'Afghan Girl' Mystery Solved
Listen to Alex Chadwick's report.
National Geographic Photographer Finds His Most Famous Subject
March 13, 2002 -- Her unforgettable green eyes stared out at the world from the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1985. And for 17 years, Steve McCurry, the photographer who took that picture of the young Afghan girl had been searching for her without success -- until now.
Sharbat Gula as seen in 1984 (L) and 2002 (R). The original photo appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic.
Left photo © Steve McCurry. Right photo Steve McCurry © National Geographic Society.
After learning that the refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, where he last saw her was about to be razed to make room for a housing project, McCurry went back one last time. "If I was ever going to find her again, this was the last opportunity," the photographer tells NPR's Alex Chadwick on Morning Edition.
McCurry went to the camp and showed her photo to village elders, who in turn showed it to their friends and contacts. There were several false leads: one man said it was his wife, a girl with an "uncanny" likeness insisted she was the famous girl in the photo. McCurry and his team began to get frustrated and disheartened.
Then McCurry's luck turned. A man came forward who insisted the girl had lived next door to him a decade ago. A couple of days later, the man returned with the girl's brother. "His eyes were the same color as hers and as soon as we saw his eyes, we thought, 'This is amazing. This is closer than we've ever been,'" the photographer says.
After negotiations, the husband of the "girl" -- she's now a woman around 30 years old -- agreed to let her meet with McCurry's team.
Steve McCurry and his famous photo.
Photo: Steve McCurry
High-tech iris and facial recognition tests as well as an FBI forensic examiner later confirmed that it was the same person. But McCurry says he was convinced the moment he saw her again.
"When she came out, it was clear that this was absolutely the same girl," McCurry says. "There was no question in my mind that this was the girl. The eyes were the same, she had the same distinctive scar on her nose. All the facial features matched up. I instantly knew that this was the girl."
Her name is Sharbat Gula. She's the married mother of three girls and living in a remote ethnic Pushtun region of Afghanistan with her family. National Geographic is keeping her exact location secret to protect her privacy.
McCurry says he will be helping Gula provide an education for her children and to fulfill her dream of making a pilgrimage to Mecca next year.
Even after all these years, the photographer still fawns over his most famous subject. Gula's eyes have retained all their fire and intensity, he says. She has aged, "but I think she's still quite beautiful despite all the hardship that people have to endure there."
The story of McCurry's search for Gula will be featured in the April issue of National Geographic and is the subject of a National Geographic EXPLORER documentary on MSNBC Friday at 9 p.m. ET.
Previous NPR Coverage
The Face of Afghanistan's Pain, An Anonymous Portrait Echoes a Nation in Turmoil
Read more about this story on National Geographic's Web site.
Watch a National Geographic interview with Steve McCurry about the original "Afghan girl" photo.
Read the 1985 National Geographic article that included the "Afghan girl" portrait.
See more of Steve McCurry's photos on his Web site.
Visit Cambridge University professor John Daugman's Web site to learn more about using iris recognition for personal identification.