“To see into another’s heart, Eyes are the place to start” by
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(13 Stories)

Prompted By The Eyes Have It

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Sharbat Gula, then only 12 years old, captivated readers of the June 1985 National Geographic. The photo of “The Afghan Girl” was taken by photojournalist Steve McCurry.

This week’s prompt, “the eyes have it,” can have many applications, and clearly all of them are not related to glasses or eyewear. For example, our eyes can — as the saying goes — be the window to the soul.

Science calls it Iris Recognition technology. Most humans call it looking into the windows of the soul.

Poets have known this forever, as is witnessed by the headline for this piece, which is a line from poet Vern Eaker’s work,  Eyes are the Windows to the Soul.

Case in point: we all know the role eyes and eye contact play in becoming emotionally connected to another person,  perhaps to the point of falling in love.  Can you not think of the moment(s) you met someone and found yourself locked into a deep gaze that seemed to last much longer than the few seconds it actually did?

Who needs words?

Such moments may be the ultimate example of the power nonverbal communication wields. No words needed, thanks. The eyes have it.

Another way of detecting the power of the eyes is to ask ourselves why we find a portrait or closeup photo of a total stranger so magnetic.  The answer may well lie in the eyes.

The most vivid example of that, for me anyway, came when I saw the cover of the June 1985 edition of National Geographic. You probably recognize it as the featured photo above this essay. And, like me, you probably know how hard it’s been to get that image of 12-year-old Sharbat Gula out of your head. Even if you wanted to.

“The Afghan Girl”

And, of course, the reason is the eyes. They draw us in and insist that we spend some time thinking about this enigmatic and beautiful young woman trying to survive by fleeing the bloody war zone between Afghanistan and Russia.

The eyes may be a window to the soul, but we view them through the prism of our own eyes, where we see what is most subjectively recognizable to us individually. Making things even more complex is that my eyes may reflect different emotions to different people because I’m not equally engaged emotionally with all of them.

So, beyond the physical appearance of Sharbat Gula (whose identity was unknown to all including the photographer then), we may see different things. This “Afghan Girl,” as she was known, may be courageous; she may be lost; she may be determined; she may be strong. Most would probably find a determination in those eyes. Or, of course, she may be all of these and more.

For example, Sharbat reportedly told a journalist later that she was indeed afraid when the 1985 photo was taken, but her fear was of having her picture taken in the first place. Muslim women do not generally allow their pictures to be taken unless they are fully covered. She said she ran from the room right after McCurry snapped her photo.

The rest of the story

You may know the rest of the story about Sharbat and National Geographic. McCurry was touring an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan, shooting hundreds of pictures of those in the camp. One was a young girl whose name he didn’t know and never would for many years, and he wasn’t even aware of how striking she was until he was reviewing his day’s photos later.

Sharbat’s identity remained a mystery, until so many readers wrote in asking about her and wanting to help her over the years, that the magazine sent McCurry back to the region in 2002 to try and find the now-grown woman, learn her story, and shoot another photo of her.

Once again, it’s the eyes

Establishing the true identity of the woman from many counterfeit posers who presented themselves as Sharbat to McCurry, presented a challenge. Iris recognition software was used to scan the eyes to prove this 29-year-old woman was the true Sharbat Gula. At that point, Curry took a second photo, and National Geographic ran the two photos side by side in its April, 2002 issue.

Support arises

Today, as a result of the 1985  “Afghan Girl” photo and of the discovery of who she is, an international outpouring of support for her arose.

She stayed in Pakistan, married, and raised a family until 2017 when she and her children were deported back to Afghanistan because they possessed forged identity documents.

A new life

She was given a large home in Kabul by President Hamid Karzai, plus a monthly stipend to live on, and “The Afghan Girl” became a high-profile figure. But when the Taliban took control of Kabul in 2021, Gula’s life was threatened, so she and her children were granted refugee status by Italy and were evacuated safely there.

The Image and the Eyes

As a journalist, I have long known how powerful a single photograph can be, and I’ve reminded my students of that over the years. The editors of National Geographic have chosen “The Afghan Girl” as one of the magazine’s top 5 cover photos, out of some 1,500 cover photos it has published in its long history that dates back to September 12, 1888.

As for Sharbat Gula, she would have had a much different and much more austere life were it not for that single cover photo.

And, quite possibly, because of the eyes peering out of that photo to millions of compassionate readers..

Profile photo of Jim Willis Jim Willis
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Thank you Jim for your beautifully written and fascinating story. I have seen that image, perhaps at first on that 1985 National Geographic cover or reprinted over the years. Indeed the eyes of that beautiful young girl tell it all – her fear and uncertainty.

    Early on during Covid I remember paying for my purchase in a pharmacy and smiling to thank the clerk. Then I remembered I was masked and said to her, “I’ve just smiled at you but of course you can’t see it!”

    “Yes, I can”, she said, “I can see it in your eyes.”

