Violation

EDIT: Please read my Comments Policy before commenting on this post. In a nutshell – you are free to express dissenting views, but if you want your comment published, keep the discussion civil. It will also help if you have enough basic reading comprehension to grasp that this post has been up since 2002. Thanks so much xx

afghan-girl

I bought a copy of the April National Geographic today. It’s not something I normally do, but I was struck by the cover, – you know the photo National Geographic always show of the young girl with the very striking eyes? They had found her and re-photographed her as she is now. In the story that accompanies the photos, the photographer explains how the original photo was taken; he asked permission to enter a school and asked one of the young girls – who had never had her photo taken – if she would allow him to do it. He says he was aware that since she was a only a few years away (at most) from putting on a veil, that she and others may have been reticent about the photo, but that didn’t stop him.

15 years later, they (along with documentary crew!) started searching for her, no doubt to provide a sense of happy ending to America with regards to both this woman and Afghanistan as a whole post Sept 11. Eventually they succeeded.

If in the older image, she was tough, curious, perplexed, somewhat intimidated and defiant, in this photo she looks hostile, humiliated, resigned and violated. It is as if more than her veil has been ‘ripped’ from her face, but her self-respect. The veil and what it represents is obviously important to her, as she comments that it is a “beautiful thing”. Her name is broadcast in print. I imagine that to her, exposing her face and identity to the world (and thus to men to whom she is not related) is a rape of her most private self.

I see photos of her husband and brother sitting next to her proprietorialy. I see the photographer once again appropriating her image to publish via tv, video, internet and paper. The photographer notes (in a somewhat condescending way) that she won’t look him in the eye – or any man who is not her husband for that matter – that she will only look into the camera lense. He notes that the photos he has taken of her are the only photos she has ever had taken of her.

A photograph is an image, albeit one that reflects the photographer as much as the subject herself. The photographer in this instance is not concerned with ‘The Afghan Girl’ as a woman or as a human being. She is an object, the end goal of a quest, and hence his interest in her is only concerned with greater glory for himself and The Story. He does not allow us to get to know her, beyond his romanticised vision of her life, his view of her and her convictions as quaint and exotic. She is the Mysterious East personified, and stripped bare and barren, deviod of any meaning beyond what the Civilised West chooses to give her.

If ever photography was guilty of stealing souls, it is the case here.

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41 Responses to “Violation”


  1. 1 Kyle Kruchok Monday, 8 June 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Excellent post, my friend. Stumbled across this. Keep it up.

  2. 2 Paul Sunday, 14 June 2009 at 11:30 am

    I just stumbled by as well. I feel like I’ve visited before. You did a good job of explaining why the second photo gives me a weird “sinking ” feeling.

  3. 3 Devin Tuesday, 11 August 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Lay off the coffee. If she and her family felt “raped” by the photograph, the photographer and the attention that came with it, they would not have never allowed the second photograph to have been taken.

    National Geographic does fantastic work. They open up a world that, to most of us, would otherwise remain unknown. Your article was the first I have ever read that took such a negative view of their work.

    Recently, in Perú, a team of journalist and photographers for National Geographic were robbed while doing a story about the Nasca lines in the south of Perú, and there was not a single editorial response in the local papers that expressed anything other than shame and embarrassment.

    The Peruvian viewpoint was that National Geographic was doing a great thing for the country. The magazine helping to bring attention to part of the storied history of their country.

  4. 4 Fatadelic Tuesday, 11 August 2009 at 7:37 pm

    Devon, you are entitled to your opinion. Nevertheless, I think you have missed the crucial point that her husband gave permission for the shoot. I doubt her opinion or permission was sought or given.

    • 5 chick37324 Sunday, 6 September 2009 at 3:53 am

      I think its sad that so very many people(esp. men) are so very small minded. No one has the right to own anyone, no matter what country you live in. A life should be celebrated and enjoyed never held back and smothered. Shame on them for being so selfish and big headed. Those who take away fire from life should have theirs removed and thrown into isolation. Let them dwell.

  5. 6 stefanie Tuesday, 18 August 2009 at 8:04 am

    Amazing that you can see “she looks hostile, humiliated, resigned and violated. It is as if more than her veil has been ‘ripped’ from her face, but her self-respect.”
    I think she looks like a hard working, devoted Muslim wife and mother, who lives in poverty, and has had little education. We probably ought not apply western values to her, she obviously doesn’t want the attention.

