National Geographic magazine, published continuously since 1888, was launched by the newly established National Geographic Society in the same year with a purpose “to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge”.
In 1898 Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, took the helm and was governed by a board of trustees whose members included distinguished educators, business executives, former government officials, explorers and conservationists … mostly all older white men, with lots of facial hair, it has to be said.
The National Geographic Society is today the largest educational society in the world. The company is also involved in book publishing, education, public service projects, and television production, but its flagship magazine remains its crowning achievement.
National Geographic has become a cultural staple and a global icon.
The magazine is well known for its distinctive appearance: a thick square-bound glossy format with a yellow rectangular border. Many of us would have grown up seeing that telltale bank of yellow spines on a bookshelf. National Geographic was a keeper, one of those rare printed periodicals that one didn’t throw out. [Ed: Insert similar hope for REMORANDOM here.]
No National Geographic cover is more famous than the one from June 1985 bearing the portrait and piercing green-eyed gaze of "Afghan Girl" (later identified to be Sharbat Gula), shot by photographer Steve McCurry near the Pakistani city of Peshawar. Gula, an ethnic Pashtun from Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province, was a 12-year-old child residing in Pakistan's Nasir Bagh.
Gula's image became "emblematic" in some social circles as the "refugee girl/woman located in some distant camp" that was deserving of compassion from the Western viewer, and also as a symbol of Afghanistan to the West. CNN called it the “world's most famous photograph”.
Gula’s identity remained a mystery for 18 years. McCurry made several unsuccessful attempts during the 1990s to find and identify her. Then, in January 2002, a National Geographic team traveled to Afghanistan. They eventually found Gula, then around age 30, in a remote region of Afghanistan. She had returned to her native country from the refugee camp in 1992. Her identity was confirmed using iris recognition. She had never seen the photo and was oblivious to her worldwide fame as Afghan Girl until the image was shown to her in 2002.
The image is indeed iconic. Posting for PetaPixel in 2016, Allen Murabayashi, the co-founder of PhotoShelter, a digital asset management service for photographers, writes:
“Afghan Girl is so ingrained in popular memory that I’ve seen it used multiple times as a Halloween costume. I can’t think of another photo that has reached that threshold.”
Having found Gula, National Geographic covered the costs of medical treatment for her family and a pilgrimage to Mecca. They also established the Afghan Girls Fund, a charitable organisation with the goal of educating Afghan girls and young women. In 2008, the fund's scope was broadened to include boys and the name was changed to Afghan Children's Fund.
Following the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2021, women's rights were curtailed under their conservative rule, and high-profile women were threatened or intimidated. Gula's global fame and prominence put her in danger. She sought assistance to leave the country, and was evacuated to Italy with the support of its government, in response to appeals from nonprofit organisations.
Finally, the story of Afghan Girl is not without its critics. Was it invasive and exploitative? Maybe. Even so Murabayashi goes on to suggest:
“Castigating him [McCurry] for having the imperialist eye of a white male? Totally valid, but remember he’s a  year old white male from Darby, PA who helped define the very genre he’s criticised of shooting within. This is akin to criticising Bruce Springsteen for having an 80s rock sound …”
Story Idea: Melanie Giuffré
1. National Geographic covers: July 1939 and June 1985. Photograph: Steve McCurry.
2. Painting depicts 33 founders at the Cosmos Club on 13 January 1888
3. The National Geographic Magazine, Volume 1, Number 1, October 1888
4. The National Geographic Society headquarters located at 1156 16th Street NW in Washington, DC
5. Notable gathering on the steps of Hubbard Hall, 1909
6. Front cover December 1969: "First Explorers on the Moon". Photo: NASA.
7. Familiar yellow spines. Credit: Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine
8. Team members holding up the flag of the National Geographic Society at Everest Base Camp in 2019
9. Sharbat Gula, left, on the cover of National Geographic in 1985, and then nearly two decades later, after she was reunited with the photographer.
10. Happy Halloween!