On the Photoshopped Fictions of Steve McCurry

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.

McCurrySoccerPlay1-1
From eight players..
McCurrySoccerPlay2-1
.. to six. (photos via PetaPixel)

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.

McCurryRickshaw1-1
Now you see him..
McCurryRickshaw2-1
And now you don’t. Another rickshaw and the table of green apples are gone, too (Photos via Petapixel).

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.

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  1. paula graham says

    Interesting article, does it all depend of your expectations? In camera clubs in the UK this kind of work is rewarded with prizes and even with RPS medals…(royal photographic society)..and distinctions like ARPS and FRPS….The thinking is : we do not care how the photo is created as long as it is created with your own work and it is pleasing to the eye of the ‘judges;’.
    To ‘photoshop’ or not, that is the question.

  2. illumidata says

    Nice write up Bob – thank you for bringing this story to my attention. Nothing like a bit of scandal to liven up a quiet evening at home, and it’s something of a comfort to know he’s as much of a hack as the rest of us!

    I also couldn’t help but notice that all the edits made for marked improvements in the images. I guess if it’s OK for Gursky…

    1. Bob R says

      Indeed, it definitely brings him down several notches.

  3. Photobooth Journal says

    Hi Bob,

    This discovery about Mr Mc Curry is more and more interesting the more I read about it. I went to all the links. Thank you for not only writing about this, but for your explanation of the wider issues. It has been an educational visit to Piran Cafe.

  4. jacquelineobyikocha says

    I am not a fan of photoshop but as long as his work is not criminal or illegal then what’s the problem?

    1. Bob R says

      It’s not illegal, but the ethics are highly questionable, even given his after-the-fact defense that he’s creating art. In photojournalism and editorial photography, manipulation and altering are strict no-nos. McCurry built his reputation as a photojournalist, so that’s the reasonable expectation when seeing his work. Had he not been caught and called out, we’d still not know.

      1. jacquelineobyikocha says

        Hmm! From that point of view as photojournalist then it makes a lot of sense to have rules against altering their work.

  5. Mick Canning says

    I agree with you, Bob. If it’s called ‘photojournalism’, then the expectation is that it is the truth. Art? That’s different, although there should be no attempt to hoodwink the onlooker that the one is the other.

    I tweek my photos, but my rules are that the tweeking should be limited to colour balance and cropping only.

    1. Bob R says

      Same here — color adjustments, contrast, cropping. If I can’t correct it in Lightroom, I don’t bother with it.

      Most troubling to me is that “attempt to hoodwink” as you call it. His work from the road has always been associated with his work as a photojournalist, which is a reasonable expectation given the reputation he’s built. Calling it art as an attempt to lessen ethical responsibility after the fact doesn’t cut it. His lack of transparency doesn’t either.

      1. Mick Canning says

        No, you can’t call it one thing and then change your mind just because you’ve been found out. That doesn’t work.

  6. bisimodupe1975 says

    This story reminds me that it is important to follow required ethics of any profession..saves one future hassles. An educative post Bob…thanks for sharing.

  7. Playamart - Zeebra Designs says

    Lucky me to check into the hostal for an afternoon of internet – and find this! Wow, I am sobered, and probably would not have heard/read about this for a long time had you not have posted it. It reminds me of how a painter will take credit for a large painted image which had been projected and traced and then painted. It’s ok as graphic art but to me, is not ‘fine art,’ where the artist show excellence not only in painting but also in the ability to draw well. To those of us who are purists, whether in photography, or painting or even gardening or cooking, it’s the technical mastery of a medium that we strive for – and we hope that those at the top of the fields have used the same ethics.

    It’s ok to clean up a photo, but let us know how it was done!

    1. Bob R says

      The separate issues of photojournalistic ethics aside, it’s precisely this that bothered me: his decision to bypass those technical aspects, the need to find the right composition. Choosing to remove things after the fact is simply very lazy. And as I mentioned in another reply to a comment here, his after-the-fact proclamation that he’s now creating images for art’s sake doesn’t really cut it, because I don’t think it’s very good art.

