Date of Award

Spring 5-11-2020

Document Type

Honors Thesis



First Advisor

Dan Schubert




One Google search of the word “refugee” and the screen is immediately populated with images of human struggle. They are often striking depictions of families left destitute by forced relocation. They evoke imagery of suffering and helplessness, suggesting that to be a refugee is to embody a state of impotence. Indeed, it is these pictures of tragedy that capture the hearts of those in distant locations privileged enough to have never experienced displacement themselves. Given the high definition of these pictures, there exists a unique market just for capturing these perfect moments of vulnerability and stoicism. Consider the famous photograph of Sharbat Gula, for example.1 Gula certainly captures these descriptors; her green eyes are brought to life by her worn-looking red scarf as she glares directly into the reader. Gula, having been orphaned during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, became a symbol for Afghan displacement when the international community anointed her “the Afghan girl.” The caption of this 1985 issue of National Geographic says it clearly: “Haunted eyes of an Afghan refugee’s fear.” Yet, in such a moment of vulnerability—such a personal close up of Gula’s face—I am taken by how impersonal the message is. Gula, at the time, was a symbol for displaced Afghans and the material hardship they endured. Her presentation on the cover of National Geographic symbolizes a different kind of struggle though, one for representation and agency, that is fundamental to the way we think about refugee populations. It is this very issue that I explore in this paper.