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McCurry's famous 'Afghan girl' portrait almost never published

By dpreview staff on Oct 21, 2013 at 11:00 GMT

Nearly everyone has seen photographer Steve McCurry’s striking 1985 National Geographic cover portrait of Afghan refugee Sharbat Gula, but it was nearly left on the cutting room floor. He revels the story behind the picture in his new book, “Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs.”

McCurry only took a handful of frames before the young girl got up. Editors at National Geographic came close to picking a different image for their cover. The photo editor at the time chose an image with Gula’s hands covering her face, but the magazine’s editor made a change at the last minute.

An alternate frame by McCurry that almost made the cover of National Geographic in 1985.

In more than 30 years as a photographer, McCurry has covered war zones to natural disasters, but he’ll be remembered for the shot of "The Afghan Girl" with piercing green eyes. 

National Geographic cover shot of Afghan refugee Sharbat Gula (left) and photographer Steve McCurry (right).

He told TODAY: "I knew it was a powerful portrait. But I never dreamed in a million years this would become an iconic photograph." 

Source: TODAY

Comments

Total comments: 59
Nishi Drew
By Nishi Drew (5 months ago)

Well there are A LOT of great, amazing, perfect moment photos that have never been published, and will probably never be widely seen thanks to the good ones drowning in millions of other photos every week.
This photo is great, and I won't even say "I've seen better" because there isn't any other like this, but the only good photos you know are the one's you've seen, and at the end of the day that's what it's all about; exposure

0 upvotes
vikveda
By vikveda (6 months ago)

A brilliant,powerful portrait,for generations to enjoy.
Me thinks this is what photography is all about."CAPTURE THE MOMENT" simple.
The PHOTO just makes me happy every time i see it.
Only once in a while you come across something so captivating.
It could be professionalism,luck or anything else.
Thank you photographer & N.G.
vik.durban.

0 upvotes
Yanko Kitanov
By Yanko Kitanov (6 months ago)

Always a pleasure to look at - thank for posting! Especially after the hipster "photography".

0 upvotes
fcimbar
By fcimbar (6 months ago)

Once seen, you will never forget those eyes.

1 upvote
RudivanS
By RudivanS (6 months ago)

Good photographer and salesman too.
Has the Afghan refugee Sharbat Gula ever received any kind of compensation?

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
grablife
By grablife (6 months ago)

Yes. http://www.phaidon.com/agenda/photography/events/2011/september/07/revealed-the-true-story-behind-the-afghan-mona-lisa/

Comment edited 5 minutes after posting
1 upvote
budi0251
By budi0251 (6 months ago)

Good or bad, you can only get that look of hers when your life and environment does shaped it like that for you (not an easy life).

To those whom thinks that the picture is very powerful, it is because their environment is opposite of her; the more opposite the bigger the impact.

Is it good or bad?
It merely everyone just livin' their part in this life.

Steeve McCurry, I believe he is part of a good life environment background, which he chose to dwell in "God forsaken places" for a "slice" of the moment to be presented to the people in a "good life environment" and feel the impact of "being human".

Is it good or bad?

to the people of his subject, it really doesn't matter nor have any impact.
Go and ask her, she didn't even realize the value of her photo until Steeve made contact again tracking her; yet it still doesn't mean anything at all to her, cause that's her life.

We'd might say with words that her environment is "not good", but still, it doesn't matter at all.

1 upvote
Vitasamb2001
By Vitasamb2001 (6 months ago)

"As Cherie Hiser has said: 10,000 negatives 1,000 prints 100 good ones 10 great ones 1 is all they remember."

1 upvote
Ian
By Ian (6 months ago)

What odd comments on this article - they are the most unusual I've ever seen on this site. I think the variety and number of comments speaks to the power of this photo, no matter how you feel about it.

