The Tragic Case of the Afghan Girl

Sharbat Bibi or Sharbat Gula, two names many people have never heard before. Yet her face is one the most recognisable images of the 21st century. Her sobriquet the ‘Afghan Girl’ is more likely to invoke the famous image than her actual name; there is a reason for this. Her name was not known by the photographer, Steve McCurry, until 17 years after the image was burned onto the Kodachrome film he was using whilst photographing at a refugee camp in Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was National Geographic - the magazine which first published the famous portrait - which flew McCurry to Pakistan years later in search of the “green eyed girl.”

The original portrait taken on a Nikon FM2 and Nikon 105mm Ai-S F2.5 lens.

The life of an icon is often tragic; the case of Sharbat Gula is no exception, when she was six her parents were killed by soviet bombs which regularly desecrated entire villages. Sharbat, with her brother, six sisters and grandmother fled Afghanistan on foot to Pakistan, traversing snow covered mountains, begging for blankets, and hiding in caves from the ominous sound of planes. The arduous journey ended at Nasir Bagh, a refugee camp just outside Peshawar, the camp in which her portrait was taken.

The follow up portrait of of Sharbut shows a face coarsened by hardship, however, through her leathery complexion those familiar eyes pierce you with their gaze. The reunion of the photographer with his subject was a quiet one, Sharbut, obeying strict religious tradition, did not look at McCurry; It is interesting to note that it was only through McCurry's lens that he was able to observe and capture the full expression of her face. 

During National Geographic’s investigation they found that Sharbat had returned to Afghanistan to live the sedentary life that is typical of her clan. Sharbat belongs to the Pashtun tribe, an agricultural warrior clan who made an exodus to Afghanistan between the 13th and 14th centuries. In the mountains of Tora Bora - infamously known as Osama bin Laden’s lair-style headquarters - Sharbat forged a life of worship, modesty and of nurture towards her three children. At a young age Sharbat’s religious lifestyle would’ve compelled her to complete a tradition know as ‘purdah’, an almost monastic tradition that forces young girls, during puberty, into a life of seclusion. Also, as per religious tradition, her marriage was arranged at a tender age. (Sharbat claims she remembers being married at age 13, however her husband insists it was 16). Continuing the theme of modesty, Sharbat's husband worked as a baker in Pakistan earning a pitiful wage, the equivalent of one dollar a day, and with this he managed to raise three children. Again continuing a theme, this time of tragedy, her husband died leaving her to raise her three children alone.

In late 2016 I was travelling on my usual tube journey, when I glanced over someones shoulder at a copy of the morning Metro newspaper; I straight away recognised that famous portrait. On further inspection it transpired that Sharbat's narrative of hardship had thickened.  According to Pakistani officials Sharbat was arrested for carrying false identity papers which aren't issued to foreign nationals and she could face the sizeable sentence of 14 years in prison and an addition fine of $5,000.  After a failed attempt by her lawyers to get her released on bail, she was hospitalised with the same disease which killed her husband, hepatitis C.

It must be remembered that Sharbat's case is by no means exceptional; she is one of legions of refugees displaced from their homes by disease, conflict and poverty. However, to us these people are faceless, in Sharbat's case we can stare at her as she stares back at us, all thanks to the fleeting click of a camera's shutter. Her green eyed stare, unbeknown to her, would become iconic; a symbol, not just of the plight of refugees fleeing Afghanistan, but of refugees in general. Nobody, not even Sebastiao Salgado (a photographer who dedicated a whole project to the migrations of peoples in the third world) managed to capture an image that encapsulates what it is to be a refugee than this simple portrait of a young girl.

From Lesvos to Paris - Reflections on the work of Alex Majoli.

©  Alex Majoli

© Alex Majoli

The Greek island of Lesvos sits, much closer, to the Turkish coast than the Greek. On this island a mass exodus of Greeks and Armenians braved the Aegean Sea on over-crowded boats from the shores of Turkey, across the channel to escape a renewal of ethnic tensions, the Greco-Turkish war. 

