A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
We’ve all heard the saying before; a picture is worth a thousand words. But what does this cliché saying really mean? A picture is there to tell a story. To me this picture tells 15 years of sorrows and struggles. It tells the story of a girl who has gone through more in her 15 years of life than any of us can imagine. Those haunting eyes have captured the heart of many. For years it has evoked a plethora of emotion from many people, enough to make the photographer go back and find out where she is now. People wanted to know who is she, where is she now, what is her story?
The title of this iconic image is A Life Revealed. The photograph first surfaced in National Geographic in 1984. It was taken by photographer Steve McCurry in a refugee camp in Pakistan. The Photo shows two pictures of the same girl, Sharbat Gula, in 1984 and in 2002. In both pictures Sharbat has the same intense, haunting expression, but she has greatly aged from one picture to the next. In the first picture of Sharbat, she is very young, and although she is wearing a red hijab, her hair can still be seen. This shows that she may not yet be at the age when they are forced to completely cover their heads. She is positioned in front of a green background and we see dirt on her face. In the second picture she is older; she has a blue hijab that is wrapped completely around her head and is posed in front of a black background. There is subdued lighting in each picture and both photos are captured head on.
The first thing that stands out to me is the girl’s eyes. She has such an intense stare and the color is very bewitching and alarming when first seen. It is not very often you see that color naturally. Most people spend hundreds of dollars on color contacts to get an image even close to that color. Both pictures were taken head on so it has a very intense impact. Her eyes remind me of the sea. When the sea is howling and is at unrest it can have a very haunting feel. I get the impression that her gaze is challenging me. It almost feels like a staring contest. They just hypnotize you and even if you wanted to look away you could not. Something that stuck out to me was the fact that in the picture of her when she is younger her scarf is only covering some of her head and none of her face but when she is older it completely wraps around her head. It made me wonder if this was culture thing, or just a coincidence? She is very tan in both pictures but in the picture of her when she is older you can see where her skin has gotten rougher and the freckles she has obtained from being out in the sun. It has a very leathery look to it. It reminded me of the old women you see laying out by the pool in the summer with their wrinkly, leathery skin, and you can tell they spent too much time out in the sun in their youth. The amount she has aged reveals the hardships she has been through. She is only thirty but has the face of someone who has been through and seen too much for her years. When I look at these pictures I want to know what she is feeling. Is she mad that this picture is being taken, is she indifferent? She probably had no idea what an impact this picture was going to have. I wonder what she is staring at. Is there fighting going on in the distance? Are they at peace? Is she happy now?
When looking at the two images side by side you realize that the background when she is younger is a light blue color. The color blue has a very strong, yet somber feeling to it. Additionally, we then see in this picture that her eyes have a brighter more soft appearance, more full of light. This to me shows her innocence and youth. With this in mind, her eyes in the picture have almost a dear in the headlights kind of look. One that I would imagine you would get if this was the first time your picture was ever taken. While her eyes are staring at the camera her body seems to be pulling away. She seems to be shying away from the camera. Furthermore, the first picture has a very intense impact to it. We notice that in the picture when she is younger there is more color and more to look at. When looking closely at the picture you see there are holes in her hijab, this helps describe visually the hardships she has been through. These hardships are reflected in the picture when she is older.
In the second picture, when Sharba is older, the background color is black. Black is a very strong color which is why it was used as the background in the second picture. It is a very authoritative color. Black has a feeling of emptiness in it which I feel with the picture. You notice that in the second picture her eyes are much darker, harder, like she has seen and been through many things since the original picture was taken. It makes you wonder if the photographer photo shopped it to look like this or if the color has just naturally gotten darker through the years. Her eyebrows seemed to be furrowed, like she is stressed about something. In the first picture she seems to be staring directly at the camera. Whereas in the second picture she seems to be looking somewhere, not at the camera, but at something off in the distance. Consequently, I feel like this gives the picture a more sorrowful look. It’s like she is staring of at something that she is not able to obtain. It makes me feel like she is looking, or wishing for something. This image has a more sorrowful feel to it. On the other hand the fact that she is staring at the camera head on has a very powerful impact. As discussed earlier the first picture has more color and there is more for the audience to look on. Conversely the second picture is very stark and bare. You see her face and hijab but everything else is black. While this helps give the image a more powerful effect there are also cultural reasons for this. In their culture the only part of a woman that should be seen is there face and hands. Each picture holds a very strong meaning and purpose to it.
