Did Steve McCurry Betray Photojournalism?

Everything we see, feel and experience is an interpretation of “reality,” or “facts” if you want. Our cognitive senses are like filters. Nothing is perceived as is. Not two people on the planet see the exactly same things. Goes for reporting. Not two news reports report the same things, even though they report on the same “story.” Add the distortive factors distance and time, and facts can easily become fiction. Masterpiece film Rashomon for instance by Akira Kurosawa is a perfect example of this. An incident happened, yet every character involved witnessed a completely different story, providing alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions of the same incident. You thought you knew what happened. In the end nothing is clear any longer. So when photojournalism pretends to report facts authentically, without any alterations, interpretations or assumptions, is this even possible? And if photojournalism tweaks the image to make it look better and more captivating, is that a crime? Can it be a crime to interpret the interpretation of something? That’s the trap photographer icon Steve McCurry finds himself in. He’s accused of altering photographs to make them look better. I say, what ignorant minds still believe in the idea of the absolute?

It’s quite a thing to accuse the National Geographic and Magnum Photos legend Steve McCurry of altering images. And he did so, or at least his studio, as he claims. He would never have authorized such a change, reports PetaPixel, and the lab technician who made the mistake does not work with him anymore:

This GIF shows the differences between two versions of the same photo taken by Steve McCurry. | Steve McCurry / TIME
Bangladesh, 1983 — This GIF shows the differences between two versions of the same photo taken by Steve McCurry. | Steve McCurry / TIME
In the final version of the altered image, not only were elements removed, a hand was possibly constructed and added to the child at the right of the frame.
In the final version of the altered image, not only were elements removed, a hand was possibly constructed and added to the child at the right of the frame.

Naturally, this begs the question: where is the line between truth and manufactured reality in photography. Well, if the alteration doesn’t change the content of an image, or doesn’t lead to a different interpretation of the image or different conclusions, why should this even be a problem. Photoshop is a reality, and even the in-camera digital processing of an image is an alteration of the “original” incident already. So when does the manipulation of an image go to far?

Let’s get real. Doesn’t even the choice of photography equipment “manipulate” each and every shot? What camera, what lens? What’s excluded in the framing, what’s included, etc.? Still believe to be able to capture “facts” and “the truth”?

Says the Associated Press about its news values and principles, they never alter photo content:

AP pictures must always tell the truth. We do not alter or digitally manipulate the content of a photograph in any way.

The content of a photograph must not be altered in Photoshop or by any other means. No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph. The faces or identities of individuals must not be obscured by Photoshop or any other editing tool. Only retouching or the use of the cloning tool to eliminate dust on camera sensors and scratches on scanned negatives or scanned prints are acceptable.

Minor adjustments in Photoshop are acceptable. These include cropping, dodging and burning, conversion into grayscale, and normal toning and color adjustments that should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction (analogous to the burning and dodging previously used in darkroom processing of images) and that restore the authentic nature of the photograph. Changes in density, contrast, color and saturation levels that substantially alter the original scene are not acceptable. Backgrounds should not be digitally blurred or eliminated by burning down or by aggressive toning. The removal of “red eye” from photographs is not permissible.

Clear enough, isn’t it. Don’t add or subtract anything from a photograph. So McCurry did commit a crime?

Every photographer is always an artist. Every photographer should claim the right of artistic freedom, such as framing, exposure, etc. This freedom, it goes without saying, is strictly limited in the case of news reporting. But McCurry shooting some scene with kids playing, does an image manipulation constitute a breach of rules and trust?

Nonsense. But this doesn’t make the problem go away. Even if his studio altered it without him knowing, this begs the question what the people he employs are doing with his work he’s not approving of. But if McCurry was not working in a photojournalistic capacity, is he obligated by some imperative, moral or otherwise, to follow photojournalism standards simply by virtue of his reputation?

Again, nonsense.

It’s certainly a sign of weakness that he’s not able to provide a shot that exactly shows what he wanted to shoot. This would lead to the problem, would it be ethical to ask the boys to run through the water again, for a second and third shot, but this time more choreographically aware? No one would ever ask any questions later on, because no one would know that McCurry had asked the boys to stage the action.

What you don’t know won’t hurt you, isn’t it. Doesn’t make it right though?

This whole Steve McCurry controversy shows how limited our ability is to deal with the freedoms and possibilities we’re given by modern technology.

Who still believes in what one sees these days?

Who still believes in the idea of the absolute?

No one is lying here, no one is changing facts, no one is trying to tell a different story. I trust the name McCurry to authentically represent what he aims to represent. That’s right, the whole controversy boils down to a question of trust. And I’m actually glad the image looks better now. More balanced, more composed. Still not a great image. Should have purged it. Not worth the controversy which was kicked off by Italian photographer Paolo Viglione who visited McCurry’s current exhibition The World of Steve McCurry in Turin.