  6. 7 Rose Saturday, 22 August 2009 at 3:36 pm

    What the hell is wrong with you all. Who the F*** gave that bloody monster of a photographer a camera? So that he could abuse the rights of an innocent girl, so he could become famous. I’m an Afghan and i find it disgusting how this man has taken her photo and posted out so the entire world can see her. Women in Afghanistan are already intimated, abused and taken advantage of. And to post her picture out so that all the western world can see her is almost the equivalent of rape. And to Devin. You are an ignorant, westerner with no understanding of what it is like to be an afgahn. Yes you say that national geographic writes great articles but what has it done to recognize the trouble going on in my country other that inform you ignorant people of false information. You have no right to question the girl, saying that she is the one who gave her consent for the photograph, it was her husband, so get a life and F*** off.

    • 8 Dave Monday, 4 January 2010 at 12:30 am

      Well, I’m thinking that it wasn’t the photographer but the country. Permission was given to have the photograph taken, and so it was. He came back didn’t he? He didn’t stay and harass the girl for years to cause this “pained” face? I’m not sure how anyone can blame the photographer for wanting to complete his story about a woman there. I doubt he made that much money off the damn thing anyways.

    • 9 Fatadelic Monday, 4 January 2010 at 11:49 am

      Dave:

      I doubt he made that much money off the damn thing anyways.

      Well, I guess whether he personally made money depends on whether he or National Geographic owns the rights on the photo. But someone made money off it. Are you seriously saying that one of the most reproduced and iconic images of the 20thC did not make money? It clearly made enough money for National Geographic to a) fund a follow up documentary and b) feel guilty enough to set up the Afghan Girl fund.

      But whether the image made money or not is beside the point.

  7. 10 sarah. Tuesday, 1 September 2009 at 12:49 am

    I agree with Rose and Devin, I can sort of see both sides of the scale on this. I think it is a violation of the woman, and that she seems intimidated by the photographer, but also I do think that the photograph is interesting, showing how the girl has developed into a woman. Her face to me shows hard work, but also maybe a cry for help.. I’m not claiming to be an expert or anything, thats just my opinion.

  8. 11 EP Friday, 18 September 2009 at 5:40 pm

    If you’re going to lash out at the world, there’s a lot of different targets to choose from. National Geographic photographers are not high on the list.

  9. 12 Brad Sunday, 20 September 2009 at 6:40 am

    I feel sick that my countrymen are in Afganistan fighting and dying for people like Rose above.

  10. 13 Fatadelic Monday, 21 September 2009 at 1:42 pm

    EP – Mustn’t attack National Geographic photographers? Just because some dill like you thinks talking about the politics of gender, religion and colonialism isn’t ‘high on’ (presumably) his list? Get a life.

    Also, Brad – I’m kind of sick that this post has been up on the internet since 2002 when the National Geographic issue was published, but has only recently being found by jingoistic Americans who can see nothing wrong with their invasion of Afghanistan and just WILL NOT allow anyone else to hold a differing opinion about it.

  11. 14 saima Thursday, 22 October 2009 at 6:15 pm

    Personally, I find this a big violation of her cultural and religious values. Obviously her husband gave permission, probably without a second thought. In Afghan culture, the host if very hospitable, so the husband was MOST likely trying to just be nice. He probably didn’t even know what his decision would mean. i also agree that national geographic has its pros, but it also has its cons(like everything). I am Afghan and Muslim. If a man came up to me and asked me to take off my scarf, so that he may show the world how long my hair has grown since the last picture(during the time of my younger years), i would probably laugh and tell him to get another person to defile. BUT then again…im not in that society….and even if i was..i would still FEEL wrong, very wrong about the whole shoot.
    wow this is long, but i really liked this post, so i just had to respond. thank you.

    • 15 Deepthawt Sunday, 15 November 2009 at 12:56 am

      For all the criticism that “the western world” receives from the eastern world, you would think that Easterners would stay in their countries and never set foot in places like America. But they do come to our countries seeking refuge, freer lives and are able to continue practising their beliefs. There are only a very small handful of Westerners that have immersed themselves in Muslim culture and countries and I doubt that they are over there complaining about there rights as North American’s to do what they want. What you have forgotten is that there is an uprising of Muslim women that are choosing not to wear the vail. A lot of these women are beaten, raped, tortured and even lit on fire and killed for the slightest missteps of cultural law. Living in fear is not the way mankind was meant to live nor any woman or child! Trust me, if the Afghan men were subject to this type of treatment there would be a war or pleads for help! Oh, Pardon me! The Taliban controlling the region….there is a war! DO YOU GET IT NOW!?! It’s just like the syndrome when a kidnapper has a hold of someone and rapes them repeatedly for weeks, the victim somehow comes to terms with their situation. They accept the slave like treatment because it’s easier for the mind to rationalize it than to cope with the reality of the trauma. Just remember, the photographer ASKED to take the picture…that’s how he got it!

