Do you remember the picture in National Geographic of the so-called Afghan girl?
The photograph, taken by Steve McCurry, was of Sharbat Gula; her image adorned the cover of a 1985 issue of National Geographic (The link is to National Geographic’s discussion and review of the story almost 20 years later). I was barely aware of the wider world, then, but as I look back through web discussions (weird, that the web doesn’t go back to 1985, eh?), it seems that the Western world was fascinated with her face, her possible life, her unknown story, her “exotic green eyes,”…. You get the picture. She became a symbol; McCurry won Best 100 National Geographic Pictures.
There’s so much to be said about this story, about the confluence of race, gender, and feminism, about the practices of marketing and Western media — it’s an uncomfortable and disturbing mess. Her value as a symbol was and, indeed, is still so compelling that National Geographic went back in 2002 to find her, to see what had happened to her. Among the outcomes of that visit was a second image of her face — discussion this time is about how hard her life has been. The two images are at the root of a kind of Shepard-Fairey-like tradition of making and remakings of the image — some with honourable intent and some not — all over the internet. (The link is to google image search for “Afghan girl.”)
And now, there’s a third. This latest photograph is the focus of my post today. It’s on the cover of TIME magazine. Once more, the face of a beautiful, young Afghan woman stands in for a discussion of war. This time, however, the woman is visibly disabled. As the cover makes clear, the torture that rendered Aisha disabled, is one of the consequences/risks of an American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the consequent return of the Taliban. I have nothing to say about this thesis; my focus is the value of disability in this picture.
Some More Provisos
The Photographic Tradition
I don’t know who reads TIME; I don’t. I don’t know how many of TIME’s readers are old enough to remember the National Geographic photograph in the original or how many became acquainted with Sharbat Gula’s story when National Geographic visited a second time. I do think, however, that there is a mainstream audience out there that is able to recognize that the TIME photo refers back to the National Geographic picture. My bet is that when they make the comparison between the two covers, Aisha will be cast negatively. And that disturbs me. How many of TIME’s readers will look at the image and recognize Aisha as beautiful, exactly as she is? How many of those readers will use her disability as the reason that no one could ever find her beautiful. “As is” is important to me here, because I find sentiments such as “despite her disability,…” as deeply patronizing. Disability can be integrated into one’s understanding of a whole and hale human being.
I’m not saying that I think Aisha’s particular body is a natural part of human variation; it’s not. (Just in case you thought I was making a pollyanna disability rights and culture argument — I am making a disability rights and culture argument, just not a simple one.) Some children are born with bodies that might be comparable; others acquire them through surgery or medical conditions. I believe in the beauty of these bodies; Lucy Grealy’s achingly beautiful Autobiography Of A Face in which she discusses beauty, disability, and faces was one of the texts that helps me arrive at such a statement.
Aisha withstood several acts of unbelievable violence; she has a before and after that I think might complicate how we understand her photograph. This video discusses the photographer’s approach.
Aisha for me was one woman that really stood out. She’s staying in a shelter in Kabul. There was a court case against her within the tribe. She said that as punishment men took her and cut off her ears and her nose. For me, it was more about capturing something about her. And that was the really difficult part. You know her headscarf fell slightly back and her hair was exposed. And she had the most beautiful hair. And I said to her, you know, “You really are such a beautiful woman, and I could never understand or know how you feel it, you know, by having your nose and ears cut off, but what I CAN [emphasis hers] do is show you as beautiful in this photograph.” I could have made a photograph with her looking or, or being portrayed more as the victim. And I thought, “No. This woman is beautiful.”
In the voiceover, Ms. Bieber finds Aisha beautiful, but that recognition comes not from a consideration of her face or her body as it is now; it’s prompted by an admiration for her hair. (How many times has a white woman found beauty in the hair of a woman of colour?) I suppose I should be glad that Ms. Bieber can see Aisha’s beauty, no matter what its source. But I remain frustrated with the cover image. S.E. Smith (who wrote here earlier this summer) reminds me that Ms. Bieber probably didn’t make the decision herself: covers are editorial decisions. But let’s say, for a moment, that a decision was made and that Ms. Bieber consented. The decision (which is not discussed — does Ms. Bieber deny her own agency? She’s not disowning the photograph) is to go for the pose that most resembles the world-famous image of Sharbat Gula.
