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October 2, 2013

Thoughts on Afghan Girl’s Third Cover Appearance as National Geographic Looks Back, Forward

October issue of national geographic magazine celebrates 125th anniversary prnewsfoto national geographic

Has the same portrait ever appeared on the cover of a major US magazine even twice, not to mention three times? I imagine that milestone, recorded on the latest cover of National Geographic, as equivalent to Michael Phelps’ 18 gold medals or Secretariat’s 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont. It quite a distinction.

AfghanGirl Found Sharbat Gula on National Geographic cover

So, What are we to make of the Afghan Girl’s second encore?

One of two things, I imagine. The first would be an affirmation of her iconic status and incandescence: the culture magazine’s premier cover girl; the Mona Lisa of photojournalism, as some people have analogized. Then, the other is that the return of the ageless and hypnotically entrancing Sharbat Gula, the West’s lionized and  exoticized Asian everywoman, is sort of milking it. Still, if they could offer up the Afghan Girl on the cover every week — the same way the porterhouse at Peter Luger or the lobster at the Palm are so enshrined — why wouldn’t they? I mean, only three times in 28 years? I’m sure plenty of people return to the Louvre to see the other Mona Lisa more often than that. Or, would if they could.

The context for her reengagement is to highlight Nat Geo’s photography issue and the magazine’s photographic legacy in celebration of the publication’s 125th birthday. And with that much to commemorate (mindful of the results when you Google “famous National Geographic covers“), why not return with such a proto-photo. Coincidentally, and as a testament to her ubiquity, I had dinner on my last night in New York after Photoville at a little Afghan restaurant near Times Square. And who was featured on the wall? Hint: it wasn’t Rumi or Karzai even.

Robert Draper leads off the introduction with an homage to photography in the magazine, citing how photos like Marcus Beasdale’s on the diamond trade or McCurry’s Afghan girl have had “game changing” effects.

What her intense, sea-green eyes told the world from the cover of National Geographic’s June 1985 issue a thousand diplomats and relief workers could not. The Afghan girl’s stare drilled into our collective subconscious and stopped a heedless Western world dead in its tracks. Here was the snare of truth. We knew her instantly, and we could no longer avoid caring.

Still, after reading Draper’s words, it’s still not clear to me exactly why she’s on the cover.

What’s the symbolism of this symbolism enlisting the Afghan Girl in an entirely new role, not as survivor, or icon, or diplomat, or object of beauty, but in this case, the official representative of decades worth of notable National Geographic imagery? Was the choice completely automatic? (And if so, should it have been?)  As a franchise, what perceptual, symbolic and cultural message does that send? And how much does it speak to the influence of the marketing and business side to capitalize — with all the vital themes out there — on redundancy?

In elevating one picture from its 108 years of imagery, it’s interesting that the magazine would choose a photo that, as much as anything at this point, is famous for being famous and about the hit single versus the richer album. (The image is so self-referential, she’s been cropped just to amplify the signature head scarf and eyes.)  I don’t blame them, though. That’s where the culture and the media culture is today. Besides its deep bench of gifted photographers and photo editors, NatGeo, too, is a pillar in articulating cross-cultural understanding, telling conscience stories and, so vital now, illuminating the ecological complexity and vulnerability of Mother Earth. At the same time the company celebrates that storied engagement, however, it’s also at a pivot point in its history where its not only expanding, but in many ways, squeezing its brand and visual franchise like a tube of toothpaste to monetize what Draper refers to as “a global cacophony of freeze-frames.”

With its new photo blog, its wallpapers, its photo galleries, its landscapes, its pic of the day, its assignment contest and it’s much touted “your pic” social photo-engagement with readers like you and me (here’s our hashtag for posting pictures of your dog!), It has got to be an interesting time for advocates of a purer brand of imagery and visual storytelling in that organization right now. It’s against this background — the tension between the high ground and the corporate soul-sharing features, sections, widgets and co-branded baubles steeped as much or more in the new media infotainment complex — that I’m thinking about Sharbat Gula’s now thirty-first through forty-fifth minutes of fame.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the decision to re-rerun the Afghan Girl wasn’t applauded by every photo professional at NatGeo, even if she’s gotten a little more kitsch, because she is that much of an institution — the marquee. With that understanding, what else could you possibly use for this cover? Jane Goodall is more a throwback to the Dick-and-Jane era. The moon landing, for god sakes, practically screams been-there, done-that.