    • 16 Fatadelic Wednesday, 23 December 2009 at 10:27 pm

      The point is not ‘ooh, America is evil’ or even ‘Afghan women are oppressed’.

      The point is simply this; PRIVACY and RESPECT.

      1) Her privacy as a young girl on the threshold of womanhood should have been respected years ago (I very much doubt the photographer gave a rats arse about obtaining a photo release to use her image commercially – why bother, she was just a girl refugee).
      2) Her privacy should have been respected as an adult woman just getting on with her life.

  12. 17 sedonabear Wednesday, 4 November 2009 at 3:46 am

    Has anyone responding to this post personally met or spoke with the “girl”, or her husband? No? Then I don’t think the detractors of this beautiful work of art or the artist are in any position to comment on how, or what, or why the “girl” or her husband feel about it.

    I have stumbled accross this photo many times over many years, and I appreciate it for what it factually is: an image. It is an image that has inspired emotion, mystery, and imagination in me. It has done exactly what art is supposed to do, and the artist should be commended, and I highly doubt that the photo was obtained with either force or threat of force. In fact, I am pretty sure that the photographer politely asked to take the images.

    So why don’t you violent liberal scum get a grip on reality, and stop injecting your personal politics into areas where it is not wanted or warranted.

  13. 18 Holly Saturday, 7 November 2009 at 8:09 am

    I must admit that the photo of this woman as a girl has always intrigued me. It is beautiful. Her eyes almost look through you. Seeing her as an adult gives me chills. I agree with you that she looks as though she has been violated and I cannot imagine the humiliation that she must feel by be being made to take off her veil. While I wish that it was not a part of her existance to be expected or required to cover her face, it is. I am sure that it would feel the same if my husband forced me to be photographed by a stanger without my top. The beauty of this woman has nothing to do with her face being covered or uncovered. Her eyes tell her tale. It is apparent that she has let a hard life, and the light has left her eyes. Thank you for your post, even if I am several years late reading it.

  14. 19 Pari Sunday, 8 November 2009 at 2:39 pm

    I am an EDUCATED Afghan woman, and I am a little repelled by your comment “ROSE…?” If the lady did not want her picture taken-she WOULDN’t have allowed it! God! She was beautiful and now the whole world understands that Afghan women are beautiful as well. Get over it. I’m proud and I am sure she is too. Her husband was smiling and proud while they shot her pictures as an adult. She seemed somewhat apprehensive-but not because she was humiliated, or exploited but more likely because she was afraid of what the people in her town would say. I’m sure she’s not used to that sort of attention. They didn’t force her to pose as an adult. As a child, they still asked. Typical “Afghan” drama, Rose.

  15. 20 Pari Sunday, 8 November 2009 at 2:44 pm

    I must have missed the part where she was forced to take her hijab off…? There are A LOT worse things going on in my counrty and most of it is being done by their own “men.”

  16. 21 Sven Tuesday, 10 November 2009 at 9:29 am

    I actually think her look in both pictures is quite similar. I see a kind of wild and somewhat scared look in the picture where she was younger, a look that I see in the new picture as well. Just more mature, less wild and as if she’s very tired.

    I don’t see what you describe as her most private self being raped (!!?). How can you make such horrible assumptions about the photographer? Of course she was the object in that moment, where he wants the photo of someone who might very well be or has been his muse to be perfect, as he is an artist. But I’m sure it’s not as if she’s just an object to him outside of the photo as well.

    And besides all of that, her ‘violated’, ‘resigned’ look. I guess the years have not been so kind on her! I have no idea how it is to be in such a constant war OF terror but try imagining how you would look. Who cares about a veil when people are ACTUALLY being raped and killed all around you.

    You even go as far as saying that this is like “stealing souls”, while the artist most likely just wanted to take another photograph of this woman that for some reason has captivated us all for all these years. I’m sure he was still fascinated by her himself.

  17. 22 morte Wednesday, 11 November 2009 at 1:19 pm

    The reason she looks tired, broken, etc in the second picture is mostly due what she has been through in her life.
    Sometimes, when the hardships of life go on for too long, even in their real smiles you can see signs of sadness. It is because the muscles of face start to get the shape of the expression that is very often on the person’s face, in this case; tired and sad as the result of hardship and wars.

    Since no one is really aware of the context of which the photo was taken, maybe she personally chose to be photographed or maybe not.

