3 - A photographer who made me weary of yellow borders

Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl taught me to fall out of love. When I first saw it, I–like millions of others who would see the hauntingly beautiful gaze–was captivated. There is a stunning three dimensionality to the photograph. The Afghan Girl stares not merely through the camera lens, but her glare pierces the viewer.  Her gaze is rare in that it appears so vulnerable, so open, and completely unconstructed. It’s a split second moment of unobstructed connection and humanity.

 
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Portraits originate as relationships–images that are constructed through an exchange between photographer and subject. But as soon as the shutter button is pressed, this relationship is compressed into a commodity. In this case, it was Steve McCurry and National Geographic’s commodity. The resulting photograph was placed on the cover of the June 1985 National Geographic.

It would become an icon, referred to as the Modern Mona Lisa: the most recognizable National Geographic photograph in the magazine’s history. To this day, National Geographic has repeatedly plastered the image on tote bags, and advertisements to sell DVDs and magazine subscriptions. McCurry sold special edition prints of the portrait. A bold face title emblazoned on the matte below the photograph displays a name–but it doesn’t say the Afghan Girl’s name, instead it says Steve McCurry.

 
 

In fact, McCurry didn’t even write down the name of the girl he photographed–that’s why the portrait is known as “the Afghan Girl.” And while some may suggest her anonymity strengthens the photograph because she represents more than her physical being, I would argue that her anonymity suggests a lack of genuine connection between subject and photographer. 

The objectification of the Afghan Girl would continue in 2002 when National Geographic did a special report in which McCurry set out to find the woman. After a search period and confirmation, which included sending her eyes to the FBI for referral, the geographic did find the woman. She did have a name. It was Sharbat Gulu.

Sharbat had never seen her famous photograph, even though it was circulated around the world and became synonymous with the National Geographic brand. She graced the cover of National Geographic yet again. Her reveal was marketed like that of a new car, her burka is pulled over her head as she holds her portrait in her hand. You only had to buy the magazine to see what was inside.

McCurry’s Afghan girl presents itself as a portrait of a young girl in Afghanistan–a look into a distant Afghanistan, where war and poverty had torn through people’s lives. But the story behind the photograph is also a mirror. It’s a reminder of the ways in which seemingly exotic faces and stories can be exploited for personal profit.

I now keep the story of the Afghan girl in mind whenever working on a project–especially when working with foreign communities that I might risk presenting as exotic and distant. There is often a pressure to portray scenes in a way that will maximize instagram likes, or seem deserving of an iconic yellow border. 

My perception of the Sharbat fiasco is a reminder that the documentarian must avoid these temptations and connect meaningfully, genuinely and symmetrically with one’s subject. It prompts me to recall one of my favorite quotes from Australian Aboriginal activist Lilla Watson:

“If you have come here for charity, you are wasting our time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up in mine, let us work together.”

- Lilla Watson.

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