Steve McCurry Reveals Iconic ‘Afghan Girl’ Portrait Was Almost Passed Over by Editor

It might be hard to believe in retrospect, but it turns out that Steve McCurry‘s most famous photograph, the iconic ‘Afghan Girl,’ was almost passed over for the cover of National Geographic in 1985.

McCurry revealed this and other tidbits about the photograph when he sat down with the TODAY show recently. He chose now to “tell-all,” so to speak, because he has just released a new book Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs in which he reveals behind-the-scenes details about all of his amazing photographs.

But back to the Afghan Girl: according to McCurry, the photo editor at National Geographic at the time chose to cut the iconic photo in favor of one of the other shots McCurry got of refugee Sharbat Gula in which she was covering her face:


When you compare the two, you can see that both have merit, but the magazine editor ultimately vetoed the photo editor’s call at the last minute, choosing to run the photo we all know instead. “We came within an inch of [the photo] being on the cutting room floor,” explains McCurry. “Instead,” fills in TODAY’s Jamie Gangel, “it became one of the most famous photos in history.”

If you’ve never heard the story behind the photo — and, 17 years later, McCurry’s quest to find the girl whose eyes had changed the world but whose name he never got in the brief seconds they spent near one another — be sure to watch the short video at the top and check out our previous coverage here.

(via DPReview)

Image credits: Photographs by Steve McCurry

  • Jeffrey Friedl

    I’d be interested to hear suggestions as to why it’s so famous…. it’s a nice photo and all, and the wider subject mater is certainly not trivial, but I just don’t see “iconic” in this photo. Most any National Geographic issue has a more compelling photo. Perhaps it’s famous just for being famous, but then how does that chicken/egg thing even start?

  • Ai Chusyu

    Photography is subjective judgement in play, but there are a lot of factors more than the photograph and composition itself. If I remember correctly, it was taken during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; where in other countries it the time where the world was beginning to awaken to the Afghan struggle.

    It IS an amazing photo in itself. Personally, there is so much emotion in such a guarded, scared face WITHIN a static sphere. And I would like to think it translates to most people who view the photograph. The colors are amazing, from the striking, dirty red of the scarf, to the green background that seems several shades darker than her eyes, creating a sort of ‘illusion’

  • Carl Meyer

    Easy, a young caucasian looking woman with green eyes is a more compelling propaganda symbol than “the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers” that Reagan supported.

  • Adol

    every NGC photos cannot be interpreted by the photo itself, you must read the story behind it to understand it, AFAIK,most of the people is captivated by the green eyes, and looking so strong despite being in the refugees,her parents killed, etc, the photo itself became an icon for people in refugee to stay strong whatever happened.

  • Burnin Biomass

    For some reason, the image doesn’t read online like it did when I first saw in in the 80’s. My memory of the image (which I’m sure is romanticized, I was in middle school) , I seem to think that her eyes were almost supernaturally green and bright. With the color contrast of the red, and her expression (some would say lack of), the image screamed off the front cover.

  • Dailon

    Probably because Nation Geographic featured it on the front cover. Almost all their images have become iconic to some degree…however, it did get selected as their cover photo, so that means it had a bit of merit to begin with.

  • Sean Molin

    First, it’s a brilliant image. Color, composition, emotion. yadda yadda.

    But that’s only part of it. You have to understand the context and the story to get the full impact.

  • Gothamite

    This is a quick and nice piece about a truly iconic and amazing photograph. It’s physical proof that Kodachrome should have never been discontinued.

    Maybe with any luck one day, I can use some of the expired Kodachrome I own and my FM2n and create something similar in theme.

  • ATherling5011

    мy coυѕιɴ ιѕ мαĸιɴɢ $51/нoυr oɴlιɴe. υɴeмployed ғor α coυple oғ yeαrѕ αɴd prevιoυѕ yeαr ѕнe ɢoт α $1З619cнecĸ wιтн oɴlιɴe joв ғor α coυple oғ dαyѕ. ѕee мore αт…­ ­

    whatever happened.

  • Tzctplus -

    It is all in the eyes. If you can’t see that you can’t be helped.

