National Geographic and the Afghan Girl: A Case for Critique Using Edmund Chow’s Applied Performance Model

In an earlier post, I wrote about the insidiousness of the media and the unethical objectification of women, especially that of the Afghan girl in the 1985 issue of National Geographic (see link). In 2002, National Geographic went out in search of the mysterious girl with Steve McCurry, the original photographer, and a “team of experts, including a forensic pathologist, who constructed from the original photograph a model of the girl’s face seventeen years later. In addition, it sent the photograph to John Daugman, inventor of automatic iris recognition, a technology that uses iris patterns much as we use fingerprints to determine identity” (Dinah Zeiger, p.270, ‘That (Afghan) Girl! Ideology Unveiled in National Geographic’, in ‘The Veil: Women Writers on its History, Lore, and Politics’ (2008), edited by Jennifer Heath).

After the team had located that Afghan girl, the team went on to examine her in detail, exacerbating the cultural insensitivities employed in this endeavour. The Afghan girl, now a woman identified as Sharbat Gula, had to be isolated for an eye examination by a male optometrist, albeit in the presence of her husband. Zeiger writes about this at length:

“The doctor removes her veil and places her on a chair at an angle to, not facing, the camera. In the video, we look at her, but she does not look back at us. For viewers and experts alike, Sharbat Gula becomes an object for scrutiny rather than an identified subject; McCurry even gazes on her through a crack in the door, literally spying on her. The camera focuses an extremely tight shot on her eyes, but she still does not look directly at it or us. Later, other experts examine her image, deploying all the technologies of surveillance available: we see her eyes enlarged to billboard size and tacked on a wall surrounded by macroimages of parts of her face; we observe as Daugman, the iridian specialist at Moorfield Eye Hospital in London, takes meticulous measurements and finally declares a perfect match. Conclusive evidence — based on the accurate measurements and photographs of her eyes — provided the proof that she was the Afghan girl photographed seventeen years before.” (pp.270-1)

The Afghan Girl, Sharbat Gula, in the 1985 and 2002 images taken by Steve McCurry for National Geographic

In her chapter, Zeiger highlights the position National Geographic adopts, being the “arbiter of American culture by revitalizing natural history as a topic of popular culture, which, in turn, provided the  materials for stories about the world, above all, the peoples of the world” (p.270), then criticises National Geographic for treating the veil as a prison and the “women as the oppressed victims of gender or religious practice passively awaiting rescue” (p.267). This ideological position vehemently disregards the possible motives behind the veiling, from “resistance to Western colonialism, to privacy, to the sense of liberation, of being ‘seen for their minds rather than as sex objects'” (ibid.). Zeiger continues to add that because of National Geographic’s status as a scientific magazine, it institutionalises itself as the gatekeeper of scientific truth. In other words, what ‘data’ is presented in Nat Geo had been rigorously investigated and thoroughly researched, and can therefore be passed off as irrefutable, objective truth.

In a feature story, “A Life Revealed“, from the National Geographic official website, Cathy Newman chronicles the search:

No, said a man who got wind of the search. He knew the girl in the picture. They had lived at the camp together as children. She had returned to Afghanistan years ago, he said, and now lived in the mountains near Tora Bora. He would go get her.

It took three days for her to arrive. Her village is a six-hour drive and three-hour hike across a border that swallows lives. When McCurry saw her walk into the room, he thought to himself: This is her.

Names have power, so let us speak of hers. Her name is Sharbat Gula, and she is Pashtun, that most warlike of Afghan tribes. It is said of the Pashtun that they are only at peace when they are at war, and her eyes—then and now—burn with ferocity. She is 28, perhaps 29, or even 30. No one, not even she, knows for sure. Stories shift like sand in a place where no records exist.

Time and hardship have erased her youth. Her skin looks like leather. The geometry of her jaw has softened. The eyes still glare; that has not softened. “She’s had a hard life,” said McCurry. “So many here share her story.” Consider the numbers. Twenty-three years of war, 1.5 million killed, 3.5 million refugees: This is the story of Afghanistan in the past quarter century.

Now, consider this photograph of a young girl with sea green eyes. Her eyes challenge ours. Most of all, they disturb. We cannot turn away.
(emphasis mine. Click here for the full article)

Mixed together with adventure narrative (e.g. “It took three days for her to arrive. Her village is a six-hour drive and three-hour hike across a border that swallows lives.”) and third-person recounts (e.g. “No, said a man who got wind of the search. He knew the girl in the picture.”), Newman’s feature story seems to finally humanise the girl McCurry had photographed, excusing the unethical practice of the 1985 photoshoot while legitimising the search by pinning the name “Sharbat Gula” on the cover story now.

But McCurry’s first-person recount seems odd to me. He says, “She’s had a hard life. So many here share her story.” How would he know? What does he know?

Odder still are the declarative statements made by the writer, insisting that Sharbat Gula’s eyes “challenge ours”. Consequently, “[w]e cannot turn away”. The use of the first person pronouns — ours, we — is highly problematic. Who are the “we” implicated in the story? It would be presumptuous of Newman to assume that the “we” represents all mankind throughout all geographic locations and across all ethnic groups, class and gender. By inference through metonymic association of the camera lens, I believe she meant the Americans. White Americans.