Still, how confounding is it using the Afghan Girl — world culture and geography’s equivalent of the 70’s Farah Fawcett poster — as the signifier of the brand? Obsessed as we are now with visuality; sexuality; popularity and virality; abject familiarity; compassion and style in one batter mix; and above all, the imperative to capture the click, perhaps, as the model not just for the past but for the mission going forward, she’s a little too perfect.

(photos: Steve McCurry)

  • black_dog_barking

    I’m seeing more of a curiosity than an icon or talisman of photographic wonder.

    First of all, because of the 125th anniversary photograph theme in the top issue, the reappearance of one of their cover images from so collection of 1500 or so cover images is not all that unlikely an event. It is a fundamental rule of showmanship and sales that you lead with your best shot so cover images tend to be striking.

    The curiosity here is the appearance of a National Geographic cover image as a storytelling prop. The subject portrait is a hijab-clad figure holding a copy of the portrait found on first cover, it is NOT the first cover portrait, technically. I assume the subject of the first image is wearing the hijab but I also grant the magazine license to use an anonymous figure as a storytelling device.

    Read this way this less a Mona Lisa-esque icon and more a stunning image that carved a photographic place in a follow-up story.

  • Marie

    I’m surprised you did not mention here that she has been drastically facially disfigured since the original image was taken. I seem to remember your writing about that when they reissued the second image. It makes me wonder if she is considered of value only when she’s eye candy. Or as we prefer to remember her. The iconic image overtakes the reality.

    • lorenzc

      When was Sharbat Gula disfigured? In the magazine insert whose cover is featured above, and in the documentary about how NatGeo “found” her, she looked well enough — older, of course, but healthy. (Healthy being a relative term for someone who had spent most of her life in Afghan-Pakistan-border region refugee camps.)

  • quax

    It is surprising to me that you seem to miss the obvious: She looks very caucasian. Haunting green blue eyes and light skin tone. It is the *other* combined with a familiar looking face that makes this marketing gold with respect to the targeted US customer base.

    • Bill Smith

      really? so you’re saying that the emotionally beautiful green eyes don’t play a role in this? Truth is, US citizens are not the only customers of National Geographic, and her appearance is not why she i was picked as the cover three times. She, in no way, looks caucasian. People of different areas looks specific ways and she is very much an Arab-looking person. Stop living in your bubble that the US is the only country in the world.

  • Joan Paulson Gage

    I, too, wondered why they used this classic photo yet again–clearly the most famous one they’ve ever published. It’s one of a kind. You can’t look away from her because she’s staring straight at you, clearly afraid (of the photographer?) yet defiantly standing up to the threat. And then there’s the striking color of her eyes–where did she get eyes that color? That’s why the image is so compelling. She’s a beautiful woman/child, with her entire past and future written on her face. Most of this is also true of the photo of an Indian beggar girl which is the most reproduced of any I’ve taken. She appeared to me in Jodhpur, when the rickshaw I was riding in stopped in traffic. She popped up at my window, dressed like an Indian goddess, begging. Startled, I snapped her photo in less than a second and then the traffic started to move .(I swear I didn’t have time to give her money.) Our eyes met in that brief instant and then she was gone, but I’ll never forget her.

    • Scarabus

      Good photo. I see what you mean about the eyes.

  • Scarabus

    Why does it keep reappearing, apart from the fact that it’s a great photo? One reason can be inferred from reading consecutively through the post and then the comments: The photo is enigmatic, in a way that invites everyone who sees it to read into/out of it his or her own meanings. Michael’s reference to Leonardo’s equally enigmatic Mona Lisa is apt.

    McCurry said, “Her eyes are sea green. They are haunted and haunting, and in them you can read the tragedy of a land drained by war.” I don’t see either “hauntedness” or tragedy when I look at those eyes. Perhaps McCurry is reading into the photo what he felt at the time and place he took the shot.

    Michael calls her “the West’s lionized and exoticized Asian everywoman.” Technically, she is an Asian, but I always think of a “typical” Asian as something like Chinese or Korean. And she always strikes me unique rather than stereotypically anything.

    Marie mistakes another Afghan woman for Sharbat Gula – which supports the “everywoman” idea.

