If you have at least a passing interest in photojournalism, you almost certainly have already read about the revelations that noted photojournalist Steve McCurry of Afghan Girl fame had manipulated and altered many of his photos –apparently with troubling regularity.
The popular photography site PetaPixel broke the story early last month after Italian photographer Paolo Viglione discovered a botched image on McCurry’s blog from the Magnum photographer’s recent trip to Cuba that showed remnants of a street sign sticking out of a pedestrian’s leg. With interest piqued, others began scouring the web and pitched in with discoveries of their own. Dozens of images have since been exposed, some with altered settings and backgrounds and others with people removed entirely from the frame.
McCurry’s work has been most notable for the people he’s brought into our lives. We see now that he’s also removed them and decided not to tell us.
The discoveries put into question not only McCurry’s integrity as a photojournalist, but also that of an expansive body of work that has spanned four decades.
Discussions about truth and objectivity in photojournalism have also played a central role in the scandal’s discourse since the 6 May PetaPixel story. [Here’s a follow-up on 26 May.] Those, along with debates on how the revelations will impact McCurry’s legacy, won’t end anytime soon.
But it’s already left a foul taste in my mouth about a photographer whose work was identifiable to millions and an inspiration to nearly as many.
McCurry is best known for The Afghan Girl, his iconic image of a refugee that appeared on the cover of the June 1985 edition of National Geographic. How I viewed and interpreted his work has evolved over the years, but I always admired what I saw as his honest attempt to seek, find and convey a sense of authenticity in the parts of the world where he was working. Much of his best work came in the 1980s and 1990s, when rapid globalization was taking root, eclipsing and even eliminating entire cultures. McCurry’s work was seen to preserve or document at least some of what was being lost.
Whether that’s a naïve take or not isn’t what’s up for debate here and now. If you want critiques of McCurry’s work as that of someone seeing from a purely western eye, check out these two: Teju Cole’s March 2016 piece in the New York Times, where he characterizes McCurry’s work as “astonishingly boring”; and this one by Indian photographer Paroma Mukherjee, who dismisses McCurry’s gaze “as imperialist and his understanding of the locations he visits poor”. (He does give him high marks for his ability to market himself, however.)
His response to the initial PetaPixel story was to claim ignorance, and place blame on a lab technician who no longer works with him. But as evidence of his manipulations mounted, McCurry was forced to address the controversy in an interview with Time two days ago.
His response this time?
That he no longer considers himself a photojournalist but rather as a visual story-teller. (And to delete his blog in its entirety.)
His proclamation suggests an easy out with a lesser ethical responsibility. Codes of ethics used by most news agencies strictly prohibit the removal of any elements from editorial images. Images created as art, he’s arguing, don’t –or shouldn’t– have the same ethical constraints. Even for a photographer now creating fictions after having built a reputation as a photojournalist.
But the discussion really should go beyond photography’s search for truth or objectivity, or McCurry’s apparent marketing dishonesty in his new iteration as artist. In purely practical terms, McCurry’s alterations celebrate laziness and impatience.
The point of a good photograph is to get it right in camera, to compose the image and wait for the decisive moment. That’s what makes good, great and classic photos so captivating, so timeless and so rare. I’ve got piles –as does everyone else– of images that don’t cut it. In some there’s a pole in the way. In others a cart or bike isn’t positioned just right. And in others still, a person suddenly enters the scene that doesn’t quite “belong”.
McCurry’s answer? Remove them. And along with them, our ability to see, or choose not to see, what’s in the details.
The most egregious example is this one, whose original caption was Locals riding a rickshaw though heavy monsoon rain in Varanasi, India. 1983. The changes are obvious.
Michael Shaw, who has a great deconstruction of this shot on his blog ‘Reading the Pictures (formerly BagNews), says the new image angers him because McCurry is “communicating that I can’t be trusted with the details”.
Why should we still trust McCurry with conveying them to us in the first place?
Today’s Pic du Jour, the site’s 880th (!) straight, was snapped on 17 June 2015 in Bogota, Colombia. The selling price for this version of the Afghan Girl? USD $125. But negotiable.