How did my inference come about? I now turn to my Applied Performance Model (Chow,  2012; see earlier post on its definitions) to highlight the different interpretations rendered to the images and search for the Afghan Girl.

Applied Performance Model 1: National Geographic's Positionality

FIGURE 1: Applied Performance Model of National Geographic’s Positionality

In Figure 1 above, the “context of culture” is represented by National Geographic as the institution, the scientific magazine which publishes Steve McCurry’s images. Whether McCurry as the “director” of the photoshoot was paid first or was reimbursed later is not an issue, but the fact that Nat Geo has its stamp of authorisation on the 1985 Afghan Girl coverphoto endorses the bi-relationship between “director” and “institution”.

Because of the publication worldwide, global audiences partake in the consumption of this image. Perhaps due to the anonymity of the photographer’s subject and the need to humanise her led to the search of the Afghan Girl almost two decades later. The production of the first image now causes the second reproduction of the same image, albeit over time. Different images, same girl. Different motivations, same callousness.

The circulation of the Afghan Girl continues in a cyclical manner, where global audiences and readers now are complicit in the exploitation of Afghan refugees, reinforcing the same tactic used to invade Afghanistan after 9/11 through force and violence. Nat Geo’s violence, however, is symbolic. It violates cultural sensitivities of gender roles and touch in Afghanistan (cf. male optometrist doing an eye exam with an Afghan lady).

But where is the complicity? Global audiences. Nat Geo readers approve of this through their yearly subscription of print copies for as low as USD$15. That’s the price people pay to have violence enacted. How cheaply they regard the lives of children, women, and Afghans in general!

If we saw the “Context of Culture” as Afghanistan or Peshawar, Pakistan, in this example, and the “Context of Situation” as a camp for Afghan refugees, photojournalists from Nat Geo would have exhibited a lot more sensitivity and ethical responsibility through the 1985 and 2002 shoots.

Below are a few quotes from Dinah Zeiger on the issue of veiling again, which I have categorised as context of culture:

Context of Culture:

“What many Westerners fail to understand is that it is not the veil alone but the way geographic, economic, and social relationships in Afghanistan intertwine to oppress women.” (p.272)

“Part of the complex Afghan value system derives from the belief that humans struggle between conflicting inclinations — aql or reason, and fitna or chaos, which results when desires are not checked. Women are equated with desire and fitna, from which men must be protected. Thus, the virtuous woman behaves appropriately by covering her head and body and living separately, in purdah or seclusion. Veiling assumes cultural status connected to a woman’s, and thus her family’s, honor and respect for social order.” (p.273)

These, of course, were not told to Nat Geo. Neither did they bother to research on these cultural mores. They’d rather take on the scientific route to prove and disprove accuracies of images. They’d rather engage Art — yes, photography is an art — with the Audience than the Participants or subjects of the community.

Furthermore, the situational context (or Context of Situation) when Photographer meets Refugee and his negotiation with her has not been documented. That could mean that there is a total disregard for the community he engages with, and herein lies my criticism of Nat Geo photojournalists working in developing countries, especially in conflict zones, with this mantra:

I come. I “shoot”. I leave.

National Geographic must understand that an image or photograph does not only serve to document or archive a reality, fixed forever on glossy pages, but it dangerously deconstructs that reality and reconstitutes a newer one, in this case, specifically on  Afghans. How Afghans are portrayed — underscored, again, by a lifetime of war, suffering and violence — permeates white consciousness, and so re-circulates the image for global consumption, as seen in the Applied Performance Model (Fig. 1) above.

Zeiger continues to show background information to her research, adding credibility and therefore political-social-cultural sensitivities when talking about Afghans. She writes:

“Yet Western media accounts of the 1979-88 Soviet-Afghan civil war largely ignored its gender dimensions, focusing instead on the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism. Stories appearing in popular Western media focused on boy warriors, and the bombing and strafing tactics of the Soviet forces. When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1988, Western media shifted attention to the plight of refugees, but as the Taliban — fundamentalists trained in Arab religious schools in Pakistan — overran its opponents, journalists fixated on the brutality of that regime as epitomized by its treatment of women. In these accounts, Western complicity in arming and funding the mujahedin generally passed without comment. […] By implication, American power is clean, rational, and constructive, while barely understood Muslim society is shown as oppressive — wracked by irrational, random violence involving personal assault, hatred, and fanaticism. We assume our system is benevolent and nonideological, which blinds us to our responsibility in creating the conditions that aggravate the violence.” (p.276)

I think I know why Cathy Newman from Nat Geo states emphatically: “Now, consider this photograph of a young girl with sea green eyes. Her eyes challenge ours. Most of all, they disturb. We cannot turn away.” It is probably because Sharbat Gula feels violated by another symbolic act of violence, even after those seventeen years. The Westerners still have not learned to respect cultures. They still have not learned to accept  differences. They still have not learned to honour traditions. Despite the guilt of neocolonialism, the Westerners still have not learned to leave the ‘exoticised’ Asians alone. All because of power. All because of commodification.