  18. 23 Fatadelic Wednesday, 11 November 2009 at 7:29 pm

    In the street she wears a plum-colored burka, which walls her off from the world and from the eyes of any man other than her husband. “It is a beautiful thing to wear, not a curse,” she says.

    Faced by questions, she retreats into the black shawl wrapped around her face, as if by doing so she might will herself to evaporate. The eyes flash anger. It is not her custom to subject herself to the questions of strangers. (My emphasis)

    THAT does not sound like the behaviour of someone who has consented to the interview or the photo.

    Notice also how much her husband speaks for her, not allowing her her own voice, even ‘correcting’ her about how old she was when she married. The husband grandstands. She wants to hide.

    • 24 Brad Wednesday, 11 November 2009 at 11:06 pm

      They say a picture is worth a thousand words and this thread certainly demonstrates that. I myself always wondered what ever happened to this beautiful girl whose photo I saw so many times over the years.

      Am I the only one who saw the follow up on TV? They went to Afganistan, searched for this girl and found her and her family. The whole thing was on 20/20 or 60 Minutes or one of those shows. I don’t recall anything that appeared as a violation of any sort. I just remember her as being camera shy as I’m sure any woman in that society would be.

      I think some people are creating a big controversy where there is none. Would a big TV network go out and “violate” a woman and then show their cruelty to millions of viewers? Was there condemnation in the media? Let’s get real.

  19. 25 mia Thursday, 19 November 2009 at 6:21 am

    Interesting text and blog. Just passed by but the way you write made me stay.

  20. 26 Anon Friday, 20 November 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Absolutely correct, Brad. But everyone has to be an “America is Evil” conspiracy theorist. Has anyone considered the fact that maybe she’s just had a rough freaking life and it shows on her face? She looks much older than she really is, and I’m sorry but no photographer can do that to her. She pretty much has the same look on her face as any veiled woman I’ve seen photographed. I’m inclined to think someone else is to blame besides the photographer.

    • 27 Fatadelic Wednesday, 23 December 2009 at 10:21 pm

      You are kind of missing the point. Rough life aside, respect her privacy.

  21. 28 Medusa Sunday, 29 November 2009 at 10:44 am

    It saddens me that while Afghan men continue to control every aspect of women’s lives people instead attack Steve Murray (the ‘monster’ photographer according to Rose) & National Geographic who were responsible for setting up the Afghan Girls Fund (a charitable organization with the goal of educating Afghan girls and young women).

    By the way Rose who gave you the right to swear? (remember you’re an Afghan women!!!).

    • 29 Fatadelic Wednesday, 23 December 2009 at 10:30 pm

      National Geographic’s fund is in one sense, creditable – yet in another they continue to exploit her image and photo to do so. This does not address issues of respect, privacy and colonialism.

  22. 30 waffle247 Sunday, 29 November 2009 at 7:19 pm

    Ah I see 2 photos of the same person. That’s all. The comments about what can be read into it are all hearsay. Perhaps on the morning of the first event she had just eaten a really nice breakfast and had a nice time but on the second event she’d just spent the morning doing lots of housework and hadn’t got around to eating yet so was feeling a bit tired and in a bad mood? Don’t go reading more into a picture than is there.

  23. 31 jess Wednesday, 2 December 2009 at 2:22 am

    that was so sad. I would have never thought of that, but its true. With the way they view everything and how they treat women, it would make sense that she would feel that way by having other men look at her picture. I feel kind of bad for her. I have never read the article, but Im going to go find out what this photographer had to say.

  24. 32 shoaib Sunday, 13 December 2009 at 2:20 am

    Know what ?I Came after following this pic,got the tragedy that she has been suffering from,m just 23 n feel like crying,when i SAW the pic(google images) i was almost had the idea what all this was about,but then you lighted up on the photographers naive nature,when will humans understand the true meaning of life and how precious it is,that we had the chance to live it.

  25. 33 shoaib Monday, 4 January 2010 at 5:41 am

    Yeah you are right,its simply bout privacy and respect,
    Thnx for such a nice blog.

  26. 34 Jessica12788 Tuesday, 12 January 2010 at 11:39 am

    I, as an American, Christian, woman, agree with Rose, Stefanie, EP, Saima and Fatadelic. To a POINT.

    I find the pictures beautiful. And whether or not she was forced to take the pictures, I believe that it is not our place to judge. I hope, for her sake, That she wasn’t forced to be photographed without her veil, but I guess we will never know.

    I think that the belief and reasoning behind wearing a scarf is Beautiful and refreshing. To have something that is just between you and your husband.

    When I turn on the TV all I see is half naked people.
    I have seen a father beat his child in wal*mart.
    Someone shot himself just down the street from my home.