  • Dikaiosune01

    This was how images went ‘viral’ before the internet and social media. There is an unspoken aspect in how images are shared and valued. This causes an explosion of unexplainable sharing and exposure. I believe that, if you can share how some youtube video goes viral with a million views, you can explain how images like the ‘afgan girl’ went viral before the internet.
    By the same token, if you watch a viral video after the ‘fad’ had past, it loses much of its imact and significance. Any image, and or video ought to be taken in the context it orignated.

  • Christian DeBaun

    Beauty, eye of the beholder…. in all cases a dice roll.

  • dan110024

    Not that I’m a photo professional by any means, but I prefer the photo of the girl covering her face. I think it portrays much more emotion.

  • KJ

    When I first saw it in the 80’s, I was immediately reminded of Edward S. Curtis’ image “Qahatika Indian Girl” taken 80 years earlier.

  • Welcome to Photography!

    It’s called post.

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  • Andrew Hollywood

    and the Mona Lisa is just a painting of a woman not smiling, right?

  • Matthew Palmer

    Makes me a bit sad and very curious as to what other potentially iconic photos have been rejected over time. What haven’t we seen? Probably quite a lot.

  • Stefano Druetta

    I love the picture, I’ve seen it printed very large at a mccurry exhibition a few years back, and I spent half an hour staring at those eyes. but it ruined photography for good. now anybody going anywhere a little exotic is trying to replicate it without even knowing where to start from.

  • Woody ONeal

    compositionally speaking, it’s pretty damn near perfect.

  • Woody ONeal


    That’s a bit terse.

  • Stefano Druetta

    I’d rather say “chromatically speaking”, johannes itten would be proud of the use of red and green. seriously.
    a little less seriously, in terms of composition there’s no rule of thirds being applied, but the pose is spot on. : )

  • Stefano Druetta

    how would you call the slavish reiteration of the same technique over and over again, by all camera owners on vacation?
    I know it’s rude, but hey, how many pictures that look like this one have you seen? Mr. McCurry himself took at least two more portraits with the same principles.

  • jgb

    I know nothing about photography, but when I first saw this photo I was utterly captivated, long before I was aware that that photograph would become famous. (I first saw the photo when I was in high school–my parents had a subscription to National Geographic) My first reaction was “oh my god, look at her eyes.” The girl’s eyes looked supernaturally green and luminous. I stared at the photo in amazement for a half an hour. At the time I knew nothing about the context of the photo–I had no idea that she was a refugee, an Afghan etc.

  • Joe Maddry

    Carl. It’s Afghanistan. It had nothing to do with Reagans and Caucasian symbols. It gave us a compelling face to a society of people that seems so foreign, alien if you will, that we are prone to dehumanize for our differences. Ie, our enemy is human.

  • GIGfriend22

    Its Iconic because back then majority of populations in certain western democratic countries had very stigmatic points of view, of people from Afghanistan… As Brown hair to black hair…Brown eyes, dirty mangled children…….Not brunettes hair, Green eyes, and white person facial bone features…..It kind of put a shock into the soul of people…….Of course this picture is even more iconic because of those eyes…… Its the eyes that are so précising and so hypnotizing……For many it still has a strong effect, but of course we have scene so much of similar pictures that now we are either comparing it to others, or have become somewhat conditioned by it mentally….There for it has lost some value with us…..But not necessarily for all…..Especially those who have scene this for the first time….. I think it is also seemed much more mysterious back then…..Middle East and there traditions and Islam seemed much more foreign then what it is now……So its the picture as do all pictures expressing messages or art pull at our heart strings…. Evoking emotions….Thoughts…Reflections and inspiration for those that are aware enough to see it, and feel it with in themselves, or from the picture.

  • em

    thats face symbolize of poverty and war.looking at her eyes tells the whole story back then…

  • Oliver Worthington

    “She.. after a few moments just got up and walked away, I thought wait a minute I’m still shooting?!”

    Oh no! How annoying for you that she didn’t pose for your photoshoot while she was in a refugee camp in Pakistan.