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Interview: Photojournalist Looks Back At How Afghanistan Has Changed

A woman in Paris looks at a poster of the famous photograph of Sharbat Gula.
A woman in Paris looks at a poster of the famous photograph of Sharbat Gula.
Steve McCurry is a well-known photojournalist whose photograph of a young Afghan girl during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 became an iconic image of the plight of refugees.

McCurry spoke to Muhammad Tahir of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service about his experiences in Afghanistan and how it has changed since he first visited the country over 30 years ago (see below for audio of full interview).

RFE/RL: You've taken hundreds of photographs in Afghanistan, and you said you actually started in Afghanistan, so why did one photo of this little Afghan girl, Sharbat Gula, touch so many people?

Steve McCurry:
Well, that's a very good question, and maybe I'm not the best person to ask that. I know that we had thousands of letters and requests and inquiries about, you know, who was she and how could they help her. People wanted to send her clothes and help, and people wanted to adopt her.

I think there is a quality to her expression which has many different emotions, and she seems -- it's a bit ambiguous, too, what is actually.... But I think that her amazing eyes are probably the main thing which attracts people, and she has these very riveting, beautiful, almost haunted eyes looking at the viewer. So I think that's possibly the thing which attracts people to that picture.

RFE/RL: After many years, you went back to find this girl. What took you back to find her again?

The reason we went back to try and find this girl was because we had received so many letters and inquiries about her. The cover [for "National Geographic" magazine] had been so important and so popular, I was also curious myself if there was some way to find her and try and help her and do something good for her.

So, we went back in 2002 to try and locate her and it was almost like a miracle that we were able to find her.

RFE/RL: Tell me, if you can, what kind of experiences you went through when you were searching for Sharbat Gula.

Well, it was very difficult to find her, because we didn't have her name, we didn't know her tribe, we didn't know where she was living, we virtually knew nothing about this girl.

The only thing we had was the photograph, which we took back to the camp where I had photographed her originally and showed it to virtually everybody we could talk to. We were very lucky when one man we talked to remembered her brother, and he was the one who actually led us to her.

RFE/RL: You have a lot of emotions attached to Afghanistan. Can you tell me what this country means to you?

Well, the Afghan people are a wonderful people. They have a great sense of humor and they're very resilient. They're a very handsome race, and they live in an extremely beautiful country.

I have many Afghan friends and have traveled through, I would say, almost the whole country, many times. And so I have a great affection for Afghans, and I have a great admiration for their heritage and their traditions.

And they have this very beautiful landscape, very dramatic landscapes, from the deserts of the south to the mountains of Nuristan and Badakhshan. It's really just one of the most beautiful regions in the world.

RFE/RL: How is Afghanistan today compared to when you were there the first time?

To compare Afghanistan today to the way it was in 1978 when I first had gone there, in many ways it's exactly the same in the sense that the people living in the villages and the mountains -- their lives have not dramatically changed and their farming and grazing of their animals is still pretty much untouched by this modern world that we live in.

But the cities -- Kabul, Jalalabad -- with cell-phone technology and the Internet and cable television and all that, all the traffic. I remember 15 years ago there were just a few cars in Kabul, now it's basically bumper-to-bumper traffic there. Modern restaurants and shopping centers and even new hotels -- it's dramatically changed from when I went there.

It's become sort of a modern city, Kabul, and the people now have become more -- the outside world has a big influence on Afghanistan and they're no longer an isolated country. Now they've really become part of the community of that sort of West Asian neighborhood.

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