      The way in which he went about removing people and other important elements from the photos, in such a subtle and deliberate way (and apparently hoping nobody would notice), only cheapens its value and impact as the art he now claims it to be. He’s removed elements that the viewer couldn’t possibly know were there in the first place, thus injecting his worldview into the piece in the most dishonest, and quite frankly, laziest of ways. You can’t now not look at all of his work in a different way.

  8. 2e0mca says

    A very interesting post Bob. At what point does the photograph move from a documentary truth to a work of art intended convey a representation of a seen truth? One of my friends at the football club often addresses me as ‘Camera Never Lies’. And my photography usually shows what’s there with only adjustments to contrast, sharpness, straightness and the final crop. But there is the dark side of the occasional re-introduction of a ball that has fled the frame by a few feet or the removal of a street light that has become disassociated from its pole. Does this make me a dishonest photographer? – I don’t know.

    Clearly, how we represent our photos to the public is important to how they will be interpreted by future generations. If Mr McCurry has manipulated his images by removing people (for example) to produce a more pleasing image without perhaps indicating fully his intentions in doing so then his actions as a famous photographer can cast a shadow on us all.

    1. Bob R says

      His intentions here are key – it’s especially important in the case of McCurry who is one of the best known shooters in the National Geographic pantheon and a respected Magnum member. And in a more specific context, as a photographer who built his reputation as a photojournalist and who is now distancing himself from that job title only after he was caught doctoring images, which I don’t think even work that well as art.

      The way in which he went about removing people and other important elements from the photos, in such a subtle and deliberate way (and apparently hoping nobody would notice), only cheapens its value and impact as the art he now claims it to be. He’s removed elements that the viewer couldn’t possibly know were there in the first place, thus injecting his worldview into the piece in the most dishonest, and quite frankly, laziest of ways. You can’t now not look at all of his work in a different way.

      As to the dark side you mentioned — I’ve never gone there, and not only because I’m not nearly adept enough with Photoshop to pull it of; it doesn’t fit with what I shoot, which is almost exclusively editorial and documentary work. In those realms that sort of wholesale manipulation simply isn’t acceptable. Even cropping requires great care and thought to what the image is trying to convey and what you may wish it to convey.

      As to your example:

      “But there is the dark side of the occasional re-introduction of a ball that has fled the frame by a few feet or the removal of a street light that has become disassociated from its pole. Does this make me a dishonest photographer? – I don’t know.”

      That would largely depend on the context and how the image is going to be used but I’d say ‘dishonest’ is a stretch — certainly not in the same way that I now see the term fitting McCurry’s work.

      Thanks for your thoughtful and honest comments.

  9. 2e0mca says

    My Football photographs are for the club and the players (giving them something back for the entertainment they give me) – My street and transport photography is documentary for a wider audience but not normally for sale (CC licence applied). I would certainly never remove key elements, which seems to be what Mr McCurry has been doing – though sometimes I might apply an artistic approach such as HDR or B&W conversion. This debate has certainly opened a can of worms for us all the think about 🙂

  10. Anonymous says

    Bob,
    You are totally correct that he only distanced himself from the title “photojournalist” AFTER he was caught manipulating images. In fact, someone point out that until he was found out, his webpages described him as a photojournalist.

    Recent (but before the scandal broke) interviews where he denies using Photoshop to manipulate photos recently surfaced. Check out when he says you must never manipulate images because it is a violation of ethics.
    – Pete

    An Interview with Steve McCurry TedxAmsterdamWomen
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=njhkRyw3CKo
    7:00- How do you feel about adjusting your pictures?

    #FanChat wFamed Photojournalist Steve Mccurry
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0ej66oyesY
    32:30- Where do you draw the line with Photoshop?

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks, Pete, these are helpful. And there are probably more similar on the record statements.

      Over the past few days I’ve been wondering more why creations for art’s sake even need these sorts of manipulation. If he believes that an image should never be altered to change a reality, why shouldn’t that apply for an art print? The struggle I have is that his style and output simply don’t fit into that. Taking the rickshaw image above as an example, how is the image he created better? It’s clearly not the reality of the scene (although we couldn’t know that if these doctored images weren’t found) and doesn’t teach us anything new. It may be visually more appealing with “distractions” removed, but it’s simply too close to the style of his that we’re familiar with that we can’t view it as something other than a documentary image.

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