Arts & Culture, Features

Fame and Photography

With people escaping the terror in their home countries in droves, the refugee crisis and refugee camps have returned to the forefront of the collective psyche. But, while the presence of ISIS in the Middle East and South Asia is fairly recent, American military presence has been displacing regional populations since their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Russian military since even earlier. Last time refugees were in such dire need, their cause had a haunting face. The then twelve-year-old Afghani refugee, Sharbat Gula’s haunting green eyes stared back at western audiences from her encampment in Peshwar Pakistan. The photograph, taken by Steve McCurry, was published on the cover of a 1985 issue of National Geographic, one of the most well known magazine covers ever published. Despite having found a kind of celebrity status herself, Gula has spent nearly the entirety of her life seeking refuge from the threats in her home country. Now in her 40’s, Gula is under arrest in Pakistan. Accused on Tuesday of falsifying documents and staying illegally in Pakistan, she has been finding refuge in Pakistan illegally for some time. Arrested on similar charges just last year and later released, Gula now faces up to 14 years of imprisonment or deportation. Despite having lived in the country as a refugee for 30 years, Gula is a victim of the mounting pressures to return home put upon Afghani refugees by the Pakistani government.

Sharbat Gula in the women's jail of Peshawar. Photo Courtesy of the Pakistan Federal Investigation Agency.

Having spent the majority of her life living in encampments, the only notoriety she has found came from the infamous photograph and now her arrest. While Steve McCurry is looking into finding her legal and financial help, that is all she has ever received  in return for the photograph, providing a sad contrast to conditions today. Just last week Arshad Khan, an Islamabad-based tea merchant, found viral fame after being dubbed the “hot-tea” by photographer Jiah Ali. Photos of Khan serving tea were posted on the professional photographer’s Instagram account, which has over 40,000 followers, where it exploded. The eighteen-year-old has since appeared on Good Morning Pakistan, where he was given a TV makeover and was photographed by Aley Bhaidani, and has been signed to a modelling contract with online retailer He seems to be taking full advantage of the situation, publicly stating he would also be open to acting jobs.
The photo of tea merchant Arshad Khan. Photo courtesy of

The photo of tea merchant Arshad Khan. Photo courtesy of

It’s hard to ignore the parallels (and the lack of parallels between Khan and Gula’s stories, leaving us wondering if Gula could have had a more favourable fate had she been born in the era of social media and immediate gratification. While we are excited to see what comes of the opportunities given to Khan, we are more concerned for the contemporary Sharbat Gulas, the young girls and boys growing up in refugee camps who have been robbed of their opportunities. To help Syrians displaced within Syria and neighbouring countries, donate to the World Food Programme at or text “RELIEF” to 45678 to donate $10. Banner image courtesy of National Geographic.

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