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The story behind National Geographic’s iconic ‘Afghan Girl’

Photographer Steve McCurry poses next to his photos of the \”Afghan Girl\”, Sharbat Gula

Three decades ago, Steve McCurry took arguably the most iconic picture of all time and even after all this time, the pre-eminent photographer brims with enthusiasm when he talks about “Afghan Girl”.

“I knew she had an incredible look, a penetrating gaze,” he recalls. “But there was a crowd of people around us, the dust was swirling around, and it was before digital cameras and you never knew what would happen with the film.”

“When I developed the picture, I knew it was special. I showed it to the editor of the National Geographic, and he leaped to his feet and shouted, ‘that’s our next cover’.”

Not only did “Afghan Girl” became the magazine’s next cover, but the most successful in its distinguished history.

The striking portrait of 12-year-old Sharbat Gula, a Pashtun orphan in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, was taken in December 1984 and published the following year.

The woman, now in her forties, has recently been found to be living in Pakistan.

When McCurry reflects upon its popularity, what excites him most is the impact that this single image has had on the real world.

“People volunteered to work in the refugee camps because of that photograph,” he says. “Afghans are incredibly proud of it, as the girl is poor but shows great pride, fortitude and self-respect. It drew attention to their plight, and inspired a lot of people.”

It also led the National Geographic to set up the Afghan Children’s Fund – and meant that to this day, McCurry is never charged a fare by appreciative Afghan taxi drivers.

This article originally appeared in CNN.

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