Photographer Steve McCurry has created something on a level with the "Mona Lisa" with greater potential to benefit humankind.
Many pictures may be worth the proverbial thousand words, but a National Geographic shot from 1985 and a recent follow-up elevate that evaluation to "millions," probably more.
Few who saw that National Geographic cover in 1985 featuring a 12-year-old Afghanistan refugee girl with those laser-like, penetrating eyes will have any trouble recalling it. The attractive face reflected fear, uncertainty, doubt, yet showed a poignant element of hope for the future.
The photo was shot in a refugee camp where the child's prospects for survival seemed weak at best. There was no interpreter and her name was never obtained. The magazine and photographer, Steve McCurry, decided to try to track down the girl and see whether she even was alive. She is, and the follow-up shot by McCurry is as compelling and heart-rending as the original.
The name of the subject is Sharbat Gula. She was illiterate in 1985 and that has not changed. She does not recall a lot because so much has happened. Marriage came soon after the photo, at the age of only 12 or 13. She is the mother of three girls, and her husband is a baker.
Sharbat's life has been driven by a constant battle for survival and subsistence. She has suffered the death of a child, the loss of her parents and, always, poverty. Now 29 or 30 years old, she is not quite sure, she says her main goal is for her children to get an education, something she never had.
Her "look" today? There are still those incredibly expressive eyes but time has hardened the lines of her face and has removed that slight tinge of optimism one might have discerned in the first photo. The defiant intensity of the woman leaps out. Sharbat has led a hard life, her survival such as it is remarkable and her visage amounts to an international symbol of how many needy, unfortunate-yet-courageous people the world has. There is a sign of resolve, too, as if she is saying, "I may not be the same sweet child, but I am still alive, and now I want my daughters to have things I never even could dream of."
"I don't think a day has gone by in the past 17 years that I haven't gotten some kind of a letter or e-mail or a phone call request, people wanting to send her money and people wanting to adopt her, letters from men wanting to find and marry her," says photographer McCurry.
Fortunately, there already is a movement to raise funds to educate not only Sharbat's children but others in the strife-torn Afghanistan-Pakistan region. The mother without even realizing the power of her intense gaze could become an international symbol for helping educate others, particularly girls.
History has given us many real and fictional "faces" such as the famed "Mona Lisa." The Sharbat Gula photos could well be lifted to that level in coming years. Leonardo da Vinci had no camera to capture his images. Using lenses and film, Steve McCurry created two truly memorable pictures.
In the long run, McCurry's "art work" may do more good for needy people than Mona Lisa ever came close to achieving.