He noticed there was evidence of a poor Photoshop job in one of McCurry’s images:

What an embarrassment. |  Paolo Viglione / Steve McCurry
What an embarrassment. | Paolo Viglione / Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry Betrayal Photojournalism

If McCurry wanted to manipulate the images, why would he have approved such incredibly shoddy work? Even though, the content wasn’t meaningfully altered, and we shouldn’t mistake something factual for something truthful, and vice versa. And we should always question which facts and truths are employed, and how. There are not two people with the same truths.

Fellow Magnum Photos photographer Peter van Agtmael says in photography facts aren’t always truths:

The very nature of what is photographed and how is heavily affected by the influence of admired photographers with distinct personal visions, patterns of success in contests and the traditions and expectations of the commissioning body. Style, lens choice, position, what to show and what to exclude in the framing, editing, equipment choice, toning, sequence are all manipulative and subjective.

The result is a collection of facts that tends to be sanctimoniously declared as representing ‘truth.’ At best, these facts are a coherent personal truth. At worst, they are a distorted and overly dramatized look at complex issues in often marginalized, objectified communities. Often, they are something in between.

To capture something happening in a pinprick of time is inherently a limited means of understanding.

Steve McCurry tells stories. He’s a storyteller. That requires certain levels of interpretation. Stop the bigotry that it’s software that makes his work. If it’s more pleasing to the eye to enhance the message without altering it, Photoshop is a legit tool.

  • damn.eu

    I believe that this is only an issue if one is politically motivated to believe that a picture is telling the truth.

    For me, the question is… Do I like it?

    In the case of Steve McCurry, invariably “no”, he is too chocolate boxy for my taste.

    This is only a problem for “professional” photographers too… The amateur, like myself does not need to alter a picture to tell some kind of truth, I am only trying to satisfy my own ego… Did I make a good picture or not? Usually not :)

    The professional depends on making good pictures for his living…

    So it is especially important for viewers to see professional output in that light.

    As you say Dan, every story can/will be interpreted differently be different people, and this goes for pictorial storytelling too.

  • There are too many ways to cheat and airbrushing is just one of them. The truth at best is a subjective concept. Like those who kill in the name of Gods for thousands of years and even now, they believe in their own rightness.

  • Hasifleur

    What a myth! AP wants truthfulness, but only that which agrees with its own world view and its own interpretation of political reality. AP has consistently (as has the New York Times) presented their own version of reality about the Middle East and Israel by excluding information and photographs that do not conform to their slanted perceptions.

  • vr

    In this case altering images devaluates them and would make it wander what was done to every other Steve McCurry picture should I ever see one. BTW I am sick of seeing ‘Afghan girl’.

  • You have a story today? Witnesses? Tomorrow, every witness will tell a different story. Now take the Gospel. Earliest one written by Luke was written. Earliest means, within some 30 years of Jesus’ death. Taking the written word at face value is not something the inquisitive mind easily subscribes to. Equally, taking a photograph at face value is gullible at best. What’s excluded from the frame? What’s hidden? What’s intentionally emphasized? Left out? That is no less manipulation, yet a legitimate propaganda tool.

  • Maybe a bit harsh. The Afghan girl still sends a chill down my spine. Steve McCurry’s “honest mistake” is likely only the tip of the iceberg. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone…

  • Thought it’s the opposite way, that the amateur hardly focuses on the camera anymore, but post-processing, while the professional still at least gets his or her hands dirty.

    Steve McCurry’s photographs are a bit polished, you got a point there, no denial though that he’s a master of light and curiosity, two of good photography’s basics.

  • The news business today has much to do with entertainment, or infotainment if you want, and not information. Why produce what doesn’t sell. More than ever before news is a business regulated by demand and supply. Demand is dwindling, so news becomes measured by quantity, and not necessarily quality. Depending on the story, I prefer Al Jazeera or Russian RT, they quite often have fascinating angles on topics that are ignored or overly simplified by mainstream media. Syria, Iran, what’s the real true story? Again, there’s no real true story. What matters is the embedded context.

  • Mike Hogan

    ` Photography isn,t monolistic , it is many genres, photojournalism , fine art, wedding etc, each has a place and purpose.Many of us, pro and amateur, have and can use Photoshop to create fine art, create a wedding portfolio, clean up snapshots, or just experiment.
    Print journalist are held to different standard than a writer of fiction as Janet Cooke of the Washington Post found out. Steve McCurry’s photojournalism isn’t any different,manipulating photos to tell his made up and enhanced story, and passing it off as reality.
    As for Steve McCurry, ” the professional depends on making good pictures for his living..So it is especially important for viewers to see professional output in that light.” This is no differant than the professional cyclist who depends on results for his living and uses drugs They are both cheating the public,in each case and it becomes entertainment rather than an honest endeavor .