They say that a picture can speak a thousand words. And that sometimes photographs can tell you about social issues, feelings and the times that we live in more effectively than any other medium. One such picture is the Afghan Girl, one of the most famous, striking and memorable captures in the modern times. You don’t have to be a regular reader of The National Geographic magazine to have come across this unforgettable capture. But this capture isn’t without its share of controversies too. An article by The Wire sheds light on how photographer Steve McCurry captured this striking image of Sharbat Gula in 1985, and how we have been reading it wrong, all along. These revelations are a fine lesson in how journalistic images can often be orchestrated. And why we shouldn’t let them colour our perception.

SOME TAKEAWAYS

  • The Afghan Girl is one of the most famous, striking and memorable captures in the modern times.
  • The photographer of this image allegedly compelled Sharbat Gula to participate in the shoot.
  • Considering that Gula came from a conservative background, this seems to be a gross violation of her agency and consent.
  • Can we still look at this image without seeing the erasure of its subject’s consent?

Over the years I’ve seen this portrait of the Afghan girl in tattered clothing innumerable times. The photograph has been featured in many dailies, magazines and on numerous websites post its initial publication. Inevitably, those fiery green eyes, that colour contrast, and that mix of fear and anger in her expressions will draw you to it.

This picture emulated refugee crisis at its rawest for many of us. Little did we know that McCurry subtly overrode Gula’s consent, to take her picture.

According to The Wire, when Sharbat Gula was asked in an interview in 2002, how she felt when McCurry took that photograph, she said she felt ‘angry.’ Author and photographer Tony Northrup reasons, Gula belonged to a conservative background, living in a society where women are discouraged from showing their faces to strangers especially men. McCurry on the other hand asked her teacher to instruct her to cooperate. After being compelled to “let him photograph her… she lowered her hands” – in McCurry’s own words – to uncover her face. “He poses her like an 80s glamour shot, shoulder tilted towards the camera, forehead forward, nice light to illuminate the eyes, and direct eye contact – something that she would never ever do,” says Northrup.

Consent is a straightforward concept, and yet there are so many complexities to it.

Here McCurry pushed a young girl out of her comfort zone, pressured her into looking him in the eyes and ‘revealing’ her face. How massive this intrusion is, we can all understand, especially since we live in a society where many women still choose to cover their faces, in front of strangers. The agenda here isn’t to discuss the rights and wrongs of the purdah culture but the agency of every woman, to observe it or not, as per her free will.

To put it simply, for all these years we have been admiring and appreciating a picture which exposed an eight-year-old girl to us, against her wishes. The Afghan Girl is still a powerful image, but these new revelations have changed its interpretation forever. I still do see the anger in her eyes, but now it is directed at me, for misreading her plight all along.

Picture Credit: Screenshot from Tony Northrup’s video/thewire.in

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Yamini Pustake Bhalerao is a writer with the SheThePeople team, in the Opinions section. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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