You know this photograph. Subjectively, it may be the best photography portrait ever made. You can learn a lot from the best. So let’s look at why it has moved so many people.
You like facts, so let’s start with those. Her name is Sharbat Gula. She was twelve years old. Her Pashtun parents were killed in a Soviet airstrike. Her portrait photograph was captured by American photojournalist Steve McCurry in 1984 in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan.
You like photography; McCurry used a Nikon FM2 with a Nikkor 105mm AiS f2.5 portrait lens. He used the iconic Kodachrome film which had a beautiful colour palette, ‘probably the best film ever made’. It was a slow film with an ISO of 64 and he was photographing indoors, so he used a large aperture to get a shutter speed that would avoid motion blur. This wide aperture and the magnification of the short telephoto lens blurs the background enough that it’s not distracting, but still retains texture.
How Did He Get Access?
One particularly important rule of photography is having interesting subjects. It’s obvious, but not emphasised enough. McCurry was photographing for a local newspaper in Pennsylvania before he took the enormous risk to travel to India as a freelance photographer. He then disguised himself and illegally crossed the border into rebel-controlled Afghanistan just prior to the Soviet invasion. At the time, Afghanistan was the hot topic by-proxy battlefield for the Cold War. He was among the first photographers there and smuggled out rolls of film concealed in his local clothes. The United States were supplying arms and military training to the Mujahideen at the time but he was not an embedded photographer under their protection. If he hadn’t taken these big risks, it’s unlikely we would know his work; not because he couldn’t achieve the same standard with his photography, but because his subjects would probably have been less important to as many people.
Even to make the portrait he had to be strategic. Sharbat Gula had never been photographed, apparently had never seen a camera before. She seemed shy to McCurry, who deliberately photographed other children in her class first so that she would feel more comfortable/compelled to sit for her portrait. In fact she covered her face with her hands in her first portrait; but McCurry had the support of her teacher, who explained that showing her face to this foreign documentary photographer would help share their dire situation to an audience that had the power to help.
Why Does This Photo Move Us?
It’s not enough to just take risks. McCurry had to crystallise the enormous scale of the humanitarian crisis into an accessible, evocative photograph that would move Western audiences. Focussing on the impact on the people was a powerful choice. Aristotle in ‘Rhetoric’ mentions three different means of persuading an audience. Here we have Pathos, the appeal to emotion. A young girl is vulnerable and triggers our natural instinct to protect her; a photograph of an older man in the same refugee camp would not have had the same appeal. Nor would a documentary photo of the scale of the crisis; the intended audience would find it more difficult to relate, and the logos of this approach wouldn’t have the same raw power. But a lone child affects our emotions even if we have no understanding of her situation. A similar example was when the photo of Aylan Kurdi, a three year old Syrian boy washed up dead on the beach captured the plight of the refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea, went viral and changed public opinion and European policy.
We also respond to beauty. It’s not politically correct to say so, but the portrait would not have had the same appeal if Sharbat Gula was deemed ugly. In fact when National Geographic tracked Sharbat Gula down in Afghanistan years later, her youthful beauty had been lost by time and hardships. Our reactions focussed more on her appearance than the relative stability of Afghanistan under the strict Taliban rule that shrouded her in a burka as she entered puberty. Numerous marriage offers followed the picture’s publication. She remembers an arranged marriage at 13. Just a couple of years later her face would have been covered and the photograph wouldn’t have happened. The culture is peculiar to us; but we can imagine her to be a sister or daughter. Above that, we appreciate her natural, authentic beauty.
‘The Afghan Girl With The Amazing Eyes’
But beauty is pretty common, and what really attracts our attention are her striking eyes. “I noticed this one little girl with these incredible eyes, and I instantly knew that this was really the only picture I wanted to take” Steve McCurry said to NPR. Only 1-2% of people have green eyes, and their skin is normally paler so they don’t stand out so much. I think she has central heterochromia; her true eye colour is the bluer hue that surrounds her iris. Her rare eye colour contributes to the power of the photograph.
Because she is still a child, her eyes are proportionally larger in her little face. She also seems nervous about being photographed and is ‘wide-eyed’. This makes her seem more vulnerable and scared; we want to help her. National Geographic; “They are haunted and haunting, and in them you can read the tragedy of a land drained by war.” McCurry, photographic master that he is, has positioned her so that she looks at us slightly from the side, which shows more of the whites of her eyes. This accentuates the effect, and importantly, makes them the brightest highlights in the picture against her dark face and sombre background. Your viewers’ eyes will naturally be drawn to the areas of the photograph with the highest local contrast, so this small change focuses more attention on her gaze.
Studying Steve McCurry’s photographs, it’s obvious that he has a deep visual literacy and the ability to use compositional techniques to direct his viewers’ attention and emotions where he wants them to be. He used split lighting, photographing from the shadowed side of her face to create depth and atmosphere. He also uses an old portraiture technique that makes her eyes seem to stare at us wherever we look at the picture from. How? By putting the dominant eye on the centre line of the frame and having her look directly into the camera with relatively soft lighting on her face.
All of this adds up to portray a vulnerable, young, rare, beautiful child who is staring at us through the photograph. But far from a pleading, helpless look, she is scared, but dignified. Fragile, but defiant. And our deep instinctive emotional reaction to someone staring at us is to pay attention; and when we see her, to want to help.
Strong Colour Harmony
McCurry often uses complementary colours in his photography. Have a look at his work to see the striking contrasts between blue and yellow or red and green. In this portrait photo, her face and red shawl contrasts with her green shirt, green eyes and green background. This was intentional, and presumably a gift of serendipity, earned through McCurry’s hard work and trained eye. He says, “her shawl and the background, the colors had this wonderful harmony. All I really had to do was click the shutter.” NPR. The colour scheme gives the photograph the illusion of depth too; the light, warm colours come forward against the dark, cool colours of the background. Paletton.com shows us the complimentary colours in use. Note that no other hues are present to distract us.
‘The Best Photography Portrait Ever’
This is so subjective. I look forward to hearing what you feel is the ‘best photography portrait ever’ in the comments. But I think you’ll agree The Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry is a serious contender. Because not only is it an artistically masterful portrait of a rare beauty, it also has great significance and directly changed lives.
When McCurry reflects upon its popularity, what excites him most is the impact that this single image has had on the real world.
“People volunteered to work in the refugee camps because of that photograph,” he says. “Afghans are incredibly proud of it, as the girl is poor but shows great pride, fortitude and self-respect.
“It drew attention to their plight, and inspired a lot of people.”
It also led the National Geographic to set up the Afghan Children’s Fund — and meant that to this day, McCurry is never charged a fare by appreciative Afghan taxi drivers.
So for me the major lesson is this: That with photography (and enough work, risk and luck) you can sometimes make a picture that is not just about the moment, not just about beauty, nor character, nor a refugee crisis; but that captures the powerful reality of the human condition.