    Quax sees her as looking Caucasian. If she had moved to the U.S., would she be thought of as “white” or as a “person of color”? In any event, Afghanistan is adjacent to Caucasia. The green-eyes gene might have found its way south across the border. Racially, Pashtuns are a mixture of Indian and Persian.

    Joan is struck by her striking individuality (as I am). BTW, if you haven’t done so yet, you ought to click on Joan’s photo to see the whole image.

  • http://societymatters.org/ Alan Mairson

    As a former National Geographic staff editor & writer, and a very interested observer & critic of what’s happening at the National Geographic Society, I can’t thank you enough for this post. You hit the nail on the head, especially with this: “What’s the symbolism of this symbolism enlisting the Afghan Girl in an entirely new role, not as survivor, or icon, or diplomat, or object of beauty, but in this case, the official representative of decades worth of notable National Geographic imagery?”

    The picture — indeed, the entire issue — is not about “the world and all that is in it” (NG’s original mission statement); it’s about 125 years of National Geographic itself. Sharbat Gula is not the poster girl for refugees, or survivors, or women’s rights; she’s a symbol of photography at National Geographic. Photos not as windows, but as objects that ultimately point back to the people and organization that made it possible. As you say: “the marquee.”

    I frequently wonder if photography is no longer a window to the world, but a wall that obscures our view:

    http://societymatters.org/2012/04/14/images-of-reality-vs-reality-itself/
    http://societymatters.org/2011/06/19/image-conscious/

    • bob

      Wow, Alan – you’ll take your Society bashing-show down any road. The issue is about photography from National Geographic magazine, which, as you well know, has always been about photojournalism, not just pretty pictures. This girl humanized the war in Afghanistan for many, many people. So much so that her face is still recognizable today. A photo that has that type of personal impact on a wide audience seems a logical choice for a cover.

  • Pingback: Squeezing National Geographic "like a tube of toothpaste" | Society Matters

  • Valentina21131 .

    I hope National Geographic give her all the help she need and her family and to other woman’s and family who has suffer so much for the wars over there. I wish was people who can help more too.

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  • Scarabus

    Might this be the photo Marie’s thinking of? Unforgettable image, but not the same woman.

  • http://societymatters.org/ Alan Mairson

    Did you even read the post above, Bob? Lots of interesting observations there about which you say virtually nothing. … Instead of following me here from Society Matters to continue complaining about me, why don’t you respond to the substantive critique of the BagNews post?

  • bob

    Sure I did. More than you read or responded to my point. If you Google historical images, McCurry’s Afghan Girl images comes up in the results with Eisenstaedt’s Times Square photo and Lange’s Migrant Family photos. Some images become iconic and they appear and reappear in many forms in our culture. What I see here is people trying to swirl up a controversy where none really exists.

  • http://societymatters.org/ Alan Mairson

    I agree with you: the Afghan Girl is iconic. But the question raised on this post is: What does this icon symbolize or represent? What does it point to? Thirty years ago it may have pointed to the plight of Afghan refugees. Today it points to the photographic accomplishments of the National Geographic Society. … What I find interesting here is what happens to photographs when they are thrown into “a global cacophony of freeze-frames.”

  • http://societymatters.org/ Alan Mairson

    P.S. Right on cue from NGS… Please see: ow.ly/pIb6q … It’s about a special evening with photographer Steve McCurry who “tells the story of shooting the iconic National Geographic “Afghan girl” photo.”

    Steve is not going to tell the story of Sharbat Gula, or the story of what has happened to Afghan refugees, or about the plight of refugees around the world. He’s going to talk about himself and what it’s like to be a National Geographic photographer.

    Or as the NG page puts it: “National Geographic Photographers: The Best Job in the World: Afghan Girl.”

    I rest my case.

  • bob

    Rest away, Alan. But I noticed that you neglected to mention the money that McCurry donates to help Afghan girls get an education. I would also note that the occasion of the resurfacing of this image is the 125th anniversary of National Geographic. Is every cause ever touched on by the Society supposed to be highlighted during this time or is the organization allowed to enjoy for a moment the fact that it has not only survived but remained relevant for so long?