0 upvotes
Neloy Sinha
By Neloy Sinha (6 months ago)

Already there are many opinions. I agree that this is an iconic shot. But what about her fate? Her living conditions did not improve. She still shares poverty and ignominious life in remote and rural Afghanistan. While N Geographic increased its circulation among elite circle, that lady lives the life of obscurity. Rather too much propaganda might shower wrath of undue fundamentalist attention on her. It is too late to rescue her destiny and her family from the vicious cycle of war ravaged Afghanistan. She is the mute symbolic icon of millions of women suffered from unnecessary show piece of war anywhere in the world.

4 upvotes
happyeds
By happyeds (3 months ago)

Neloy, honestly your questions, concerns and deep thoughts would be better served at the United Nations. The following quote came to mind after reading your intellectual assessment of the photo.

"Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of "meanings." Susan Sontag

0 upvotes
munro harrap
By munro harrap (6 months ago)

You all seem to be debating an image merely because it is here on show again.
It is here on show again, is a clue. You all take pictures this good all the time, but they are not published on covers etc because you do not work in the industry.

The girl's history and the circumstances cannot be gauged from the shot- it's just a snap, and because she has big eyes it is attractive- like TV presenters with big eyes- think The Gadget Show....

So the media are manipulating you as usual, which is why I quit 40 years ago. The choice of this image is fiscal- they chose the pic they knew would sell the magazine- like a page 3 girl in the Sun. It has nothing to do with photography at all, but money- its the money shot.

Comment edited 53 seconds after posting
1 upvote
ellerix
By ellerix (6 months ago)

Let me disagree, it's not just a snapshot. It's a masterpiece. As in many McCurry works you can see all the dignity of the person in this picture, all her desperation, everything.
It's not the big, beautiful green eyes, it's something more. something that I can find in every McCurry book I've read.
bye

0 upvotes
Zvonimir Tosic
By Zvonimir Tosic (6 months ago)

Yes, and I *almost* got married to Kate Middleton.

0 upvotes
reality_check
By reality_check (6 months ago)

I bet the feminist loved that picture, but what about the boys and men who defended that girl and others and who died! I guess dead people cannot speak and probably don't make great photographs! :)

0 upvotes
Jennnifer
By Jennnifer (6 months ago)

How strange to begrudge a picture of an orphaned girl in a refuge camp. I hate to tell you but the popularity of that picture isn't due to some feminist conspiracy.

1 upvote
JWest
By JWest (6 months ago)

You're right, women should never be photographed in case there is a man somewhere who is more deserving.

2 upvotes
BHGeorge
By BHGeorge (6 months ago)

Nothing against Steve really, never met the man, but I am so tired of seeing this image year after year, endlessly promoted by NG or him. I've really come to dislike it as a result, sorry.

4 upvotes
Meanie
By Meanie (6 months ago)

That photograph may be overly "promoted", but what great image is not? Like the couple kissing on VE day, it has become part of our national consciousness. I had always assumed it was something of a lucky shot until I came across McCurry's website. His photographs are simply amazing! Now I am convinced that he is one of our greatest living photographers. Check it out. I don't care if he is less than gentle in workshops, the humanity in his life's work is unmistakeable.

1 upvote
Mr Fartleberry
By Mr Fartleberry (6 months ago)

It's not like it's not a good photo (you do know why it was used?) but the never-endless promotion makes me puke.

Let's move on, this didn't win the second world war. And there are far better photographers that those that worked for NG.

How many times has Amazon (aka DPR) plugged this old old shot this year?

Get real people.

1 upvote
AustinB
By AustinB (6 months ago)

I met McCurry a few weeks back and he was an extremely humble and nice person. It's not so much him that keeps talking about the pic but the general public- it's just something very much associated with him. He has exceptional skills and has hundreds if not thousands of great pics, but for some reason people have latched on to this particular photo.

5 upvotes
fcimbar
By fcimbar (6 months ago)

Sharbat Gula -şerbet güle in Turkish- What a self-explanatory name ! Everything happens for a reason.

