When the West is Inspired and 30 Years On, Sharbat Bibi is Still a Refugee

When Sharbat Bibi was reported to have been arrested in Pakistan for carrying forged papers, I couldn’t help but wonder how the woman in this world-famous image was, thirty years after the photo was taken, still in such dire straits. Her image can be found on posters, postcards, and iPhone cases; an original print from the same shoot is going for 15k. Her photo has been hailed by many as one of the most memorable and recognizable of all time. She is The Third World Mona Lisa.

If convicted, Sharbat will face up to fourteen years in prison and a fine between three to five thousand dollars. Sharbat Bibi, for seventeen years known only as the Afghan Girl (I wonder if it’s common practice for western photographers to not bother asking for their subject’s name), has “inspired” so many in the West. How such inspiration is useful is lost on me, when Sharbat Bibi and her children still live as refugees in poverty.

I looked into whether National Geographic or the photographer, Steve McCurry, had ever tried to compensate her. McCurry states in an Instagram post,

I am committed to doing anything and everything possible to provide legal and financial support for her and her family. I object to this action by the authorities in the strongest possible terms. She has suffered throughout her entire life, and her arrest is an egregious violation of her human rights.

But when the original photos were taken, McCurry did not pay the girl and upon finding Bibi again in 2002, National Geographic covered only medical costs for her family and a pilgrimage to Mecca. National Geographic also founded a charity for Afghan girls in her honor, though it appears such a charity did little or nothing to materially aid the woman who inspired its creation.

The orientalist tone of the 2002 National Geographic article—“carpet of destruction” (in reference to the Soviet invasion), “man with a raptor face”, “smile like the gleam of a lantern at dusk”, “skin like leather”, “she retreats into the black shawl wrapped around her face, as if by doing so she will evaporate”, “a plum colored burka, which walls her off from the world” (keep in mind this is a nonprofit committed to making children “geographically literate”)—demonstrates a commitment to othering, to letting the reader know they will never be a part of this world, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be emotionally moved by it.

The whole ordeal only serves to remind of how often white western journalists, photographers, the charitable industrial complex, and news media all capitalize off images of brown and black who happen to be impoverished and starving. I’m reminded not only of (TW) The Vulture and the Little Girl, which caused an ethical controversy over whether we should allow a predatory animal near incapacitated children for the sake of a good shot, and it seems the answer is yes, as the photo won the Pullitzer Prize. I am reminded of the 2013 photo of Fabienne Cherisma’s body just moments after her death, and the image of a hoard of photogs swarming her body to catch a fresh, emotionally-charged shot. I am reminded of the photo of Aylan Kurdi’s body that well-meaning westerners circulated on social media supposedly to make people feel for the plight of refugees. I am reminded of countless other images of black and brown suffering. Such images are meant to evoke feelings of humanity (hope, empathy, inspiration) from the western viewer, who has so removed and desensitized their self from the atrocities the empire has wreaked.

The photo of Sharbat Bibi's face is heralded by so many as inspiring, but I find it to be the highest symbol of the exotification and commodification of brown suffering. To find brown and black suffering inspiring, I suppose, is a bizarre western past time, where the consumer can be moved by disaster porn images to the point of an emotional high, without actually doing anything. When Sharbat first appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985, Steve McCurry claimed that her face alone was the reason westerners went to volunteer in Afghanistan and donate to international charities. Whether the volunteers were wanted or the charities effective was never questioned: what mattered most was that westerners felt like they were doing something. The photo had become a global “image of hope”. Then in 2001, the photo was revived, this time inspiring many Americans to back the invasion of Afghanistan, in the name of promoting women’s rights.

National Geographic could afford to hire a forensic sculptor and biometric specialist but not to help Bibi out of poverty?

National Geographic could afford to hire a forensic sculptor and biometric specialist but not to help Bibi out of poverty?

A National Public Radio title reads, How One Photographer Captured A Piercing Gaze That Shook The World. That the piercing gaze is disconnected from an actual woman, while a (white cis-hetero male) photographer captured it (ie, it was not a gaze formed by the eyes of an actual human, but discovered by the vision of the photographer) is quite revealing of how white western journos conceive of their own work: their subjects do not exist until they’ve discovered them.

After 9/11, with interest in the photo re-emerging, National Geographic and Steve McCurry saw a business opportunity: McCurry would seek out his electric green-eyed model and see how she was doing. NatGeo would produce a documentary surrounding his journey, aided with expensive and unnecessary forensic sculptors, biometric iris recognition technology, and state security specialists, to weed out imposters and prove that whoever came forth was the real Mona Lisa of the Third World. When McCurry spotted a hand-drawn portrait of Sharbat in a Peshawar shop, he told the keeper he had taken the original image and was therefore entitled to a discount. Again, the image belongs to him, not to the owner of the face and story, Sharbat Bibi.

When Bibi is finally scientifically verified, she agrees to a photo shoot with McCurry and he says some off-key things about her still “looking great” after so much suffering. Now, another fourteen years later, media outlets circulate her mugshot.

That Bibi’s face first inspired Westerners to feel for the plight of Afghans during the Soviet occupation, and after 9/11 was used as justification for the U.S. invasion makes it clear that the white liberal’s inspiration is a self-serving, nebulous thing, entirely removed from action or accountability. From an image of hope to an image used to justify an attack on her own people, in what context was she more inspiring?

It is important to ask what the responsibility of a wealthy resource-holding organization like National Geographic owes the impoverished people it photographs, writes about, films and profits from. In 2013, the society’s net worth was $900 million. It is equally important to demand accountability. The society and its photographers have no story without the poor brown and black people they focus their lens on. Their livelihoods are dependent on them, and as such, the subjects deserve compensation. Surely, Sharbat Bibi deserves at least as much as Steve McCurry made on the image. National Geographic may help free Bibi today, but how inspiring could she have been to the Society and the West at large, to leave her in such a situation in the first place?

Katherinna Mar