to have her picture taken for the second time in her life, she came out from the secrecy of her veil to tell her story. She wanted the people around the world who knew her face to know that she survived the refugee camp in Pakistan.

She married and had four daughters, one of whom died in infancy. She lives in obscurity, according to the customs and traditions of her culture and religion.

A member of the Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan, Sharbat said she fared relatively well under Taliban rule, which, she feels, provided a measure of stability after the chaos and terror of the Soviet war.

According to Matson and McCurry, Sharbat Gula has returned to anonymity; the latest publicity about her name and face is unlikely to draw attention to her in Afghanistan. "She will not give another media interview and she wishes not to be contacted," Matson said. Her family has relocated to a different village in a remote part of Afghanistan, where she will continue to live her life in purdah, he added.

Asked if Sharbat would benefit financially from her famous image, Matson said she was "being looked after."

"Clearly she has become a symbol that National Geographic has used to illustrate the circumstances of refugees like her, and many people have inquired about her," he said. "She stood for an entire group of refugees, not just Afghan refugees. She has helped us with our mission of educating people about other cultures and regions—and she's helping us again by drawing attention to the lives of Afghan women and girls in general."

Related Feature: Change Slow for Afghan Women

Because Sharbat Gula has come to symbolize the suffering of an entire generation of Afghan women and their children, the National Geographic Society is creating a special fund to assist in the development and delivery of educational opportunities for young Afghan women and girls. The Society will work with select nonprofit organizations and local authorities in the region to create the program.

Contributions can be made online to the National Geographic Afghan Girls Fund or by sending a check directly to the National Geographic Afghan Girls Fund, Development Office, National Geographic Society, 1145 17th Street N.W., Washington, D.C., 20036.

Sharbat Gula's life is the subject of the cover story in the April issue of
National Geographic, and the process of finding her and verifying her identity is detailed in a television documentary from National Geographic EXPLORER, broadcast in the United States on MSNBC and internationally on the National Geographic Channel.

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