'Şerbet' means 'Candy', 'Güle' means 'let fate make her smile'

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 5 minutes after posting
2 upvotes
montoniphotography
By montoniphotography (6 months ago)

too much time with the same, McCurry is on the way to be a overrated photographer

3 upvotes
Mr Fartleberry
By Mr Fartleberry (6 months ago)

The Banksy of the eighties?

0 upvotes
Almeida
By Almeida (6 months ago)

Meh not enough bokeh.

10 upvotes
Nicholas Pitt
By Nicholas Pitt (6 months ago)

have always admired his work but I did a workshop with him a few years back and discovered a whole other side to the man... when he did eventually turn up he was simply a very little nasty man, reducing one participant to tears seemingly just for the fun of it... avoid his workshops at all costs!

6 upvotes
Mr Fartleberry
By Mr Fartleberry (6 months ago)

So many dullards don't realize the truth behind these old endlessly promoted myths. .

1 upvote
InTheMist
By InTheMist (6 months ago)

It's an amazing, thought-provoking candid portrait.

It would have been a shame if it hadn't been selected.

0 upvotes
Mr Fartleberry
By Mr Fartleberry (6 months ago)

Born yesterday?

1 upvote
InTheMist
By InTheMist (6 months ago)

Thank you for the constructive comment.

I saw this image on the cover of my grandmother's National Geographic when it came out. It never stops being a great photo.

0 upvotes
D1N0
By D1N0 (6 months ago)

Well if not for fate none of the people in this story would have ever been alive, let alone all of them at the same time in a position to make this photo happen. So one photo getting picked and not the other seems rather mundane to me.

0 upvotes
Paul Farace
By Paul Farace (6 months ago)

it is not only one of the most important images of the 20th century, but likely could become the photographic version of the Mona Lisa, IMHO. The shot of the girl with her mouth covered is a great image, but it leaves the viewer wondering if she is smiling behind her veil or frowning (the eyes can go either way) ... the cover shot leaves no ambiguity (and is very much like Mona Lisa's smile). To me in the 1980s it touched me as a girl suffering as a refugee from Soviet aggression... today we see the real horror... a girl photographed in the mid 1980s who is living in a world stuck in the very dark ages. This image and the later shot of Sharbat as a woman, printed 18 feet tall, is the centerpiece of the NGS 50 top covers traveling the world right now (currently in Singapore). It took my breath away when I saw it there, and caused a lump in my throat (again). If there were a dictionary entry for "the power of photography" this would be the illustration!

18 upvotes
3dreal
By 3dreal (6 months ago)

With all the made money, did her family get help?

3 upvotes
cruz031
By cruz031 (6 months ago)

Yes they have. From telegraph uk: '....At that point, McCurry decided to “give back”. He and National Geographic arranged for Gula’s daughter to have a sewing machine; they paid her family’s medical bills; they organised a trip to Mecca for Gula and her husband; and they set up a charity, The Afghan Girl’s Fund, to provide education for women in Afghanistan.'

Comment edited 49 seconds after posting
12 upvotes
QuarryCat
By QuarryCat (6 months ago)

I never liked the portrait with the peering eyes - i don't like the artificial green background - but I love his other, even more realistic picture with the hands and the living eyes - thanks a lot for showing it here!

1 upvote
Paul Farace
By Paul Farace (6 months ago)

artificial green background??? Unless you were there when it was taken, I think you might want to consider that background to be a scrap of Russian shipping container metal (that green is one of their favorite colors) that ended up as someone's living quarters in a refugee camp!

7 upvotes
Dennis
By Dennis (6 months ago)

What background? I only saw eyes...

5 upvotes
EssexAsh
By EssexAsh (6 months ago)

the guy clearly went mad with the saturation slider. Look at the reds in the two. Much prefer the first image.

0 upvotes
Rmano
By Rmano (6 months ago)

Film. It was film. I imagine there were some similar thing to saturation slider, but I really think the colors are real. Look at the lips. I remember seeing this photo in NG in Italy, when first published, in the newsstands... And this tells a lot about photo.