That was 1922, it is now 2016 and Lesvos is seeing a very similar exodus, but of peoples further east. Alex Majoli, an Italian photographer, in 2015 found himself witness to this exodus, and with his camera he has captured a stark, theatrical tragedy. His use of high contrast black and white make his images almost timeless; they could have been captured on black and white film in 1922 and processed in a dark room. Instead, Majoli is using modern digital camera equipment, instead of rickety rafts the refugees arrive on dinghies, instead of blankets the refugees can be seen wrapped in foil. 

©  Alex Majoli

© Alex Majoli

Majoli's images are surreal and ethereal, small glimpses of a vast human tragedy. Indeed, Majoli himself claims he took inspiration from an Italian absurdist novelist called Luigi Pirandello. The photographer Robert Capa famously mused that 'If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough'. This is certainly the case with Majoli, his photo's are close enough for us to see the subjects frightened eyes and ethnic features. However, Majoli has framed them in a way that give us the position of the audience in a theatre and his flash is a stage light, illuminating the events as they unfold. 

If you compare Majoli's images with those of another photographer, Warren Richardson, it can illustrate what I mean. Richardson won the 2015 World Press Photograph of the year with his image of a small child being passed through barbed wire by a tired-eyed father to the hands of an person unseen. This image was illuminated not by a flash, but by moon light, and the camera's high ISO allowed for extra exposure. In the case of Richardson's style, his images are snap shots taken in the heat of the moment. They look and feel like memories, etched into the mind of a witness, the ISO noise and the motion blur caused by slow shutter speeds make them rough and gritty; with Richardson you're in the moment, with Majoli, you're standing outside it.  Both have a dreamlike and timeless quality, but in the case of Majoli, you are more aware of the photographer.

©  Warren Richardson

© Warren Richardson

On the opposite side of this crisis, is Europe, the refugees destination. But, Europe is dealing with a crisis of its own; which is a direct result of this mass exodus. Open borders in Europe have allowed mass migration onto the continent; which has been both a blessing and a curse. My opinion of mass immigration will not be discussed in this piece as I wish to concentrate my energy on the photo's themselves, but - and it must be said - mass migrations of peoples from one culture to another will inevitably cause tensions. It is to these tensions that Majoli also pointed his lens.

On November 2015, on a Friday night in Paris the city was the target of a massacre. The perpetrators of the attack - one of many in recent years - were doing it in the name of Islam. This, one of largest of the Abrahamic religions, is the religion of many of the refugees landing on the shores of Lesvos. The bullets that may have killed the friends and relatives of the refugees, were fired with the same motivation as the ones that killed French socialites; in the name global Jihad. 

©  Alex Majoli

© Alex Majoli

Majoli travelled to Paris to witness the aftermath of the November attacks. In his photographic style, he captures a city that is in shock, mourning the dead and intrigued at this new level of violent religious fervour. In my favourite picture, taken in a restaurant a mere 100 metres from one of the establishments that was attacked, a women reads a newspaper with the simple headline typed in bold L'HORREUR. Around her, the restaurant is packed full of people eating and drinking wine. The France in this picture, is the France of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, a place of leisurely cafe's, bars and terraces. It shows the defiance of the Parisian spirit.    

©  Alex Majoli

© Alex Majoli

This is why I consider Majoli's work to be so meaningful and - I would argue - necessary. On the one hand we see the bedraggled masses arriving scared onto a foreign continent, often risking their lives and spending large sums of money to make the perilous journey; of which nothing is certain. On the other, we see Europeans, confused at witnessing a new type of religious violence, one that wants to police free speech and expression, often upheld by politicians in the name of multiculturalism and, failing that, through extreme violence. Majoli's images offer beautifully poignant moments in an ever-changing and complicated drama.