I feel like the point of this picture is to show the hardships that people in other countries are experiencing. It could be anyone. This girl is just a face we can put to the cause of spreading the word about the wars in other countries and how it is affecting people. She is the poster child for what is going on in the Middle East because the face is someone that we can relate to. It’s not a picture of dead soldiers, or of adults dying. Instead we have a young 15 year old girl who is struggling to survive. The photographer wanted to capture this image and evoke emotion from the audience. National Geographic is known for their covers that pop out at you, they make you want to pick up that magazine. I feel like the photographer and writer of this article used this picture to get a message across to America. Consequently this helps give them a face to associate with the war, to make audiences stop and think. There is a lot of meaning behind this picture.
There are a lot of emotions behind this picture as well. I questioned how she felt when the picture was first taken of her, was she mad, sad, what was she feeling. I decided the best thing to do would be to look at the article where this picture first appeared. In the article the photographer discussed that when he saw her he noticed her shyness and decided that he would take her picture last. If you talk to her she says she was angry when the picture was first taken. She had no idea who this man was and had never had her picture taken before. In the image you can see that even though she turns her head to face the camera her body is slightly turned, this to me shows her shyness. I wondered what she was staring at when this picture was taken. The picture was taken in a school tent in the refugee camp she was residing in. At the time the country was never at peace, they were always at war. I wondered if it was just a coincidence that her head was only slightly wrapped in the first picture but in the one where she is older she is fully wearing the hijab. Many cultures have different opinions on when a women needs to start wearing the hijab so I wanted to find out what the opinion was in her culture. When it comes to the teachings on the subject of coverings Muslims look at the teachings discussed in the Qur’an their holy book. Women are expected to start wearing the hijab at the start of puberty. You can see that in the first picture she is only fifteen, she is hitting the point where she will be expected to wear it. We see her later in the second picture where she is covered. In the second picture she has such a defiant look on her face, but also a sorrowful. The defiance comes from the fact that she is once again having her picture taken, but the sorrow comes from the years of living through war. While reading up on her she said she hadn’t had a happy day in her life, except maybe her wedding day. You can see in the picture she is trying to show a strong face but there’s still a lot of sadness in those eyes.
It is very rare that a picture speaks to me, but this one spoke to me on a very personal level. I knew it was powerful but I never knew how powerful it indeed was. I knew the image was featured in national geographic so with that in mind I knew there had to be a story behind this iconic image. The photographer who captured this eerie image was spending the morning taking pictures in an afghan refugee camp; she was fifteen at the time, when he approached her to take this image. He had no idea the impact this image he captured would cause. The author of the article described the eyes as, “haunted and haunting, and in them you can read the tragedy of a land drained by war.” In our culture when we see someone with their hair wrapped up in a scarf we immediately associate with them from someone from a Middle Eastern country, it’s a stereotype that we live by. So without a second thought I assumed that’s where the picture had taken place. As a student growing up in this generation I am used to hearing news stories about wars going on in the Middle East, it has become a common thing. In the time period that the picture was taken, the 1980s, the soviets were attacking Afghanistan and hundreds and thousands of people were killed and villages were constantly being torn apart. The stuff that she has gone through in her 15 years of life is things that I probably won’t experience in my lifetime. The thoughts of it bring chills to my spine. Knowing only briefly the challenges she has gone through makes this a very disturbing image. As a female this photo evoked a lot of emotion inside of me. Women in Middle Eastern countries aren’t treated with respect at all and probably go through more hardships then anyone. It haunts me to think of the things that happen to women in these countries. As a female it distresses me the way women in these countries are treated with such low regard, emotion is not allowed to be seen. You can see in the picture of her when she is older that she is not smiling. In her culture once you are married you are not allowed to smile at another man. When first looking at the picture I assumed she was not smiling because of the intenseness of the situation, but at the same time she is not allowed. A friend of mines mom was from Afghanistan and would constantly share with us the horror stories of growing up in a worn torn country. She explained that the scars from the things she witnessed would always affect and stay with her; you can never erase eternal scars. Having heard these stories it gives me a more emotional pull towards the image. You can see in the picture of her when she is older that the scars and the memories have not healed. My friend ended up moving to Afghanistan the summer after 5th grade, I have not heard from her since. This image conjured a lot of feelings inside of me because I see this woman, and I have read her stories and it makes me sit and wonder where my friend is now. Is she living out the same fate?
There are always those pictures that will go down in history as iconic images. It’s no surprise that this picture was put in national Geographic’s top 100 photos. The best pictures convey thousands of meanings, depending on who is looking at it. What does this picture say to you? The say the a picture is worth a thousand words, this one’s apparently worth 2,366 for me.