National Geographic's CoverGurl, self-portrait as Sharbat Gula / by Mario Elias

"The power to show real women, honest, present, complex and complete. Individuals, radiant in their own right. Not stripped of their personhood, or manipulated for a fantasy or metaphor. I like to think the power of lifting the veil from individuals helps to challenge societies darker fetishes and beliefs, perhaps shatter notions of bigotry and stereotypes." - artist, Victoria Selbach

My grandmother gave me a huge pile of photographs from National Geographic when I was a kid. Each one had a description on the back of the circumstances in which the portraits were taken, as well as information on the actual subjects.  I had two favorites that I kept separate from the rest and placed visible in my room.  
 

One was a photograph taken of The Little Rock Nine (1957), when integration in the school system was introduced in the US. My grandparents on my Mom's side started dating during the civil rights movement, and being a biracial couple was definitely no easy feat at that point in time. The stories they would tell me of life back then always made me so angry, but the woman's face in that photo was proud and completely unaffected by the hatred around her. That is how I always imagined my grandparents' faces when they told me about their experiences.  I felt so proud that the world as they knew it was able to change, if even just a little bit. 

The second photograph was "Afghan Girl" (1984) by Steve McCurry...

"Afghan Girl," Steve McCurry 1984

The write-up on the back talked generally about the turmoil in Afghanistan at the time and Steve McCurry's contributions to War Photography, but it did not mention what her everyday was like. It didn't say her name or where she came from. She was a refugee in a camp during a time of war. This featured cover for National Geographic is actually the magazine's best selling issue to date.

My dad's father is Syrian, with piercing, icy-green eyes, and this girl reminded me so much of my dad and his father and siblings. I was so upset that this beautiful little girl was not even given the respect of her name being asked. "Afghan Girl." Dassit.

In 2002, McCurry, with the help of National Geographic's resources was able to locate the subject of this now iconic portrait after a lengthy goose chase through the Middle East.  Nearly two decades and all the fame and glory later, they decided they should revisit this story.... I won't be shady, cuz I'm a lady, but they were trying to cash some more checks, babeh. 

This story is the modern day "Girl with the Pearl Earring" in my humble and honest opinion. Its beauty comes from the fragile feminity of the subjects features, yet it's power comes from the strong and intent gaze the subject is surveying the viewer with.  While Sharbat was not recognized as the individual she is, she became a face for the conflict in Afghanistan.  Her face humanized a war torn nation a world away for Americans and many others. THAT'S where the power of this photograph lies. Not with the bravery of the photographer, like the description on the back led a young me to believe. It is the power in one little girl's stare.  Innocence in a time of uncertainty.

Sharbat_Gula2.jpg

 Her name is Sharbat Gula, and she lives in Pakistan with her family. She had only had her photo taken once in her life until McCurry found her again


My eyes haven't seen everything hers have, and they most likely never will, but I am so happy to pay homage to Sharbat Gula with this post.


(Fabrics provided by Britex Fabrics here in San Francisco, backdrop created in Illustrator using the original image for reference, and photography/styling/MUaH all by yours truly as well. Shout out to my beautiful partner Mike for photo assisting!)