Revealed – the true story behind the 'Afghan Mona Lisa'

Steve McCurry tells all at new opening
Steve McCurry, Afghan Girl, near Peshwar, Pakistan (1984)
Steve McCurry, Afghan Girl, near Peshwar, Pakistan (1984)




From: 7 September 2011
Until: 24 September 2011

Steve McCurry

Opening hours:
Monday - Saturday:
10am - 5.30pm

Chris Beetles Gallery



Legendary photographer Steve McCurry revealed the true story behind his most famous photograph, Afghan Girl, during a rare visit to London last night. Speaking to Phaidon at the Chris Beetles Fine Photos gallery in Piccadilly where he was opening a new show, McCurry said he quickly realised he'd have to ignore 12-year-old Sharbat Gula in order to get the shot he wanted. The photo graced the cover of National Geographic in June 1985 and is generally regarded as one of the most viewed photographs in the world. 

"When I walked into the classroom I was kind of convinced that she was really an amazing person but she was very shy," McCurry said. "So I started off by photographing the other students, because I thought if I approach her straight away and she says 'no' that would be a no for the rest of the day. So I photographed her classmates and got them involved in the process. I wanted her to feel that she was almost excluded so that she'd want to take part in it and, sure enough, it got to the point where she agreed.

"There's a real emotion and a real beauty in the picture. Her expression is ambiguous - she's obviously poor cos she has a rip in her shawl and her face is kind of dirty. But through that there's a dignity and there's a perseverance and a fortitude. There's a wide range of emotions. I think there’s a great depth to the picture."

McCurry actually travelled back to Afghanistan in 2002 on a National Geographic assignment to try and find Gula. Many women came forward to claim they were her and the search seemed hopeless. 

"We didn't have her name or address or what tribe she belonged to. We trawled the refugee camps and eventually found one man who remembered her brother. It was a complete miracle that we found her. I expected her as she is in this photograph to walk through the door and I was shocked when this 30-year-old woman walked in. We're continually in contact with her today and we make sure she's taken care of and that she's been compensated for the picture – that’s been an ongoing process since 2002." Gula, who was orphaned during the Soviet bombing of Afghanistan, has since had four girls of her own, one of whom died in infancy. 

The Chris Beetles show runs until September 24. We'll be posting a short video with highlights from it later this morning. Meanwhile though you can see more of Steve's incredible images in our gallery here.


See all Steve McCurry features


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