The discourse surrounding the photograph of Sharbat Gula is comprised in large part of discussion of her beauty and, in particular, her eyes. In the photograph, Aisha is posed to recall Sharbat Gula’s image — both women are placed in similar light, with similar head and body positions with regard to the camera, both women wear a headscarf that reveals their hair, both women stare intensely into the camera. The signal difference between the two women is that one is visibly disabled.
This image would not have to be cover of the magazine. In fact, I would argue that it is the cover primarily because of the power of Sharbat Gula’s image and the, by contrast, negative shock value of Aisha’s disability for readers in the mainstream US (but possibly also Western) world. Ms. Bieber, would not have had to use Aisha’s picture at all — there are other women in the article. Ms. Bieber would not have had to pose her in this manner — there’s another picture of her in the article, seated cross-legged and smiling, full face to the front, at the camera. She’s not even in that position in the video in which Ms. Bieber talks about how she took Aisha’s picture. No. Ms. Bieber’s decision (which, incidentally, she doesn’t discuss) is to go for the pose that most resembles the world-famous image of Sharbat Gula. It’s deliberate. It’s the money-shot.
Regardless of how disability plays out in Aisha’s world, the vast majority of readers of TIME live in a culture that understands disability as tragedy. As shocking. As among the worst things that can happen to you (bar death). Mainstream American culture thinks it knows disability and knows how to read it. Ms. Bieber has a history of photographing disabled bodies (there’s an image of a wheelchair user in this video of her “Real Beauty” pictures). But the work she does in the Real Beauty series does not come through in this photograph — perhaps because of the context and placement of the image. Here she (and or the editor) uses Aisha’s disability to trade upon the readership’s sympathies and their horror: this and other unknown kinds of disability are a direct result of the US departure from Afghanistan. This is not about Aisha; it’s about the message of the article.
That women’s rights will be at risk, should the US leave Afghanistan is really not a debatable issue. In fact, looking at Aisha’s story, it seems pretty clear that women’s rights are at risk even while the US is in Afghanistan. So why does the story need Aisha’s disability?
The relationship between feminism and disability rights is, as the blogosphere repeatedly shows, vexed. Mainstream feminisms simply don’t know what to do with disability. And here, it seems to me that the argument is simple: disability is a screen upon which the narrative claims of women’s rights are projected. (As a disability rights activist, I would have to sigh and say, “again.”) There is no understanding that women’s rights and disability rights do not have to be mutual antagonists. Instead, the Bieber image, as contextualized in TIME, attempts to make women’s rights off the back (so-to-speak) of disability rights. Aisha’s body is the quickest route to publicizing a serious message. It’s the easiest, most visceral, most unthinking, sloppiest way to get a point across.
To those who would protest that Ms. Bieber was just trying, as she said, to make her look beautiful, I would say that the problem of Western mores, beauty, and disability for people who live non-Western worlds is equally vexed. Anyone remember the beauty contest organized by a white Norwegian, presumably able-bodied man for female amputees in Angola? The mainstream blogosphere discussion was about how important it was for these women to regain their self-esteem. How problematic is it that the non-disabled white folk seek to restore and communicate the beauty (in their own terms) of disabled women of colour? (Links are to my site and to feministe’s own slightly horrifying discussion.) Oh, and in case you were wondering how invisible the disability aspect of Aisha’s story might be, check out this NYT piece, classily entitled “Portrait of Pain.”
We will never be able to approach these and other complex questions about the relationship of disability, feminism, and beauty unless we have a wider understanding of disability itself. I am going to moderate comments. I ask that you consider this conversation as being part of the process of exploring and understanding some of the ways disability, race, and feminism might travel together.
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