National Geographic Magazine and Steve McCurry’s portrait “Afghan Girl”

For many years, from my late teens, my Mother’s annual Christmas present to me was to renew my membership to the National Geographic Society magazine. It was a monthly window on a wider world and I learned so much from its iconic yellow portrait framed cover.

The maps that were inserted into various editions of National Geographic editions were poster-quality showing everything in mazing detail from the Rise of the Roman Empire to the demise of the Dinosaurs. However no edition was more powerful than that of June 1985 featuring the Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl” image of 12 year old Sharbat Gula.

McCurry’s portrait of Sharbat, a Pashtun orphan, was taken in December 1984 in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

I was walking past a gallery in Swallow Street in Mayfair (London) in 2015 and was almost winded by the appearance of this striking portrait  – perhaps no larger than an A4 copy – in its window. I stopped and stared – late for a pressing meeting – I promised myself to return to see if I could buy a copy. Of course, hectic life took over and I didn’t make it back.

Later I read in a London newspaper of a retrospective of Mr McCurry’s work. He clearly is a very gifted photographer who now has a forty year career of taking exceptional photos but above all he recognises the truly iconic nature of this particular work and respects not only its impact as a photograph but also the call to action it had on many viewers.

I understand that its appeal drew attention to the plight and led to a steady trail of willing volunteers to work at the refugee camps. It also stimulated the formation of the Afghan’s Children’s Fund by the National Geographic.

My eldest daughter recently sent me a photo of Ms Gula today, in her forties and living in Pakistan. I can only only hope that her notoriety – and I believe that there is great pride in her home country for the original image – has in some material way improved her living conditions.

Based in Washington DC, the National geographic Society was founded by Gardiner Greene Hubbard on January 1, 1888 the National Geographic Society – a nonprofit organisation – that plays an increasingly important cross-platform media role of informing and education both young and old. In my experience the Magazine and its associated TV films and series are objective and factual engaged but without being hectoring. 

A curious piece of trivia, Mr Hubbard was succeeded in 1897 by his son-in-law, and the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell.

Image from National Geographic Society

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