  • http://societymatters.org/ Alan Mairson

    We should certainly enjoy the moment. And as you know, I hope there are many more such moments to enjoy. But I don’t think the Society’s current approach is sustainable. I think the Channel is eroding the Society’s brand equity; and I think the Magazine is failing to build on its greatest asset — the membership.

    On a related point: http://societymatters.org/2013/10/14/left-hand-meet-right-hand/

  • quax

    What I am saying is that the emotionally beautiful green eyes and the fairly familiar features are a selling point. It’s not overt racial selection but happens on a sub-conscious level.

    As I am not American and have lived and worked in several countries and currently live in the most diverse city in the world, I have no idea what you are talking about with regards to her looking Arab. Semitic people of all walks of live can easily pass as white and usually self-identify that way if polled by an innate questionnaire (quite common in the US).

    It’s well know that the reach of Alexander the Great extended into what is now Afghanistan. So it is not surprising that you will find all sorts of different features in Afghan people including eye color.

  • quax

    What I am saying is that the emotionally beautiful green eyes and the fairly familiar features are a selling point. It’s not overt racial selection but happens on a sub-conscious level.

    As I am not American and have lived and worked in several countries and currently live in the most diverse city in the world, I have no idea what you are talking about with regards to her looking Arab. Semitic people of all walks of live can easily pass as white and usually self-identify that way if polled by an innate questionnaire (quite common in the US).

    It’s well know that the reach of Alexander the Great extended into what is now Afghanistan. So it is not surprising that you will find all sorts of different features in Afghan people including eye color.

  • quax

    What I am saying is that the emotionally beautiful green eyes and the fairly familiar features are a selling point. It’s not overt racial selection but happens on a sub-conscious level.

    As I am not American and have lived and worked in several countries and currently live in the most diverse city in the world, I have no idea what you are talking about with regards to her looking Arab. Semitic people of all walks of live can easily pass as white and usually self-identify that way if polled by an innate questionnaire (quite common in the US).

    It’s well know that the reach of Alexander the Great extended into what is now Afghanistan. So it is not surprising that you will find all sorts of different features in Afghan people including eye color.

  • quax

    What I am saying is that the emotionally beautiful green eyes and the fairly familiar features are a selling point. It’s not overt racial selection but happens on a sub-conscious level.

    As I am not American and have lived and worked in several countries and currently live in the most diverse city in the world, I have no idea what you are talking about with regards to her looking Arab. Semitic people of all walks of live can easily pass as white and usually self-identify that way if polled by an innate questionnaire (quite common in the US).

    It’s well know that the reach of Alexander the Great extended into what is now Afghanistan. So it is not surprising that you will find all sorts of different features in Afghan people including eye color.

  • quax

    What I am saying is that the emotionally beautiful green eyes and the fairly familiar features are a selling point. It’s not overt racial selection but happens on a sub-conscious level.

    As I am not American and have lived and worked in several countries and currently live in the most diverse city in the world, I have no idea what you are talking about with regards to her looking Arab. Semitic people of all walks of live can easily pass as white and usually self-identify that way if polled by an innate questionnaire (quite common in the US).

    It’s well know that the reach of Alexander the Great extended into what is now Afghanistan. So it is not surprising that you will find all sorts of different features in Afghan people including eye color.

  • quax

    What I am saying is that the emotionally beautiful green eyes and the fairly familiar features are a selling point. It’s not overt racial selection but happens on a sub-conscious level.

    As I am not American and have lived and worked in several countries and currently live in the most diverse city in the world, I have no idea what you are talking about with regards to her looking Arab. Semitic people of all walks of live can easily pass as white and usually self-identify that way if polled by an innate questionnaire (quite common in the US).

    It’s well know that the reach of Alexander the Great extended into what is now Afghanistan. So it is not surprising that you will find all sorts of different features in Afghan people including eye color.

  • quax

    What I am saying is that the emotionally beautiful green eyes and the fairly familiar features are a selling point. It’s not overt racial selection but happens on a sub-conscious level.

    As I am not American and have lived and worked in several countries and currently live in the most diverse city in the world, I have no idea what you are talking about with regards to her looking Arab. Semitic people of all walks of live can easily pass as white and usually self-identify that way if polled by an innate questionnaire (quite common in the US).

    It’s well know that the reach of Alexander the Great extended into what is now Afghanistan. So it is not surprising that you will find all sorts of different features in Afghan people including eye color.

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