Steve McCurry’s famous photograph titled ‘The Afghan Girl’ was first revealed to the world on the cover of the National Geographic magazine in June 1985. It’s powerful ability to connect to its viewers is imperishable. Today it still creates new interest, raising awareness for the people of Afghanistan and their history.
The image was captured by McCurry in a tent which was being used as a girl’s school located at camp Nasir Bagh whilst on commission during the soviet war in 1984. The National Geographic assigned him the task of documenting the conditions to the growing number of refugee camps located on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Little did he know how influential the assignment would become on the rest of his career.
Whilst the photograph speaks volumes in the sense of representation for Afghan people, it embosses McCurry’s photographic approach. The portrait focuses full attention on the subject, the blank background is an out-of-focus luscious green emphasising the young girl’s impressive ambiguous eyes. There are no distractions. Her eye contact draws you in to analyse her. What you see is vulnerability but also her courageous resilience, the horrors she has witnessed is evident. “They are haunted and haunting, and in them you can read the tragedy of a land drained by war” (Newman, 2002). In the creator’s book titled ‘Untold The Stories Behind the Photographs’ McCurry explains his techniques used in order to achieve such a wonderful image; “I like to work in low light and shadow, and I tend to under expose in order to obtain richer, more saturated colours. Where there’s a sombre feel to my photos, it’s deliberate” (2013:75). The light that day was soft within the tent and provided him with the ideal environment to shoot in. His approach was well considered due to his prior knowledge of the subjects’ culture. The children possibly would have been experiencing their first encounter of someone of his ethnicity, and of a camera. Noticing the young girl’s shyness, he took photographs of the other children first in order to gain her confidence in him and encourage her to want to get involved and not to feel left out by not getting photographed like the other girls.
For an image to become iconic it needs to speak directly to its viewer, creating a connection that is both individual and universal. Historic painting the ‘Mona Lisa’ by Leonardo Da Vinci is globally very well known. It captivates its viewers by its mystery, like the Afghan Girl, the unknown identity of the sitter in the piece created unanswered questions, the expression on her face created confusion and wonder. The female figure’s eyes make contact with the viewer whom are left intrigued, eager to unearth the deeper meaning/story behind the portrait.
To produce a meaning from the image I will be using Jacques Derrida’s term deconstruction. There are many potential understandings which could be made and that is due to who the viewer of the image may be and what particular elements stand out and mean something to them. Literary critic Professor Barbara Johnson defines the term within her book: “Deconstruction is not synonymous with destruction, however. It is in fact much closer to the original meaning of the word analysis itself, which etymologically means “to undo” – a virtual synonym for “to de-construct.” (1980:5). What’s denoted in the picture is a young girl in a red shawl looking right into the camera lens. What is connoted is a frightened yet fierce young Pashtun girl with a powerful presence, wearing a slightly burn red shawl staring out from the photograph seemingly reaching out to the viewers’ conscious and hearts to feel compassion and empathy. The colours which are present within the image are very representational of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s national flag; the black of her dark brunette hair, shadows created by her shawl and edges in the background signifying their troubled past. The red of her shawl portraying the blood shed for their independence. The green of the background, her undergarment and eyes showing hope for the future and agricultural prosperity and the white of her eyes and blemishes upon her shawl representing the emblem. The strong look in her eye suggests the pain and suffering of her people. However, it also conveys their pride and dignity. At the time of post-processing before the magazine article was produced and published the picture editor originally preferred a different frame which still showed her remarkable eyes, however had her holding up her shawl covering the lower part of her face. Bill Garrett the magazine’s editor overruled the picture editor’s selection and Steve McCurry’s now legendary Afghan Girl photograph was published upon the cover.
The aim for any photojournalist is not only to take a good photograph but one that really makes a difference, one which captivates and motivates its viewers to participate in making a change. “If I find myself recording a tragedy, at least my images enable people to be better informed and may inspire them to help” McCurry (2013:87). Seventeen years after the photograph was captured McCurry returned to some of the locations of the refugee camps with a National Geographic Television Film Crew in search for the women in the picture. For those seventeen years no-one had known her name. Thankfully after much investigation and help from local people McCurry had the chance to once again meet the sitter of his famous portrait; Sharbat Gula. During this time Gula explained her hope for her children in having skills and an education. In March 2002 the National Geographic Society incepted the Afghan Girls Fund which receives donations to provide educational opportunities for Afghan girls and women. “I’ve received countless letters from people around the world who were inspired by the photograph to volunteer in refugee camps or do aid work in Afghanistan” (McCurry, 2002). In 2008 the scope for this fund broadened to include boys, changing its name to ‘The Afghan Childrens Fund’. Not many photographs have the ability to be so thought provoking and question humanity without graphic scenes of war and poverty within the frame. To capture an image so timeless due to its ability to enchant an audience in each new generation is a rarity and one to be cherished.
Word count: 1,043
Johnson, B. (1980) The Critical Difference, Baltimore & London: The John Hopkins University Press.
McCurry, S. (2013) Untold The Stories Behind the Photographs, London: Phaidon Press Limited.
Newman, C. (April 2002) A Life Revealed, National Geographic.
Demonstration of technical and visual skills
This assignment was very much revolved around visual awareness and acknowledging the approach of the photographer Steve McCurry. To complete the assignment, I had to successfully analyse the photograph he produced. I collected the information into a concise essay that was both factual and interesting to read. My referencing skills I think were correct and choices relevant to the piece.
Quality of outcome
The presentation of the essay is good, separated out in well thought out paragraphs which flow from one another. My ideas are well communicated the context showing good knowledge about the photograph.
Demonstration of creativity
To come to an understanding of the image I used my imagination to try relate to the person in the photograph and what she represented, to also recognise what the photographer’s intentions were and why the image was shot in the first place.
To understand the shot, I did a lot of research into the background behind it. The material I used was from articles, videos, websites and books. I didn’t want to go over the word count too much, if I had more allowance I might have taken comparing the photograph to other pieces of art further. However, the essay was descriptive without going too in-depth, rambling with detail. I was worried I had been a little repetitive but I don’t think this became an issue. My ability to complete a conclusion I think is much improved.
Tutor report :
- Touch on a few more points
- Direct reference to the images sign, signifer and signified
- The presence of the studium and the punctum
- Could this images be applied to current conflicts -FGM ? – would it still connect with the viewer
- Current news reports (migrant boy on the beach) focus on children
- The article that went along with the photograph – did the image support the words? were the words inspired by the now iconic image?
- Does the viewer know how to deconstruct
- Include a photograph of adult Sharbat
- Include a shot of Sharbat hiding her face – does this have the same impact & connect to its viewers
- Include two other references – one from the video documentary?