Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’: The Truth That Never Gets Told

The documentary photography of Steve McCurry has come under intense scrutiny in recent years. In this thought-provoking video, photographer Tony Northrup explores the truth around how the image was created and the story of its subject that rarely gets told.

[3.11.19: Northrup's video and the views expressed in this article have been updated. Click here.]

McCurry’s “Afghan Girl” is perhaps one of National Geographic’s most iconic magazine covers but, as Northrup reveals, it is not without controversy. The fear that is said to be seen in the model’s eyes is not fear of war but of something else, and this slight twisting of the truth makes for a more compelling story when it comes to depicting the hardships faced by refugees and the consequences of a war on the other side of the world.

Last month I wrote a long piece about photography’s capacity to tell truth through fiction, and McCurry’s work is another example of how what is in front of the lens can be used to convey a different message. Questions are then raised: is McCurry's work nothing more than the fetishization of suffering in order to sell magazines? Is the subtle mistruth justified given the attention that it brought to the plight of refugees from Afghanistan and more broadly around the world? Personally, I believe that there is a means of conveying both stories without one necessarily compromising the other. Either way, it's healthy for the community that those held with such high esteem are examined more deeply, such as the problems now being explored in the work of Robert Capa.

Northrup bravely explores some important issues in this video. Be sure to leave your comments below.

Andy Day's picture

Andy Day is a British photographer and writer living in France. He began photographing parkour in 2003 and has been doing weird things in the city and elsewhere ever since. He's addicted to climbing and owns a fairly useless dog. He has an MA in Sociology & Photography which often makes him ponder what all of this really means.

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I'd say National Geographic was guilty of that kind of behavior in general, "fetishizing" the "exotic" in order to sell magazines. And unlike many other photos that appeared in the mag over the years, at least this girl had her top on. But decades ago, it was I guess considered progressive just to be interested in other cultures. Things are different today, and I think both readers/viewers and editors know that. Although, there does still seem to be a fair amount of "poverty porn," which isn't good.

So now she’s used again to promote squarespace…

If you do a video like this on a subject like this where you say it’s not based on journalistic motives but commercial ones at the expense of the one portrayed you should be able to understand that the last thing you should do is to show any commercial motives yourself.
I like to introduce a new word, after the iso-invariance debate we now see a form of commercial-invariance where no matter the subject or sensitivity one pushes commercial motives at least 3 squarespace stops per video. In a few years this will go up to at least 5 stops.

honderd, yes, I got that slimy feeling too, the T&C made the video just to be controversial and get their numbers ups (and Squarespace sales). It's getting a little out of control.


Well said-and thank you.

Countdown as to when the regular opportunistic youtubers jump on this for views. Wonder who will be first?

Did you watch (and listen) to the entire video? ALL YT revenue from this video, including sponsorship, is going to help Afghan girls get educated.

Exactly how much has Squarespace donated and to whom?

Squarespace pays the vloggers directly. That is how Sponsorship works. Tony received sponsorship from Squarespace, and that money is being donated.

Maybe you should donate directly to her. She could at least then get some benefit for the disruption of her life.


A direct donation is a one time thing. This monetisation goes on as long as the video is up. It is a residual income stream for Afghan girls education.

How much is Tony paying to restore the damage his lies caused to Steve McCurry's reputation?

I will never understand the need to condemn what someone did, or something that happened, 35 years ago when it was consider acceptable. Attitudes and behavior change.........which is fine........ but self-righteous angst against past deeds........well to be polite.........who the hell they think they are?

You make it sound as if it was acceptable. The story Curry told was not accurate. Would it have been accepted then IF he had told the full truth (or had people been aware of the cultural significance)?

yes, it was........35 years ago we didn't know any may wish to apply todays standards with something that happened in the past........... I don't.........viewing history is how we learn...... letting women vote.........allowing biracial and same sex couples to marry..........we no longer allow slavery..........being intolerant of others...........learning that social media is a poor substitute for discussing social issues...............

«…35 years ago we didn't know any better….»
YES WE DID! The laws on model releases, photo-journalistic uses, etc., were well established more than 35 years ago, and travelers knew far much longer than that about foreign cultures, and do's & don'ts, etc.. NOTHING was new to today's standards. ….Unless you were born yesterday.

35 years ago I turned 35 years old, so I deem your response as flat out rude..................your over dramatizing. I don't mind discussing issues with those of civil minds, so...............have a good day and let there be peace in your life...............Respectfully, please don't respond.

Ⓐ If you don't want a respond from strangers, dont make a public post.
Ⓑ I was NOT making a reference to your age, but that the only way something like that is new to someone, is if that person is only just learning, because it was not relevant to them before. The use of the second person is not a reference to you in particular. It was a reference to the, “we did no,t…” a generalisation.

Feel free to respond if you want to, I don't care. This is my last response, …unless you actually respond to the actual points; we knew [he knew, or ought to have known] better 35 years ago, because the laws, rules, and guidelines concerning the photography of minors in foreign countries have not changed in far longer than 35 years.

Inaccuracies for fame was not acceptable 35 years ago. It was not acceptable when P.T. Barnum did it, it still isn't.

Address those points, and I might respond. Do not address those points, and I will not.

I politely asked you not to I only wish to respond to someone capable of civil discourse..............

You may politely not post to a public forum.


I was thinking the same thing!!!! ;-)


Self righteous much? So McCurry .."drastically violated her personal boundaries." eh? I think a more accurate description would be that he violated the boundaries imposed upon her by a brutal and backward culture that treats women like chattel. Any fear in her eyes was very likely fear that has been there from the beginning of her life.
I'm about done with all of these 'woke' social justice warriors looking decades into the past and judging every word and action by today's ultra-sensitive standards. Get off your moral high horse Tony.

«…by a brutal and backward culture ….»
Yep. That was not in the least bit offensive. Someone from a less brutal backward culture would have recognised the bias in that remark.

Calling this "The Truth That Never Gets Told" is mischaracterizing what this video is about. Tony Northrup read some articles, watched some videos and cobbled together a narrative that fits his bias. He never did his own research. He's just relying on the research of others and chose the ones that want to make her out to be a victim of an American photographer. He also makes a lot of assumptions without facts to back them up. He can't even get her age correct. She was 12, not 10. She was born in 1972 and the shot was taken in 1984.

He is jumping on the progressive 'bury the past' bandwagon of taking down Confederate statues, banning books because an offensive word is included and now going after iconic photos because they don't represent the social justice warrior attitude of 2019.

While Northrup wants to act offended by Steve McCurry and National Geographic profiting off of this photo, he has no problem doing the same. His SquareSpace discount code is the same in this video as it is for every other T&C SquareSpace sponsored video. So he's sending some proceeds to a charity, which he could have done without the SquareSpace sponsorship. But SquareSpace will continue to profit off of recurring customers and T&C benefit their YouTube channel with increased views and likes.

I feel sorry for the people on YouTube that gave him a thumbs up for the video and left positive comments believing his version of this is the truth.

I agree with you about this video, except that burying the past is not "progressive" thing. All sides do that. But, yeah, Tony got a heck of a lot of thumbs up for trashing this photographer, and a lot of pats on the back, people saying he "opened their eyes to the truth" and other such garbage. It's pretty disgusting to see the level of ignorance in the comments on YouTube.

Some interesting points. Thanks Steve.

I watched the video again and still find Northrup's interpretation of this disturbing. He is making a lot of assumptions.

Regarding the composition of the photo: "That's really the only explanation I can come up with for the unbalanced way he composed this. It only makes sense if his intention is for it to become a magazine cover."

What he's saying is that he doesn't know. In fact, McCurry didn't see the photo for the first time for several months. It's not up to the photographer as to which photo is going on the cover. That's what editors decide. But I would imagine that at the level McCurry is at or was at at the time, he wanted to always shoot a cover photo with every photo he made.

There's a lot of things Northrup doesn't know. He tries to discredit this photo as not being photojournalism because it was a posed photo and because of the situation the photo was taken.

"The US legal system has certain protections set up for photojournalists where you can pretty much publish a photo of anybody under any circumstance as long as it's classified as photojournalism."

"But nothing about how this photo was taken was journalistic."

"There was no urgency to it."

This could have been classified as journalism if it included her name and story."

He's insane. He clearly doesn't know what he's talking about. Nothing like that exists in the US legal system. We have the First Amendment, but it doesn't give special protections to photojournalists. Members of the press do not have special legal protection. They're not a separate class of people. They can be given access to events, press conferences, etc, but that's a privilege and not a protected right under the law.

Not including a name or story doesn't eliminate a photo from being photojournalism. It can also be categorized as editorial.

