Looking beyond the 'Afghan Girl' 


Snapped in 1984 at the Nasir Bagh Afghani refugee camp in Pakistan, the famous "Afghan Girl" photograph shot its subject and creator to worldwide fame when it landed on the National Geographic cover, but the green-eyed child lifted to iconic status remained anonymous. Viewers found the girl beautiful, captivating and haunting, but she hailed from a strange context too violent and complex to assume any further identity that would be palatable or marketable to U.S. audiences. Whether or not photographer Steve McCurry anticipated the success of his portrait, the ubiquitous image put a face to the Middle Eastern plight, which is still a blurry proposition.

McCurry's "Afghan Girl" is among roughly 40 stills included in the internationally renowned photojournalist's Looking East retrospective; the collection represents his work in South Asia and the Middle East over the 25-plus years that followed his media breakthrough. The traveling exhibit opens this weekend at the Orange County Regional History Center, and beneath McCurry's gorgeous, award-winning photography lies a hotbed of politically and socially sensitive issues.

"Afghan Girl" has remained popular as well as controversial. Dr. Rae Lynn Schwartz-DuPre of Western Washington University, who has published several papers on McCurry's captured image, goes as far as to claim that the release of the photo in such a trusted media outlet as National Geographic built support for American intervention in the Soviet-Afghan conflict that began in the late 1970s. That Schwartz-DuPre and other scholars continue to study the "Afghan Girl" phenomena and its contemporary equivalents proves the provocative value of McCurry's work. But the 2009 context isn't so pretty or innocent.

Consider the power dynamic between McCurry and the nameless girl. "To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed," Susan Sontag states in On Photography, suggesting that the basic relationship between photographer and subject is one of inequality or even violation. Implicit in the Afghan girl's fierce but vulnerable wide-eyed glare are parallel pulls between those with power and those without, and between the so-called first and third worlds; both are symptomatic cultural troubles in the wake of Western colonialism.

Though social and economic conflict is varied and site-specific within the geography we call the "East," remnants of historical Western quests for dominance resonate throughout. Most of the political occupation by colonial front-runners Britain and France ended in the mid-20th century, but formerly colonized states inherited the social fragmentation of withdrawal. Meanwhile, Westerners harbor lingering notions of cultural superiority along with urges to homogenize the East.

As Palestinian scholar Edward Said maintains in his groundbreaking Orientalism, European writers and scholars centuries ago shaped knowledge regarding the "Orient," filtering fact through their own social conventions. Said contends that the books and travelogues were, and continue to be, problematic because they reduce the complex cultures and traditions flourishing beyond Europe to broad stereotypes. Nineteenth-century Orientalist writers like Ernest Renan and Gustave Flaubert fancied themselves expert adventurers in exotic, spicy and barbaric locales, and their work fostered widespread understanding of the East as such.

Much of this characterization was sexual and is recalled in popular images today: the saucy, mysterious, veiled belly dancer, the Middle Eastern harem and the submissive Asian woman. Furthering this idea, feminist critic Bell Hooks posits in Black Looks that many white Western men find "ethnic" women attractive because they are categorized through this rubric of colonial domination and conquest. Just as India and the Middle East were far-off spaces in which supposedly buttoned-up bluebloods could unwind and have a little adventure, Hooks suggests that the bodies of Asian and Middle Eastern women present a similar space to be conquered. We can perhaps connect this "mysterious" femininity to the appeal of images like the veiled Afghan girl.

In 2002 McCurry joined forces with National Geographic to return to the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderland and reconnect with the nameless ambassador before the refugee camp she once inhabited was razed for development. The resulting documentary, Search for the Afghan Girl, was filmed amidst rubble and refugees; Sigourney Weaver's voice-over narration emphasizes the remoteness of rural Afghanistan. The footage captures McCurry and his crew as they frantically aspire to beat the odds and find "a needle in a hundred haystacks."

The film's framing of Afghanistan as stagnant and apart from the modern world subtly suggests its backward inferiority. This is consistent with Said's analysis of the image of the Middle East and Asia exposed to Western audiences throughout history: the regressive characterization and imagery is internalized, reinforced and reproduced again and again.

Also interesting is analysis by Schwartz-DuPre and others of the iris-scanning technology used in the documentary to identify the original girl, now a woman two decades older. Shot shortly after 9/11, the follow-up film opens with McCurry's heroic photographs of the tragedy and then takes a large leap over to Afghanistan to employ the same optical scanning technology proposed by the U.S. for security on a humanitarian mission to find the cover subject.

With the help of native contacts, McCurry does locate Sharbat Gula, who now has three daughters and, as he says, is "totally and completely unaware of her international fame." The photographer captures Gula's face once more, but this time she poses with the original photo, a sad relic of her younger, prettier self.

Beyond the presumable closure for McCurry and success of biotechnology, what conclusions can we draw from all of the drama? Despite the mission's debatable ethics, Gula's later photo symbolizes ownership; holding her childhood image, she is able to reclaim an identity distributed and appropriated beyond her control.

Although we can criticize McCurry's work as extending colonialist aims by utilizing the power of the photographic medium, we also can find stirring beauty and infinite potential for discussion in his Looking East collection. For example, how does McCurry's approach to conflict photography engender his subjects with dignity? Why does he avoid "shock value" in his approach to violence? McCurry's visions are extensive and supported by years living around the globe; they are categorized and titled according to their geographic origins, which facilitates a sense of Eastern diversity. Audiences can see that Tibet looks different from Afghanistan, and Afghanistan looks different from Myanmar. (Whether or not the average viewer could find these countries on a map is another can of worms.)

Western society may have come a long way from the exploits of earlier Orientalists, who wrote about the region not as it was, but how they wanted it to be. While we might think of photographs as instant documentation, they too can be deceptive in that they imply impartiality. The finger on the shutter is loaded with technical and ideological motivations — sometimes latent, sometimes conscious. Viewing McCurry's exhibit with that perspective in mind, it's vital to look beyond the photos in and of themselves. His work is part of a global dialogue negotiating East and West, and by casting a critical gaze, we too can take an active part in that dialogue.

arts@orlandoweekly.com

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