Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A Picture is Worth a 1000 Words

I've taken thousands of photographs during my life. Some I just love; they get framed or duplicated or emailed. Some are just mistakes and get deleted or thrown out. Most are average, fine remembrances but not outstanding or unusual, and they get put into scrapbooks or albums. Photographs are exceptional tools; they can be used to help someone remember an occasion that was meaningful, such as life changes. Births, graduations, weddings, and birthdays are times when people are usually photographed, and a person who looks at pictures of his past can remember the feelings he had during those occasions. Candid shots can be especially memorable, since they capture a side that isn't seen in posed photos.

While looking at photos of family members or friends can be very rewarding, photographs of people or events that aren't known to the viewer can evoke strong emotions too. Anyone who has ever thumbed through magazines like National Geographic or Life has been shocked, amused, saddened, or amazed by some of the photos within the pages of periodicals. Newspapers also print photos designed to shape the public's views on certain subjects, and reactions are sometimes unexpected. The recent photos of Saddam Hussein in his underwear printed by New York and London papers seem to be wanting a reaction; embarrassing to Iraqis, titillating to some, annoying to most, the public wonders why papers print such photos. The reason, of course, is that people buy the papers to look.

Most Americans and other citizens of the western world have scores of photos. Hospitals snap photos of newborns, many department and discount stores have regular rounds of baby photographers coming in or even permanent studios for parents who want a cute shot of Junior in his Halloween suit, and schools take photos each year of every child in every grade for the yearbook and for the PTA to raise funds. Most American families have huge boxes of photos, or if Mom or Dad has a talent for organizing, albums or scrapbooks with lots of photos and mementos. We rarely think about other parts of the world, where people have maybe one or two treasured photos or even none at all. Some people have never had a photo taken; they've never seen themselves as we see ourselves so often.

A National Geographic photographer, Steve McCurry, took a photograph in 1984 of an Afghan girl. The photograph was on the cover of the magazine and it was also on the cover of the book "National Geographic's 100 Best Pictures." The photo was startling and memorable because of the girl's face; her eyes were very green and eerie, and her lovely face seemed to represent the uncertainty and hardships of the Afghan refugees. The photograph was duplicated all over the world, but no one knew who was in the photo. The photographer went back to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the girl was photographed originally, and looked for the girl, but she was not to be found.

In 2002, a team from National Geographic went back to the refugee camp where the girl had been photographed to look for her. They asked many people around that area if they knew the woman's name; since it was almost twenty years later, they weren't sure she would be recognized or if she would even still be alive. They found someone who told them the location of a village where the woman might live, and they were able to find her brother, who had the same green eyes. They found the woman, whose name is Sharbat Gula. She had never seen the famous photo, and was not eager to have more taken since she lives "behind the veil" as a traditional Muslim woman. A woman from the National Geographic team was allowed to take Gula's photograph, since meeting with the men photographers was taboo for her because of her religion; later on she was allowed to meet McCurry. Sharbat Gula told the photographer that the 1984 photo was the only time she had been photographed, and she had never seen the famous photo.

Another photo was taken of Gula in 2002; she was pictured holding the first photo, and the search for her became a TV special entitled "Search for the Afghan Girl." The photos were compared to make sure the person in both photos was the same; an iris scan was even done to verify that Gula was the right person. She told her story on the TV special so that people around the world would know that she had survived. She married, has four children, all daughters, and lives a strict Muslim life. She is not interested in publicity and does not want to give any more interviews to reporters; since she lives in a very remote area, the chances are good that her wishes will be honored. Sharbat Gula will probably not be photographed again in her life.

Most Americans take pleasure in looking at pictures, but we are inundated with them. There are images everywhere, and certainly these images, both photographs and films on TV, movies, and the internet, shape our perceptions and minds. Just as it's outside our realm of existence to think that someone has never been photographed, it's also hard to imagine that people in today's world live where images are never seen. No billboards, no TV, no movies, no magazines of celebrity photos. How can they live without Oprah? Sharbat Gula lives a simple life, and so do many millions of people around the world. Looking at photos such as hers allow us to take a tiny peek into the plights of those on other parts of the globe, and allow us to try to find a way to help if we see distress in those photos.

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