The beautiful and previously anonymous Afghan girl featured in one of the last century's most enduring portrait photographs — and what became National Geographic magazine's most famous cover image — has been found living in a remote area of eastern Afghanistan.
She's weathered and aged from a life of poverty but still has the same haunting green eyes.
The award-winning photographer who took her picture during a five-minute session in a Pakistan refugee camp in 1984, Steve McCurry, led a team from National Geographicthat tracked her down in January. The magazine announced the discovery Tuesday and identified her as Sharbat Gula, perhaps 29 or 30 years old today — she isn't sure of her age — the mother of three girls and the wife of a baker.
"The instant I saw her I knew that this was the Afghan girl," McCurry says. "Her eyes still have that penetrating sort of look, that kind of intensity."
Her life over the years has been marred by the death of a child, the loss of her parents during the Afghan war with the Soviet Union and poverty. "I wouldn't characterize her as having lived a happy life," McCurry says.
It was news to Sharbat Gula that the photograph taken years before had been so widely distributed and elicited such an overwhelming response, McCurry says.
"I don't think a day has gone by in the last 17 years that I haven't gotten some kind of a letter or e-mail or a phone call request, people wanting to send her money and people wanting to adopt her, letters from men wanting to find her and marry her," he says.
"It's certainly the most memorable image that we have ever published," says William Allen, editor in chief of National Geographic, which has a circulation of nearly 10 million. "I have been asked hundreds of times, whatever happened to that girl, the one with the green eyes?"
Originally shot for an article about life along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the photo has been compared in iconic significance with such other famous 20th-century images as the Iwo Jima flag-raising photograph of World War II by Joe Rosenthal; the fatal shooting of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald captured on film by Dallas Times Herald photographer Bob Jackson; and W. Eugene Smith's picture of a child crippled by industrial poisoning being bathed by her mother in Japan.
David Schonauer, editor in chief of American Photo magazine, says the brilliance of the Afghan girl lies in how it is essentially a glamour image of a refugee child — what seems a contradiction. Added to this, he says, is the girl's inexplicable expression.
"It's a little bit like the Mona Lisa," Schonauer says. "You don't really know what she's thinking; is she scared, is she fierce, is she bewildered, is she ambivalent, is she confident about her beauty? You can look at it and get a different feeling about it every time. A picture has got to have something like that if it's going to last."
McCurry, 51, a freelance photographer who owns the rights to the photo, says that because he didn't have an interpreter on the day the photo was taken, he never got the girl's name. It wasn't until he was back in Washington, D.C., developing the film that he fully realized its unusual significance.
"It was one of those incredible, amazing moments in photography where everything comes together," he says.
But he was never able to find her again. He mounted a concerted effort in January when the refugee camp in Pakistan where she was originally photographed, and where leads on her whereabouts might still exist, was slated to be razed. He tracked a number of leads, all of them fruitless, until an intermediary finally arranged a meeting with Sharbat Gula.
McCurry says that the woman, who is a conservative Pashtun, sought her husband's permission to lift the veil of her burqa in order to show her face for photographs to be taken. Later, sophisticated iris recognition tools and FBI facial identification techniques were used on the photographs of her then and now to verify they had the right woman.
He and the magazine are keeping the woman's exact whereabouts a secret, saying this is what she and her husband requested. She was found somewhere between Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and the Pakistani border city of Peshawar. They are also working with the family to see how they might somehow benefit, financially or otherwise, from the global success of her image.
"We're in the process of talking about how we can do that," McCurry says.
The story will be featured in the April issue of National Geographic, which subscribers receive this week and hits newstands April 1. It will also be detailed in a one-hour National Geographic EXPLORER documentary airing Friday at 9 p.m. ET on MSNBC. The National Geographic Society is creating "Afghan Girls Fund" in response to the discovery, raising money for the education of Afghan girls.