The brutal and complex Cold War conflict in Afghanistan began with the Soviet intervention in December 1979 and culminated when the withdrawal of all Soviet troops was completed on 15 February 1989. As the war raged in 1984, American photojournalist Steve McCurry travelled to the region on an assignment from National Geographic. In the Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, McCurry photographed a young woman whose image would prove an iconic memorial to the many nameless victims of the Cold War.
The image, known as Afghan Girl, appeared on the front cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic Magazine. The girl’s timeless, uncompromising expression, which belied her youth, led the photograph to be at once compared to Leonardo Da Vinci’s legendary Mona Lisa. The subject of the portrait would not be identified until 2002, when the full story of the 12-year-old orphan McCurry had photographed was finally revealed.
As well as a searing work of photojournalism, McCurry’s extraordinary photograph is an example of an image that has transcended its original function to be recognised as a work of art. As the war in Afghanistan continues into a fourth decade, Afghan Girl remains as poignant and relevant as ever.
Image: Afghan Girl, photograph by Steve McCurry, 1984 © Steve McCurry/National Geographic/Christie’s Images