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Monday, Dec 06, 2021
Outlook.com
review

The Timeless Muse

Hers was the face that launched Steve McCurry's searing photo-comment on Afghanistan. Now, it's a book.

The Timeless Muse
The Timeless Muse
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Sharbat Gula is master photographer Steve McCurry's Mona Lisa. Almost everyone has seen her picture somewhere, yet few would know her name. Sharbat is the world's best-known 'nameless face'. Her green, piercing eyes engage you with a rare and powerful intensity. The Afghan girl may not be a classic beauty but, like Mona Lisa, there is something about her visage that is riveting, that imprints itself in your mind indelibly and haunts you forever.

It was in 1985 that McCurry's portrait of Sharbat appeared on the cover of National Geographic. Sharbat was barely 13 years old then, living in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan. McCurry had graduated in photography from Philadelphia University and had headed for India in the late '70s—a decade marked by instability in the subcontinent and hence a fertile ground for the budding photojournalist. Making India his base, McCurry made innumerable trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan, taking pictures for all the major Western dailies and weeklies. Afghanistan was on the boil, with the Soviet Red Army engaged in a fierce battle with the mujahideen. City after city in Afghanistan was turning into rubble under relentless mortar shelling. The refugee camps that were set up along the Afghan-Pakistan border would become McCurry's karmakshetra—where he returned repeatedly over the next two decades, trying to find stories of survival in the midst of destruction, horror and death.


Footwear festoonery: Burqa-clad women at a shoe stall in Kabul. This 1992 photograph is among the 100-odd images featuring in Steve McCurry’s book.

It was on one such trip to the Pak-Afghan border in 1984 that McCurry met his muse. He was at a refugee camp school, where Sharbat was one of the many girls whose picture he shot. Little did he know then that she would capture the world's imagination once her portrait appeared on the cover of National Geographic. Everyone who saw that issue of the magazine was mesmerised by Sharbat's beauty, and the aura around her kept growing with time. In 2002, National Geographic commissioned McCurry to shoot a documentary on Sharbat.


A young Afghan girl takes delight in wearing a simple party dress, Kabul,'02

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