Sharbat Gula and her penniless middle-aged reality
In late 2014, the National Geographic website published a list of five of its most memorable covers and the stories behind them. Among the five was Steve McCurry’s photograph of the green-eyed Sharbat Gula, a young Afghan girl living in a refugee camp in Pakistan. The other covers featured a dog named Betsy, a very tall tree, an ape named Koko and a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park.
The “Afghan girl” was left nameless when her picture appeared in June 1985. It was only years later that the magazine returned to find her. The 2002 story on finding the “Afghan girl” renewed the picture’s popularity before Ms Gula was forgotten again.
So it was until last month, when Pakistan’s authorities arrested her in Nauthia in north-west Pakistan and charged her with using fake documents to remain in the country.
The judge ruled that under existing laws, Ms Gula would have to be deported. Things looked dismal for Ms Gula, who suffers from Hepatitis C and is the sole breadwinner for her family, until last Saturday, when a government official announced that she would be permitted to stay on humanitarian grounds.
But according to the latest reports her deportation is actually going to take place later this week.
It is tragic that Pakistani authorities will not let Sharbat Gula stay. Her dependence on their mercy illustrates the vast chasm between the photographer who took her picture and her own hapless life. Bits and pieces from National Geographic’s own reporting reveal more of the story.
A 2002 article begins with the revelation that Ms Gula “remembers her anger” at being photographed back in 1985. McCurry insisted that she told him “he could take her picture.” No explanation is provided as to how the angry Ms Gula, who did not speak English, would have communicated this to McCurry.
The rest of the 2002 story is a challenging read: Pashtuns are “the most warlike of Afghan tribes” and Sharbat Gula has skin “that looks like leather”.
Even more alarming are the pictures that go with it, not for Ms Gula’s lost youth but for the fact that they show her being subjected to a DNA test, and reveal the use of a forensic examiner and a forensic sculptor to aid in confirming her identity.
As the saga of Ms Gula’s arrest unfolded, the old orientalist binary was at work: the government officials of a poor, foreign country wrangling with an even poorer woman, the ugly fight of the wanting versus the wanting watched by a morally superior West, smug inside its own sealed borders.
At the heart of this debate is the assumption that photographs represent real and unassailable truths, that the details of their composition and arrangement are always incidental and politically neutral. As critic Teju Cole has pointed out, this assumption is false and misleading.
Far closer to the truth is the fact that in arranging and selecting subjects and pictures that resonate with western imaginings of the exotic and wild Orient, these pictures confirm existing prejudices.
The “Afghan girl” is an example of just that, its feral undertones and high contrast colours confirming precisely the stereotypes seated in the western mind.
Good photography can shred the clichés and enable a deeper, more accurate seeing than the most superficial kind.
None of this has been true in the case of the forgotten Ms Gula, her nameless childhood picture worth more than her penniless middle-aged reality.
Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan