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.

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86 Comments

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.

Keith Davis's picture

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

Butch

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.

Terry Waggoner's picture

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)?

Terry Waggoner's picture

yes, it was........35 years ago we didn't know any better.........you may wish to apply todays standards with something that happened in the past........... I don't.........viewing history is how we learn...... .........like 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.

Terry Waggoner's picture

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.

Terry Waggoner's picture

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

You may politely not post to a public forum.

Terry Waggoner's picture

hmmmmmm............

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

Terry Waggoner's picture

hmmmmmmmmm...........

Steve Gould's picture

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.

stevepellegrino's picture

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.

Andy Day's picture

Some interesting points. Thanks Steve.

stevepellegrino's picture

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.

Bavarian DNA's picture

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

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