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thank you so much, Dana, and I love your closing dialogue with the pharmacy clerk! Not seeing smiles was one thing I hated about wearing masks, but your clerk was right: you can see a smile in the eyes.

  2. Marian says:

    Thanks for filling in the details of this compelling photo that, as you write, none of us can forget. The eyes can “say” so much. These days I remember to “smile” with my eyes when I am masked in a store or public setting. That does transmit a message.

    • Jim Willis says:

      You bet, Marian. It’s a funny thing about eye contact itself, though: some are better at it than others, and I don’t think the lack of eye contact necessarily speaks to a lack of sincerity or honesty. As for me, when I’m listening to someone speak, my eyes are glued on them; when I’m speaking, though, I find my eyes darting around. I think I’m a little too self-conscious and get distracted when I start wondering if the other person is evaluating me. I had a pastor friend once who told me he would prefer writing his sermons and mailing them in, because he got too distracted trying to read the congregation’s faces. The thing is, I always thought he had a great pulpit delivery. I enjoy public speaking but, one on one, my points often are more coherent when I’m writing rather than talking.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    Thank you for sharing this fascinating story. Her eyes were truly engaging. I was also struck by the older photo which had a sad and weathered expression despite the advantages she had due to the photo. So much must had happened to her in the intervening years. Makes me wonder where she is now.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Hi Laurie, and thanks for the kind words. You’re right about the second photo and the hard life it depicts for Sharbat. No one I’ve talked with could believe that woman was only 29 years old; she seemed 49 at least. About the advantages Sharbat had, though, keep in mind that no one knew who she was until the second photo was published and her I.D. confirmed by the magazine. So she really had no advantages that accrue to celebrities, up to the point of that second photo, and was living the hardscrabble life all the refugees lived. As for where she is today, it’s still Italy. Hope your upcoming week is good!

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    This is a great commentary about eyes, Jim. We were all riveted by that stunning 37 year old magazine cover but really didn’t think much about what became of the actual woman. The side by side comparison is really disheartening. It does speak to the difficult life she has led.

    As a person of the stage, then in professional sales, I know full-well how much we convey by holding another’s gaze. It is said of good conversationalists that they make you feel you are the only person in the room. Your story reminds all of us how important eye contact is. Thank you for that.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Hi Betsy, and thank you for the comment! To your comment about good eye contact making you feel you’re the only one in the room, I agree. I still remember the moment I met Bill Clinton, and he had that kind of eye contact and much more. I was in a ballroom full of journalists and Clinton was giving the address to our organization. Then he began working the room via a reception line, and that took him twice as long as his speech. The two minutes he spent shaking my hand, putting his other hand on top of ours, leaning forward as if to share a private thought and — you’re right — that eye contact! There may have been a few hundred others in the room, but he made me feel it was only him and me having a guy-to-guy moment. Then, of course, he went on and did the same to the woman standing next to me. Funny thing: in her case, he actually came back a moment later and asked for her name again. I thought I could hear his handler uttering softly to him, “Uh … Mr. President … Sir … Maybe we should go …” Oh, did I mention the woman was my date?

      • Khati Hendry says:

        Of course I remember the picture, and the follow-up article about the Afghan Girl, but didn’t know the recent developments—good to know she is safe in Italy. Eyes are indeed incredibly expressive, and those of us with sight appreciate our visual world. When I walk my dog, he doesn’t care if there is a beautiful vista—his attention is entirely on the fascinating smells I know nothing of.

  5. Dave Ventre says:

    I remember seeing that cover when it first came out and being astounded by the power and emotion caught in her eyes.

    The best actors use their eyes to convey emotions w/o a word. Carrol O’Conner and James Gandolfini were amazing at it. Lucille Ball was a comic genius at this technique.

    • Jim Willis says:

      I agree with you about how the best actors can say so much with their eyes. You chose good examples. So many of them, including Michael Keaton, Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, and Jeff Bridges (the final scene of “Hell or High Water” when he was confronting Chris Pine is a classic, largely because of the intensity of Bridges’ eyes.)

  6. I wasn’t familiar with this photo at all. It made a fascinating narrative. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Suzy says:

    Lovely story, Jim. I remember that National Geographic cover very well. Like others, I am dismayed by what the passage of years did to her, and what that says about her hard life. Her eyes hadn’t changed though.

    I had the same experience with Bill Clinton that you describe to Betsy. He was campaigning in Sacramento in 1992, and it was a women’s group. I think every one of us would have been ready to jump into bed with him after that handshake and eye contact!

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thank you, Suzy. Almost didn’t write this week because I don’t have any good eyeglass stories, but when I started thinking about the lure of eyes themselves, I thought immediately of Sharbat and I felt I had a story in her eyes. I’ve said this before, but I do appreciate what you, John, Patricia, Susan, Marian, Laurie, and others have done in creating and developing this Retrospect project. It has kickstarted my writing again and caused me to begin the process of writing my memoirs of 1995 (and a few years before and after). Another thought, about meeting Bill Clinton, that day was a keeper!

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