Sharbat Gula: The iconic face of the refugee struggle

Steve McCurry, who famously photographed the green-eyed Afghan girl in the 1980s, speaks to Al Jazeera about her plight.

Award-winning photographer Steve McCurry in 1984 captured what would become one of the world’s most recognised photos of human struggle.

The striking gaze and piercing green eyes of Sharbat Gula – who became known as The Afghan Girl – captivated the world when it appeared on the cover of National Geographic.

Her face reflected the hardships of refugees fleeing war. McCurry first photographed Gula by chance at the Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan.

Eighteen years later, he found her and again captured her image, this time living in Afghanistan’s mountainous Tora Bora region.

This past week the Afghan woman was again catapulted into the spotlight, only this time as a criminal. She was arrested by Pakistani authorities for falsifying identification documents.

She is one of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees in Pakistan being told to return home.

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Islamabad, Omar Zakhilwal, recently released a statement expressing optimism about Gula’s release as she awaits a court hearing in early November.

Al Jazeera spoke with McCurry, from Munich, Germany about the plight of the girl he introduced to the world.

Steve McCurry, photographer

Al Jazeera: You famously photographed Sharbat Gula twice in two decades. What do those images represent?

Steve McCurry: The photo in 1984 showed her dignity, innocence, heart, fortitude and perseverance. She humanised the true struggle for war refugees globally with no words spoken, simply her face.

I think there was a bit of defiance in her expression. Her face defined the collective refugee feeling and the struggle. I think all Afghans have a common feeling that they’re in a difficult life, but we’re going to power through this and preserve. Her face was troubled, but her head was held high.

When we found her again back in 2002, she was a mother, continuing her struggle to try to make ends meet for her family. We saw an evolution of difficulty transcend on her face. She looked hardened because of the climate, anxiety, lack of proper hygiene, poor nutrition. Despite all she’s endured, she’s still going.

I want to continue to help this person who’s been part of my life. I feel we do have this connection.

Al Jazeera: Do you ever wonder why Gula was so captivating in the Western world?

McCurry: I’ve never been able to nail that down to one reason, depending on who you ask. It’s not just her eyes; there are many components to the photograph. You can say people in the West feel a certain way about how people on the other side of the world should look.

In seeing this current global refugee crisis, it’s almost like people in Europe and the US are scared of refugees. Or they simply don’t want the burden of hosting them. But we forget none are actually more scared than the refugees themselves. They are forced from their country, their homes. Desperate people do desperate things.

Sharbat is a widow trying to raise her children. She lost her parents, her husband, one of her daughters, and her brother. There is a lack of compassion for refugees.

Al Jazeera: The world has seen her, but how do you think she sees the world? Does she truly understand how iconic you’ve helped her to become?

US photographer Steve McCurry poses next to his photos of the 'Afghan Girl' Sharbat Gula in Hamburg in 2013 [Ulrich Perrey/AFP/Getty Images]
US photographer Steve McCurry poses next to his photos of the ‘Afghan Girl’ Sharbat Gula in Hamburg in 2013 [Ulrich Perrey/AFP/Getty Images]

McCurry: I think she was mystified with all the interest, but she understands the interest. She would want the best for her children, for them to have the best opportunities and have a healthy life, like any parent would. Even though she’s been offered to relocate to a safer country, there’s no place like home. She wants to be near her relatives, this is all she knows.

If she had gone to another country, she would have had a very different life. But she chose not to. She remains humble to her life and to her struggle. We keep in touch periodically through my contacts on the ground.

The world sees the humanity in her. She wants the same things we do, but she lives in another part of the world.

Al Jazeera: Having lived nearly her whole life impoverished, has she profited at all from this global attention?

McCurry: Yes, the details are confidential – I can’t get into specifics. It was an agreement reached between her and her husband at the time, as that’s how things are done in the culture.

Al Jazeera: Will you try to photograph her again? 

McCurry: The only thing I want is for justice to be done, and for her to be treated in a respectful and dignified way.

When I finally found her back in 2002, I couldn’t stop thinking about the thousands of people who wrote letters to me, who wanted to know who she was and how they could help her. People wanted to adopt her, marry her, send her money. Personally for me, I was so curious as to who she was.

Back then, I was the number one person who wanted to find her. She embodies humanity. There’s an empathy we feel with her. The first time I found her, she had a torn dress. This was a girl who was haunted, but has light. Her humanity, dignity, and character is something we can all identify with and appreciate.

There’s something written on her face that we can relate to. It’s a positive feeling, but a very sad reality.

She had a haunted gaze that was so authentic. I took the genuine story I was given. She represented all refugees at that time, and I think will continue to do so.

An owner of a bookshop shows a copy of a magazine with the famous photograph of Afghan refugee Sharbat Gula [BK Bangash/AP]
An owner of a bookshop shows a copy of a magazine with the famous photograph of Afghan refugee Sharbat Gula [BK Bangash/AP]
Source: Al Jazeera