1 upvote
Scott Birch
By Scott Birch (6 months ago)

"Saturation slider?" How old are you?

2 upvotes
AustinB
By AustinB (6 months ago)

Artificial? Saturation slider?... Take a look at his work. He often moves people into soft light and next to colorful walls to add dimension to a pic.

0 upvotes
DRG
By DRG (6 months ago)

I think the vulnerability of the open face combined with the piercing power of the girl's eyes looking directly at you make the chosen portrait far more powerful than this almost-was selection. Not that this alternate choice is anything but great, but I don't think it had a chance of becoming iconic.

1 upvote
guyfawkes
By guyfawkes (6 months ago)

The photo that was published is the one that does it for me, and I find it far superior to the one that was pulled.

The girl connects directly with the camera and photographer and her gaze is concentrated on them. But what lies behind that glaring look?

In the other image, this direct connection is missing, leaving me to wonder what she is looking at and what causes her to bring her hands up in front of her face in apparent fear of something we can't see. Or is she simply covering her face as a Muslim woman would in front of men?

4 upvotes
SammyToronto
By SammyToronto (6 months ago)

The photo they almost picked would've been equally good, imo. Those piercing green eyes would make almost any photo taken of that girl (by a knowledgeable photographer) a work of art.

0 upvotes
cruz031
By cruz031 (6 months ago)

Is 'published' image post-processed ? I'm asking this because in alternate frame, colors are not so vibrant....

1 upvote
fcimbar
By fcimbar (6 months ago)

My all-time favorite photo. Congrats Steve McCurry.
They are both icons !

3 upvotes
Bernard D
By Bernard D (6 months ago)

He did go back and found her as an adult, and was able to take pictures of her grown up, along with her husband. She obviously had no idea her child's face was iconic. It is a powerful image !

3 upvotes
Alpha Whiskey Photography
By Alpha Whiskey Photography (6 months ago)

I like both images. Equally striking. Hope the girl (now woman) is doing well.

0 upvotes
jreichert
By jreichert (6 months ago)

Hi Alpha Whiskey, here Juliet Romeo ;-).
Well the Afghan "Girl" has a life like many Afghan women I guess. You should really check out this wonderful report in which Steve Mc Curry searches for this Afghan Girl.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Uw0JukBGmk

0 upvotes
mb65
By mb65 (6 months ago)

I never liked this photo. The expression of the girl is simply exaggerated in an unnatural way. But given the results and positive comments I am obviously wrong.
Best regards
Mattia

6 upvotes
Faisalee
By Faisalee (6 months ago)

I am sure it was the first time she was posing for a shoot :)

3 upvotes
mjbauer
By mjbauer (6 months ago)

Yes, you are....

7 upvotes
ToolMan78
By ToolMan78 (6 months ago)

If her expression seemed at all disingenuous this image would have seemed tacky. But the intensity of her gaze coupled with the seeming honesty of it made this image the success it became. Those are my ¢2 at least.

6 upvotes
mcshan
By mcshan (6 months ago)

The greatness of the photo is that anybody could have taken it. That is what has always made it so striking.

3 upvotes
Ferling
By Ferling (6 months ago)

@mcshan that's the point of NG photographers. While technical ability is expected. Having access is key, and it I'm sure it took work, planning and financial support, etc. Things that many shooters don't have or would bother doing. Especially considering the technology of 80's.

3 upvotes
ShelNf
By ShelNf (6 months ago)

Steve McCurry just called to tell you he doesn't care.

0 upvotes
Rage Joe
By Rage Joe (6 months ago)

The greatness of that photo lies in the truthfulness of that girl. In many ways she can be concidered the creator of the image. Not to say she wasn't a brilliant choice of the photographer and the editor in chief.

3 upvotes
mcshan
By mcshan (6 months ago)

Thank you Ferling. I enjoyed your post.

0 upvotes
Faisalee
By Faisalee (6 months ago)

The Eyes! My all time favorite portrait...

2 upvotes
Total comments: 59