So last year, I think it was in October but I’m not sure, I has a convo with this dude Andre who was hired to be a diversity auditor for Matador. It lasted about an hour and is essentially unimportant–because trust me, they have changed nothing–but there was one thing we spoke of that has really stuck with me.
We were talking about the pandemic as being a time to reset and reevaluate the goals of this broader industry to move forward more ethically. And I gave the example of NatGeo as a publication that, at its core, colonizes under the guise of education.
“Why would you want to be like NatGeo?” I remember asking, “you should want to be better than NatGeo, I mean, shit–their most famous cover of all time preyed upon America’s fetish of all-things-‘oriental’; they weaponized the face of a woman who’s name no one even knows.”
And then I hung up the phone. And then I was like, wait, do we know her name now? That issue had to be from what: the early 80s?
I was a kid when that issue came out. I remember it arriving at our house: for all we didn’t have, we always had a subscription to NatGeo, although I’ll admit that I’m not sure why or how. I wasn’t interested in every issue–the ones with animals or some underwater exploration on the cover generally didn’t get much thought from me–but ones like this, with someone to stand-in to humanize a place, these were my favorite.
And this cover really struck a chord in the States. Down the street from the house I grew up in is an Afghan restaurant (it’s still there, actually) who immortalized her as part of a mural depicting scenes of Afghanistan on the side of their restaurant. Until 2001, for many Americans this girl’s face was the universal touchstone for what Afghanistan was. Periodt.
And then the war started.
And look, this is a longer, much sadder story than I’m going to tell here, but let’s just put it this way: when’s the last time you had a professional camera shoved in your face? We didn’t have digital, let alone mirrorless cameras in 1984; professional cameras–and their lenses–were, put simply: fucking huge. Even now it’s pretty likely you’ve never seen one in real life, and you’re someone who’s probably reading this on a tiny computer that costs somewhere around a thousand dollars.
How many professional cameras do you think someone living in a refugee camp in 1984 had seen?
Anyway, I’m guessing it was the war that got people thinking: what happened to her? What happened to that green-eyed Afghan girl we all think we fucking know?
So the original photographer set out to find her. And find her he did, back in Pakistan, where he had originally “met” her.
This was in 2002, 17 years after this cover had long since garnered NatGeo and the original photographer, conservatively, millions of dollars.
They showed her the image that had captured the world that she had never seen, and then proceeded to publish more photos. More stories. Except this time, rather than identifying her simply as “Afghan Girl,” they printed her full-ass name, which opened her up to considerably more scrutiny than she would have otherwise endured.
Eventually, this led to her arrest in 2016 for carrying what essentially amounts to a fake ID because though she had built an entire life in Pakistan, her residency there, which began as a refugee, was always tenuous.
And look. This is an extremely simplified recounting of events. But the crux of this story is that a white photographer all but forced an Afghan child to pose for him (no, this shot was not a candid) without ever bothering to ask her name. And rather than realize his series of mistakes and using the experience to recontextualize his responsibilities as a travel photographer, he used his ignorance as a marketing tool to promote yet another opportunity to exploit her.
This shit is so goddamned wild, man.
So anyway. Let’s cut to 2017. Having been expelled from Pakistan, Afghanistan welcomed her back, and apparently gifted her a house for her and her family.
You can read about it if you want, because none other than Nat Fucking Geo did a whole-ass story about it called, I shit you not: “Famed ‘Afghan Girl’ Finally Gets a Home.”
I’m not gonna link to it.
Who the fuck wrote this title? Look, I’m not gonna shade the author here, because, quite frankly, I know all too well how easy it is for your publication to insert their colonialist ideas into your work because of my experiences writing for Matador. And in the greater industry, I almost never title my own pieces. Right now, off the top of my head, I can think of two titles I proposed that appeared in the published piece (one was in print, so that’s cool…I guess?)
In fact, within the article are some really poignant, thoughtful details that I actually applaud her for. And of them, is a quote from the ‘Afghan Girl’ herself, which I imagine she may have had to fight with her editor to include: “Afghanistan is only my birthplace, but Pakistan was my homeland and I always considered it as my own country. I am dejected. I have no other option but to leave.”
This quote was under a heading that reads “A Long Road Home,” in reference to her return to Afghanistan.
She’s literally fucking telling you, in her own goddamned words, that her homeland is Pakistan. And you think this is an appropriate header?
Are you fucking kidding me?
How the fuck did this pass copyedit?
Like, I don’t even like it when people do this to me, and I’m not, nor have I ever been, an exploited refugee.
