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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.