How One Photographer Captured A Piercing Gaze That Shook The World In 1984, Steve McCurry was in Pakistan covering a refugee crisis for National Geographic. Captivated by a young girl's eyes, he clicked the shutter — and took one of the magazine's most iconic photos.
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How One Photographer Captured A Piercing Gaze That Shook The World

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How One Photographer Captured A Piercing Gaze That Shook The World

How One Photographer Captured A Piercing Gaze That Shook The World

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

In December 1984, a war was raging in Afghanistan, and millions of refugees were pouring into Pakistan to escape the fighting. Photographer Steve McCurry was there, stationed at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to cover the crisis for National Geographic.

STEVE MCCURRY: In some cases, tens of thousands of Afghans pressed together in these squalid, really terrible conditions - no plumbing, no electricity. And they'd have to carry water. There was disease. There was - it was just a terrible existence.

RATH: At one of those camps, near Peshawar, Pakistan, McCurry heard the unexpected sound of children's laughter coming from a large tent. Inside was a makeshift classroom for an all-girls school.

MCCURRY: 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.

RATH: His portrait of the Afghan girl became one of National Geographic's most popular covers. It was McCurry's big break.

MCCURRY: At first, this young girl - this - her name was Sharbat Gula - she put her hands - kind of covered her face, her mouth. And the teacher said, no, no, you should let him photograph you because it's important for the world to know our story. So she basically dropped her hands and just looked into my lens, and it was this piercing gaze - very beautiful little girl with this incredible look. This was the first time in her life she had ever been photographed.

Her shawl and the background - the colors had this wonderful harmony. All I really had to do was click the shutter. I took a few pictures, and then she got up and walked away, (laughter) and that was it. I didn't know exactly what I had. This is, you know, pre-digital, and it was another almost two months before I got back and actually saw the developed film. We showed two versions to the editor of the magazine. As soon as the editor saw the one of her looking into the camera, he really leapt to his feet and said, there's our next cover.

Occasionally in life and occasionally in my photography, the stars align, and everything comes together in a sort of a miraculous way. In my career, I would have to say that my big break was photographing the Afghan girl in 1984 in a refugee camp in Pakistan. That changed my life.

RATH: Almost two decades later, Steve McCurry located and reunited with Sharbat Gula in Afghanistan. That's when he discovered her back story. She was about 12 when he took her picture. Her parents were killed in a Soviet airstrike, so she traveled for weeks with her grandmother and four siblings to several refugee camps.

MCCURRY: For a young girl who was not only a refugee, but an orphan, it was sort of anonymous. She really fell between the cracks of society there. I can only imagine how this affected her - had lost her parents and then being so far from home in a strange land. It must have just have been a very depressing life.

RATH: McCurry says he still keeps in touch with Gula and her family to this day. That photo, titled "The Afghan Girl," ran on the cover of National Geographic 30 years ago.

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