    The problem, throughout all history of man kind has been that people are to concerned with what everyone else is doing and not concerned enough with themselves.

    And Some people, like the photographer, lack RESPECT.
    Respect either for themselves, others or the environment.

    How do you treat your sister/brother/husband/wife/children/neighbors?

  27. 35 kushman Tuesday, 12 January 2010 at 6:23 pm

    Why be so sanctimonious about her ‘privacy’ and ‘respect’. While these are important things they are sometimes not relevant indices for action. There are thousands of pictures like this taken every day for various reasons but all end up serving one ultimate human need… Our need to share. If our overzealous concerns for privacy and ‘respect’ allow our interactions only in words then how on earth could we share our lives that are based on what we see? If consent was asked and given then effort was made. If we feel embarrassed by what we see we cannot hide under the guise of privacy and respect. Indeed greater respect is accorded by this photograph by breeding consideration. Those of us who scoff at it are being disrespectful… not wanting her life and her likes to be shared which is well done by the ‘Afgan Girls Fund’.

    Please enough hoola baloo and share!

    • 36 Fatadelic Tuesday, 12 January 2010 at 7:23 pm

      If our overzealous concerns for privacy and ‘respect’ allow our interactions only in words then how on earth could we share our lives that are based on what we see?

      So you think my point is “don’t take photos and don’t share our experiences”? Oh, come on.

      I am talking about giving people respect, regardless of nationality, refugee status, gender or class. Unfortunately, it seems too often in this world that only white, middle-class, Americans or other westerners are given any respect at all.

      I might not be able to affect that by blogging here – but I can sure as hell SHARE my opinions and esperience.

      And I can’t help wondering, Kushman, what you would think if your photo – taken without your full consent, and certainly no photographic release – had been used over a period of 25 years to bolster a magazine’s and a photographer’s reputation. If they started a Kushman fund, using your image, without your knowledge and consent. And if, tracking you down many years later, they rocked up on your door step expecting another photo shoot. How would you feel if it were you?

  28. 37 looby Friday, 29 January 2010 at 1:30 am

    I’m agreeing with Devin. Its a great picture and we don’t KNOW anything that the photographer was thinking.

  29. 38 Scott H Sunday, 7 February 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Fatadelic,

    I don’t have much time, so please forgive me if my comments appear rushed. I admire the candor you exhibit in your top 100 list and hope you win far more battles than you lose with your depression. It appears you are committed to ‘knowing’ yourself better and I have several comments in that regard. It is very subtle, and may well be in reaction to voluminous flame emails a blogger must receive, but there are nuances of misandry and hypocrisy on your blog that I felt compelled to point out. Regarding the misandry, You replied and often chastised many reader’s comments on various points yet you published a reader’s comment that contained “I think its sad that so very many people (esp. men) are so very small minded” without any rebuke. Then you yourself inexplicably wrote…… “isn’t high on (presumably) his list?” when the author only posted 2 initials. You claim sincere interest in both gender and respect yet you both allowed and committed disrespect based on gender in these instances. I am quite confident you would have replied to a male reader who wrote “I think it’s sad that so many people, (esp women) are so…….insert critique” You wrote of both negative (your father) and positive (John) males in your life. How about defending the John’s of the world. (lol, that didn’t come out right! ;) How about defending the countless men like your partner John. I personally found a few of both side’s points to hold truth, yet you never attempted to open a dialogue even with the more moderate of opposing views. If one is unwilling to discuss a potentially valid idea because it’s from an opposing perspective, that person isn’t contributing to mutual enlightenment but rather the lesser prize of personal validation. I bumped into your site because there was a recent photo of a young girl in Haiti who has very similar eyes and it reminded me of the Afghan girl. I also like cats and have a girlfriend who battles depression. I won’t speak for the rest of the jingoistic Americans though. Ok, that last one was a bit of a jab, but I wanted to emphasize that you need to re-examine the ‘mutual’ aspect of respect.

  30. 39 Stephanie Monday, 22 February 2010 at 10:25 pm

    I understand the point you’re trying to make, but I think that if it was really insulting to her, she would’ve refused the picture.

  31. 40 Frida Friday, 5 March 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Well…my question is – if you found these two pictures disrespectful and violating her privacy or the privacy of Afghan women- why did you post it in your blog and spread it even more? I can understand that you felt like buying the magazine to read about, but after you didn´t sympathize with the story behind you released it once more – here in your blog. To you it wasn´t enough to only write about either, but blaming the photographer of being disrespectful? Sorry, you stick in the same shoes like him. You wanted to share it. Makes no sense to me…


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