Steve McCurry Faces

Steve McCurry has been a one of the most iconic voices in contemporary photography for more than 30 years, with scores of magazine and book covers, over a dozen books, and countless exhibitions around the world to his name.

Sharbat Gula is an Afghan woman who was the subject of this famous photo of Steve McCurry published by the National Geographic.

At the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in 1984, Gula’s photograph was taken by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry on Kodachrome color slide film, with a Nikon FM2 camera and Nikkor 105mm F2.5 lens. The pre-print photo retouching was done by Graphic Art Service, based in Marietta, Georgia. Gula was one of the students in an informal school within the refugee camp; McCurry seized a rare opportunity to photograph Afghan women and captured her image.

Although her name was not known, her picture, titled “Afghan Girl”, appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic. The image itself was named “the most recognized photograph” in the history of the magazine. The identity of the Afghan Girl remained unknown for over 17 years; Afghanistan remained largely closed to Western media until after the removal of the Taliban government by American troops and local allies in 2001. Although McCurry made several attempts during the 1990s to locate her, he was unsuccessful.
In January 2002, a National Geographic team traveled to Afghanistan to locate the subject of the now-famous photograph. McCurry, upon learning that the Nasir Bagh refugee camp was soon to close, inquired of its remaining residents, one of whom knew Gula’s brother and was able to send word to her hometown. However, there were a number of women who came forward and identified themselves erroneously as the famous Afghan Girl. In addition, after being shown the 1985 photo, a handful of young men falsely claimed Gula as their wife.

The team finally located Gula, then around the age of 30, in a remote region of Afghanistan; she had returned to her native country from the refugee camp in 1992. Her identity was confirmed using biometric technology, which matched her iris patterns to those of the photograph with almost full certainty. She vividly recalled being photographed—she had been photographed on only three occasions: in 1984 and during the search for her when a National Geographic producer took the identifying pictures that led to the reunion with Steve McCurry. She had never seen her famous portrait before it was shown to her in January 2002.