But I want to bring out one last issue with Tony Northrup and it's a photo from his website showing two women. It looks like a street shot or a travel shot of two elderly women, not in the USA. Did he get their permission? Signed release? Permission from their husbands? Maybe he did. Maybe he didn't. He's using it on his home page to promote his work. Directly or indirectly he is profiting from them. Did he compensate them? With over 1,200,000 million YouTube subscribers I imagine his site gets a lot of traffic.

Good questions! And that nothingburger of a photograph illustrates perfectly how much better a photographer Steve McCurry is than Tony Northrup can ever hope to be. That photo is telling. It shows Tony Northrup attempting to "be Steve McCurry" ... and falling flat on his face.

That photo is on Tony's Instagram with this caption: "Two women talk in the blue city in #morocco. 45 megapixels on the #nikond850 is nice even for insta bc it lets me crop heavy when I don't have a long enough lens. #stunnersoninsta #nikon #streetphotography"

So he shot it with the wrong lens, for some strange reason could not get close enough to those two women, got a terrible angle of them, and then cropped the photo "heavy" to make that awkward composition. It looks like a drive-by photo or a sneak shot. #Embarrassing. And this guy is throwing dirt at Steve McCurry.

I think he is jealous not having his work on any big publications too. Being an educated should make him conduct his article in a proper way if that the real intentions here which i doubt. Call the Guy and set up an interview with him. until then shut up and find something else to talk about. Agree with you Steve

"Northrup bravely explores some important issues in this video." — Do you still think so now that he took the video down?

That's a very fair point, and one that I've considered not only as a result of the video being removed. Having reflected and taken in the discussion, I'd suggest that the video explored the issues bravely but perhaps not in the right way, and without enough scope and awareness to question his own version. Given the opportunity to write my accompanying article again, I would do it differently, and certainly with greater nuance.

It's good to hear you say that, Andy.

By no means do I wish to 'pile on' or publicly wave indignation as a badge, but there is a serious problem with just saying the video "explored the issues bravely but perhaps not in the right way".

A number of the points made by Tony in the video are factually incorrect. That is not a matter of debate or controversy, they're just factually incorrect. Surely Tony was unaware of some issues, but just as surely he intentionally made claims he knew were not true.

Pretty much any photographer familiar with McCurry's work knows that there was NOT just one photo taken of 'Afghan girl'. Almost certainly Tony removed the video after McCurry made it known he was contacting his lawyer, with Tony subsequently being informed that his own legal representation that he just, quite blatantly, violated civil law.

Tony's account of how that iconic picture came into being wasn't brave but lacking nuance, it was factually incorrect, and the preponderance of evidence threshold is unquestionably met in demonstrating thus. McCurry took a number of photos of the girl, after photographing a number of other girls in the class. Tony's description of the one photo, how the girl was treated, where it was taken in the tent, along with a couple more points, were not only false, but intentionally false.

The series of photos taken of the girl, by McCurry, have been widely viewed and discussed in photography circles for decades. For Tony to come out and quite blatantly lie about the events is certainly grounds for a civil suit.

You state, falsely "photographer Tony Northrup explores the truth around how the image was created and the story of its subject that rarely gets told".

Andy, it wasn't the truth. In just a matter of a couple minutes it would have been abundantly clear Tony's account wasn't true. Again, that's not a matter of debate. It simply wasn't the case that a scared little girl was told to do something she didn't want to, have her picture made, then run off.

We have (the widely) viewed and discussed other half a dozen or so photos of various poses, positions in the tent, angle of light falling on the subject, and so forth. (It's of course not terribly uncommon for photographers to prefer the tent pole picture more.)

People can debate McCurry's account of the teacher, who thought it was important these pictures be made, that the girl was made to feel quite comfortable (the girl didn't run off scared, she went back to playing with her friends) and Tony's account (which is of course entirely hearsay and has been refuted by McCurry) but one can't say tell a story that we know is false because there are photos to prove it.

Tony took the video down, and F stoppers should take this article down. Just straight forward journalistic standards: an article's driving premise is false, so the article should be removed and a correction issued.

It's neither personal nor an insult (I'm a fan in fact) it's just an article that repeated demonstrably false claims so it should be retracted with a correction issued.

The biggest problem with his video was that he stated everything as fact and not opinion. He did it without independent research. He never took into account that maybe McCurry's memory of what transpired during those moments isn't perfect and that can also be said for the woman. After all, she didn't know about the photo for 17 years. McCurry probably took a lot of photos that day and during his time there. He didn't go to Afghanistan just to shoot that photo. While he probably suspected it was going to be a good photo he really didn't know for several months. So I doubt that either of them made a conscious effort to remember every detail of that moment.

But to your last point, yes you're right. He got the shot and I don't think reasonable people would think that McCurry was unethical in how he made this photo.

It's a bad situation.
If foul play did occur, bad investigation work by Tony Northrop does more harm than good to the truth.
Anybody can be a media today, but please be responsible. Also, viewers have a part to play. It's wrong to believe anything said by anyone.
Nobody checks sources, but we should.
It's also very wrong for a source like Fstoppers to repost without doing the work to check if the story is backed up. Fstoppers is not the only one. Every single photography related website reposted this story without checking facts.

«She was 12, not 10. She was born in 1972 and the shot was taken in 1984.»
Where is YOUR research? Tony gave his. The girl said she was 10. McCurry claimed she was “about 12.” She KNOWS when she was born. McCurry did not even know her name, speak directly to her, speak to any of her family members, and CLAIMED she was an orphan, who moved there with her grandmother.

Tony also reached out to NatGeo and McCurry, who did not respond before the video was released, and, when McCurry finally responded, (after seeing the video), he did the right thing to remove the wideo, go through the response, ask for further clarification, compare facts and figures, apologise for the two things he got wrong, corrected the mistakes, and listed all his sources, before reposting the video. He even waited for further clarification rom McCurry before reposting.

So who is jumping to conclusions now? It was a great journalism piece, and done with great professionalism. (Although, I would have waited a little longer than a few business days before posting the video).

Wikipedia has her birth year of 1972, which would have made her 12 at the time.

You also have to take into account that when asked years later she may not have remembered exactly how old she was when the photo was taken. Memories change.

You must remember that McCurry said, “She looked about 12 years old.” and that Wikipedia is edited by humans who read. I would check the source on Wp, but it appears slow right now. What does it have for her birthday?

People remember traumatic events in their lives. They really do. I find it funny that you trust McCurry who said, “she looked like,…” and Wikipedia over SG. LOL.

[EDIT] BOABDL! Wikipedia page just loaded. DWL! It is filled with so many errors it is not funny. The one that had me laughing the most, (which is when I quit), was when it casually said that she returned to her homeland. She has always considered Pakistan home, and was kicked out of Pakistan, deported to Afghanistan. That is not a, “she had returned to her native country from the refugee camp….”

It is basically the McCurry story, including the lie that her parents were killed in a bombing!

Check your sources! [/EDIT]

I certainly believe McCurry over a no-talent like Northrup who has to use the work of others to boost his YouTube channel.

You asked me my source for her age. I gave it to you. I'm not going to debate what is or isn't accurate on Wikipedia. I really don't care who you believe. You've made it your mission to give everyone in this thread a thumbs down and debate them. That's kind of pathetic.

My source for her age is Sharbat Gula. Your source for her age is —ultimatuly— McCurry. The Wikipedia article did not give the source for her stated age as 12, nor for her birth year, but when one looks at the sources for the Wp article, it is clear.

If you think that a man saying, “She looks like twelve,” as more reliable than a girl saying, “I was ten,” then more power to you.

Bear in mind that young men and women from that side of the world tend to appear older at that age than Western people, then look younger in there thirties and beyond. From age fifteen onward, I was never carded. today, people think that I am in my thirties.

I only downvote those who give false data as truth without the research or sources. When someone outright lies, and says things like, “She was twelve, [because McCurry says so], and does not know when she was born, [because Wp says so, based on McCurry's words], then, yes! I downvote that post.

I will always downvote a factually incorrect post, (but I never downvote opinions which differ from mine).

What is pathetic is that you are faced with the truth, but because it differs from your stance, instead of accepting the truth, you argue it to support your position. McCurry continued to disrespect Sharbat Gula by calling here Sharbat Bibi, as if that would make it cute or something. (The Wp page disrespects her by calling her “Gula.” Her name is, Sharbat Gula).

P.s., Northtup's source is Sharbat Gula.

Northrup's source is articles he read. He never interviewed anyone, never went over to investigate. He's an armchair hack.

My source is not McCurry. As I told you it is Wikipedia. Here's the screenshot. If you looked at a different page, that's not my problem. If you looked at this page but didn't see the year of birth, that's not my problem.

Dude, get a life or ask the Northrup's if you can move in with them because you have some issues.

«Northrup's source is articles he read.»
…Which quote McCurry and Sharbat Gula. It is not, “I read that Steve McQueen said,….” It is, “McCurry is quoted here as saying,… and Sharbat Gula is quoted here as saying….” That is, the ultimate sources are McCurry & Sharbat Gula.

«He never interviewed anyone, never went over to investigate.»
He tried. He sent communiques to both McCurry and Nat Geo. Neither one responded before the first article published.

After the first article published, McCurry's team contacted Tony, saying that they have a few corrections which they are preparing. Tony took down the video and waited for the ‘corrections.’ On getting the response, Tony contacted McCurry's team for further clarification and explanation. Nat Geo never contacted Tony.

«My source is not McCurry. …it is Wikipedia.»
…Which is sourced mainly by interviews from McCurry, so your ultimate source is McCurry. I read the article. It is full of the same falsehoods which McCurry is quoted as saying by Tony. Wp has its sources listed at the bottom. The source of the birth year of Sharbat Gula is not given. It is listed as, ‘circa 1972,’ meaning, they don't know. It is extrapolated from their sources, which are interviews by McCurry. If you do not know how to use Wikipedia, that is your problem, and I am just trying to help you.

BTW, 1974 is circa 1972, depends on what you call, “circa.”

As I said earlier, “check your sources.!”

I'm not even going to read your last reply. Dude seriously, you need to get a life. Get off your computer, pick up your camera, go outside and take some photos. Life is too short for pointless arguments that have no effect on your life.

What is the point of being a coward who does not read replies then complains about them? If you don't want people to reply, do not post to public forums.

Posting to a public forum, then refusing to even read replies is proof of trolling.

Expect no other reply from me, ….unless you reply with an actual relevant comment.

Tony Northrup has proven to be the worst journalist in the world, crafting nothing more than a hit piece. Tony's so-called "journalism" has been shown to be riddled with false statements and misrepresentations. An ethical, professional journalist would never make all of these blatant errors:

Again, not going through an anonymously posted, unresearched, set of claims. If someone wants to accuse Tony, accuse him boldly, with precisely what he said that was false, excluding what he already corrected.

Not taking the bait.

P.s., he is NOT a journalist, never claimed to be. This is his first such article, and was NOT intended to be a journalistic piece.

You are right: he is no journalist. Not by any stretch. But he does pretend to be a journalist. He claimed that he was telling the "disturbing true story", pretending to have uncovered it with his "research". And he commented to Ted Forbes that he had "broken a story" about the Afghan Girl photo. Again, the man pretends to be a journalist. The problem is that he utterly fails. Fails at journalistic methods (interviews no one, slants everything) and fails at journalistic ethics (produces a slanderous hit piece).

I can't blame you for not wanting to defend each of Tony Northrup's false statements and misrepresentations individually. There are simply too many, and they really are indefensible. No need to waste more time defending the clickbaiter.

«But he does pretend to be a journalist.»
To he does not. He actually did a story. THat his not his occupation. I bake fom time to time. That does not make me a baker. I cook from time to time. That does not make me a chef. You claimed that Tony was the worst journalist in the world. That is to what I was responding.

He NEVER pretended to be anything, but a person who wanted to do a vlog about the “Afghan Girl” image, but [re-]discovered some truth about the image, and did not feel good about doing the original intended video, sharing what he found in his research of the image. YOU AND YOU ALONE made him out to be a journalist.

Did he research? Yes! Did he reach out for comments? Yes. Did he interview anyone? YES! (…Which is not always necessary to do journalism). Did he slant anything? No. (Well, not on the topics he was covering. You can say that he never mentioned x, y, or z, but that may not be germane to his story). Did he slander anyone? No. Did he attack anyone? NO.

Since YOU CLAIM he slandered someone, and since you claimed he slanted something, and since you claimed, he attacked someone, put YOUR NAME in a post so that we can see these wrongdoings, and comment on YOUR findings.

As I said so many time already, I will not comment on a document written by an anonymous coward who would not put his name to it, and would not allow comment.

My findings are that he lied and that he made stupid errors, with the aim of defaming Steve McCurry with a fake "true story". My findings are that his sources don't reflect his conclusions, but rather show the sloppiness of his work, and the outright lies that he made up. My findings are that he bragged about "breaking a story" when he released his defamatory video.

And NO, Tony did not interview anyone for the video. Not even one witness to any of the facts. That's clear from the video and from his notes. So it's also clear that you are lying on his behalf.

My findings are that Tony is a zero of a photographer compared to Steve McCurry. For evidence, see Tony's sneak shot of the two women above -- an embarrassingly bad photo even after Tony's heavy crop, and yet it's on Tony's IG.

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