What you see: Afghan Girl, an image shot by American photographer Steve McCurry in 1984 of a 12- or 13-year-old girl later identified as Sharbat Gula. It appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic magazine. Skinner estimates a photographic print of the image at $7,000 to $9,000.
The expert: Robin S. R. Starr, director of American and European Works of Art at Skinner.
So let’s begin by talking about how this photo came to be–who shot it, how the photographer got the opportunity to shoot it, etc. Steve McCurry started out as a documentary photographer and a photojournalist. In the late 1970s, he was certainly known, but not with an uppercase K, for becoming the go-to guy photographing in the region on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
And this particular photo arose from one of those assignments? In 1984, National Geographic wanted to put together a feature article on the growing number of refugees in the camps on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and they approached him to do it. In the process of touring one camp, Nasir Bagh, he was looking for a subject and overheard voices in a tent that was set up as a girls’ school. Sitting in the tent was a stunning girl with amazing green eyes. She was the oldest [student], off by herself, and shy. She was 12 years old.
How did Steve McCurry get the shot? He came into the tent, spoke to the teacher, and asked for permission to photograph the students. He wanted the girl because of her green eyes, which were so amazing, but he started with other students in hopes she would loosen up. The kids had never seen a camera before. It was all new to them.
Did McCurry know right away what he had, or did he only realize it later? He knew that intense look was something he was looking for, but it wasn’t until he went through the images back home that he realized how striking and amazing the photograph was.
And I understand that National Geographic nearly went with a different McCurry shot of the same sitter? National Geographic went back and forth on which shot to use–you can see the other, which is her holding her veil in front of her face. They realized this was so much more striking, they went with it instead on the cover.
Might part of the reason that Afghan Girl is so compelling is the sitter did not grow up with a camera, and had never seen a camera before? Sure, that was part of it. I certainly suspect she hadn’t seen a lot of white guys, and she was of an age when she [as a Muslim] was supposed to be covering up in front of strangers. She might have been uncomfortable uncovering for a foreigner with a strange contraption.
Steve McCurry has shot countless photographs. Is it fair to say that Afghan Girl is his best-known image? Absolutely. Absolutely. You may not know Steve McCurry, but you know this image.
Afghan Girl has been described as the “most recognized image” ever published by National Geographic. Can you talk about why that’s such a big deal? I mean, it’s the last survivor among the photo-driven magazines of the 20th century, such as Look and Life … That’s huge. I’m a big fan of National Geographic. I love the articles, and love learning about new places, new cultures, new things, but it’s the images. They’ve had some really phenomenal photographs over the years. They’re timeless.
Did McCurry make note of the sitter’s name at the time? No, he did not know her name. I don’t think he was in the tent for more than an hour.
How did he and National Geographic figure out who the Afghan girl was? After the September 11 attacks, National Geographic wanted to send a TV crew to find her.
Wait, how are the September 11 attacks relevant to National Geographic wanting to find her? Wouldn’t they have gotten enough questions from people asking who she was and them having to say “no idea” that they were moved to try to track her down? I think it was some of both. They wanted to know who she was, and Afghanistan was in the news again–do we attack? Do we not attack?
So National Geographic wanted to cover Afghanistan, and they saw the search for the Afghan girl as a way to approach the story. Exactly. In finding her, they could see what the Afghan people had been through.
How did they find her? McCurry knew which camp she had been in, and some of the camps were still there. Nasir Bagh still existed in 2002, but it was due to be demolished. The film crew went around with her picture, asking, “Do you know her?” A lot of people claimed to know her, and some claimed to be her. Finally somebody who had been associated with the camp said, “I know her brother.” They put the film crew in touch with the brother, who united them.
What happened when the National Geographic crew met the sitter, who we now know is Sharbat Gula? She remembered being photographed, but had never seen the picture. She had no idea it was world famous. They had another photo shoot, very quick, and she agreed to uncover. She was wearing a purple burka and held a copy of the original magazine in her hands.
How did the Afghan Girl photo change the life of Steve McCurry? It put him on the map. I can’t imagine how it changed his life in terms of jobs, grants, and funding. Anybody can take a picture of the downtrodden, but to take it well, with humanity and dignity–that’s hard. Steve McCurry can do it. Not many people can.
How did the Afghan Girl photo change the life of Sharbat Gula? It didn’t affect her life much at all until she was told, 20 years later, that the image was world-famous. Then, all of a sudden, it changed her life. In the aftermath of the second meeting, Steve McCurry wanted to help her family. She lived in a really dangerous area on the Afghan-Pakistani border. He and National Geographic got medication for her, her husband, and her children, and paid for her and her husband to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. National Geographic also created a fund, the Afghan Girls Fund, that provided education to girls and women. Later it was changed to the Afghan Children’s Fund. I think it still exists.
When was the Afghan Girl image released as a fine photographic print? It’s an open edition [this means Afghan Girl prints are available now, and there’s no explicit limit on the total number that may be produced during McCurry’s lifetime]. I know some were printed in the late 1980s or early 1990s. There have been lots of printings.
So it appears fairly often at auction? If it doesn’t come up today, wait until tomorrow. I think Artnet has 115 results. It’s not rare, and it’s not getting more rare.
What’s the world auction record for an Afghan Girl print? It was a unique dye-bleach print made in 2012, measuring 33 by 22 inches–quite large. It was sold in 2012 at a Christie’s auction called The National Geographic Collection: The Art of Exploration. It brought $178,900.
Steve McCurry signed the Afghan Girl print you’re offering for sale. Does that matter? I would be concerned if it didn’t have a signature. It doesn’t make it more valuable, it makes it valid.
What’s the image like in person? Are there aspects of the photograph that don’t come across on a screen? And I imagine it has to be different from seeing it on a magazine cover. One thing is the scale, obviously. Looking at it at 20 inches tall is different than looking at it on a phone or a computer screen. It’s life size. When someone life size is staring directly at you, it’s compelling. You pick up on the flecks of white in her scarf, and get a sense of the depth of her hair. Also, some people who claimed to be her didn’t have the scar–she has a dark mark down the middle of her nose. [If you’re not looking at a large print of the image,] You don’t pick up on that otherwise.
In January 2019, Skinner sold an Afghan Girl print of the same size for $19,680 against an estimate of $8,000 to $12,000. How does this example compare to that one? It’s very similar. They’re the same size, and both were signed on the back. More specifically, the provenance to it [the 2019 example] was from the Howard Greenberg Gallery. Outside of that, there’s not a lot of difference.
What makes Afghan Girl such a strong image? It’s such a perfect picture of a refugee. Her clothes are ragged, and there’s no obvious Hollywood smudge of dirt on her face, but she doesn’t look airbrushed. There’s a lot within those young eyes–her gaze is direct and unflinching, and a little frightened and curious. It’s such a riveting face. How could it not attract the attention of those who want to know what’s going on with the Afghan people? …No one image can sum up a moment. Some get pretty damn close. This is one of them. It’s beautiful and so striking. That’s why it speaks to so many people.
In particular, what makes Afghan Girl such a strong photographic portrait? There are so many emotions in her face. I think that’s it, in a nutshell. We don’t look at that face and say, “She’s angry, end of story”, or “she’s happy” or “she’s innocent”. That complexity of emotions is what makes people human and real. That striking, perceptive gaze makes her so present, and so real.
How to bid: The Afghan Girl photograph is lot 135 in the American & European Works of Art sale at Skinner on January 23, 2020.
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Robin S. R. Starr first appeared on The Hot Bid discussing a record-setting painting by Florine Stettheimer.
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Steve McCurry has a website. He’s also on Instagram.
Images are courtesy of Skinner.
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