One time, about three years ago, I posted a picture on Instagram in my inaugural hours back in Seattle, and an old friend of mine from middle school commented, “WELCOME HOME!”
My best friend from high school and his wife, who had just moved to Tacoma after spending 10ish years in Phoenix had seen it too, and brought it up to me. “Do you really think of this place as home? I mean, I don’t. Not really. Home is where my son was born. Where I earned two degrees. This is just a place that I live.”
We had this conversation in their house. That they own. In Tacoma. Several hundreds of miles from the place they consider home.
I spend a lot of time thinking about homes, and what that means, and whether or not we, as people, are entitled to them. Chicago, for me, probably comes the closest but even that fades more everyday, and that’s coming from someone who has never been forced to leave anywhere.
Maybe it’s because I spend so much time thinking about where I belong that I thought of her again, as I’m sure many did, while watching videos of the Taliban seize Kabul, of regular Afghan citizens trying to cling to the outside of a departing American military plane in an attempt to try to leave the country.
Just like when people wondered what had happened to her in 2002, I wondered now. But quite frankly, I hope we never find out, because, under the new regime, more public scrutiny is probably antithetical to what this woman deserves.
Look, I don’t really know. There’s also the possibility that her ‘fame’ might actually shield her from the fate that many Afghan people will be forced to endure.
But I do know that, as the States concludes our 20 year occupation of Afghanistan in a failed attempt to repair what we had broken, that there are thousands of faces that we will never see that each represent a person who has experienced irreparable harm.
And I fear that the ones we do see will only be shot through the lens of American neocolonialism, only furthering our national obsession with consuming images of overseas poverty and turmoil.
I had just learned how to read when that issue of NatGeo came out in 1985, and I was still pretty unskilled at it. When a NatGeo would come that I liked, I would skim the articles for the words that I knew, but mostly, I’d look at the pictures.
And I used to do this thing where I’d close my eyes, and try to imagine what it would be like in that place. What were people’s clothes like? Their homes? What language do they speak and what does it sound like? And in an attempt to fill in the parts of the scenes I saw in the magazine that fell beyond the lens of the camera, my minds eye would invent stuff that I thought might be there.
But back then, in 1985, my vague understanding of the ‘Middle East’ included magic lamps and carpets, some notion of spices being sold at a market, and belly dancers adorned in filmy, Fantasia-hued outfits that exposed their bellies but somehow also veiled their faces.
Guys, I was four.
But the point of this is that journalists and filmmakers and writers and photographers – and all the other people that contribute to our collective conceptual ‘culture’ – help to create our touchstones that we associate with different places.
And even I, as a fucking four year old child, knew that there had to be something amiss about the way that I thought about the world. That’s part of why I’m here, now, 35 years later, writing this to you from Istanbul. Because I never assumed that these folks were getting it right, nor that my own assumptions were informed by anything that could be called absolute truth.
When I was 19, I was a day or so away from leaving Italy after my inaugural trip overseas. Wandering aimlessly around Milan the day before my flight home, I snapped a photo – on film, fuck, remember that shit? – of an ad-hoc shrine to Mary nailed to a telephone pole. It was beautiful, and somehow simultaneously out of place and exactly where it was supposed to be.
Back in Seattle, about three weeks later, I picked up a copy of NatGeo from a friend’s coffee table. I flipped through it to an article about Milan, and there was the same photo I had taken: the same shrine, the same pole. Except this time, when I looked at it, I knew exactly what laid beyond the frame of the photo because I had been there. I knew that across the intersection in the distance was a bar where poor kids like me could eat for free when we ordered a single beer, I knew that the Metro stop was just beyond that.
And that, babes, is why I’m still out here.
And as this struggle continues to unfold in Afghanistan, I want to invite you to be critical of the information you consume. Question everything, double-check, crack a book or two. And for the love of god, when you see or read those things that feel too simple, trite, or impossible, trust that instinct and look beyond them.
It’s already beginning. The American government is busy trying to place blame and manipulate public perception. And if you’re the type of person that can look at the frightened face of a 12 year-old nameless girl and see, as the caption would want you to believe, the horrors of war, then it might work on you.
Instead, I’m asking you to try see a child navigating an interaction with a white photographer that doesn’t speak her language, yet nonetheless is directing her to embody his own singular vision.
And if you do have a home, maybe now is a good time to not take it for granted. Take care of it, and all of the people in that place. And maybe take some time to jot down your own stories, lest some opportunist swipes in to steal them.
I may not have a home per say, but maybe my home is somewhere within my own narrative. Because when I think about the things I’m willing to defend with my life, my own story is close to the top of the list.
And the country I was born in is nowhere on it.