Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl
On the cover of a National Geographic publication.
The intellectual milieu that gives rise to a technology or a practice leaves fingerprints on that thing which last for a long time, indeed which sometimes might even be impossible to completely remove from it. The technology of photography was born in a century fixated on empiricism and on the belief that witnessing was the path to knowledge. New technologies like the various permutations of the camera offered the means for better witnessing, untainted by the shortcomings of human physiology or bias, and led therefore to knowledge which was more objective, and closer to the ‘truth’. In its turn the practice of photojournalism developed and reached maturity in a century defined by enormous ideological battles, populist conflicts between socialisms, democracies and fascisms which sought to settle essential questions about the nature of man, and his future direction. While aspects of photojournalism were appropriated by all sides in these conflicts, photojournalism in its truest sense tended to come down on the side of democracy, humanism and a sort of universalized view of human experience. This was a view exemplified in certain cultural products, National Geographic magazine being one, Edward Steichen’s seminal 1955 exhibition Family of Man being another. ‘There is only one man in the world and his name is All Men’ wrote the poet Carl Sandburg in the commentary which accompanied the exhibition on it’s subsequent eight year global tour.
I refer back to these points in the history of photography and photojournalism because I think they are interesting and important for the way we continue to think about these things today. In photojournalism notions of objective truth and universal human experience remain very popular ones. They have perhaps been tempered by the growing number of voices who see these ideas as problematic, or at times even quite dangerous, but they continue to lurk, waiting to be released from their dormant state by the right circumstances and events, like fingerprints at a crime scene waiting to be illuminated by exposure to the right combination of chemicals and an investigators ultra-violet lamp. This I would say is what happened briefly when it was recently revealed that photographs by veteran photojournalist Steve McCurry had been photomanipulated to remove extraneous details. The discovery was initially made by Paolo Viglione, an Italian photographer who noted evidence of cloning in a McCurry prints at an exhibition in Italy. In the image in question the base of a street sign appears to have been accidentally cloned across the leg of a man passing in front of it. Subsequent analysis of other McCurry images available online revealed a number of other images had been subject to manipulation, including some much more clearly intentional removals of large parts of photographs, and one where parts might even have been added. Petapixel and other sites quickly picked up the story, and McCurry issued a statement blaming the mistake on an overzealous technician (blaming the retoucher seems to be becoming an ever more common strategy employed by those who instruct them).
Revelations of photomanipulation always draws the ire of photojournalists, despite the evident irony that this is only one of the many forms of manipulation which occur in photojournalism. The same people who rabidly condemn someone like McCurry are often the ones who fail to recognize the extent to which every other part of their own process is a form of manipulation. From early interactions with subjects through choices made in shooting and image selection, to the final editing tweaks made to maximize visual effect. Even the pre-eminent final form of photojournalism, the photo essay, is itself a form of manipulation, an entirely artificial narrative device design to produce certain effects which have little to do with the way events unfold in the real world or the ways we experience them as bystanders. The photo essay instead has everything to do with a particular conception of how stories are told, how time flows, and how these things can be twisted into a form convenient for the reproductional technology of the early twentieth century (which, lest we forget, is stone age compared to the possibilities of today). Every stage of the photojournalistic process then is a manipulation, each one capable of manipulating reality in a direction which facilitates the telling of stories in ways which are sometimes accurate and illuminating (even dare I say it, truthful?) but which can just as easily be regressive, misleading and unhelpful. What matters far less than the fact of whether manipulation takes place or not, is the extent to which the photographer is transparent about it, and the manipulation is made clear. The examples of photographers who have done just that are few, such are the severe strictures against breaking these sacred codes, but they do exist. From Frank Hurley’s exceptional composite images of First World War battles, to W. Eugene Smith’s numerous genre defining projects, the latter famously responded to questions about his use of unconventional techniques with the remark that ‘I didn’t write the rules, why should I follow them?’
The real problem with McCurry’s photography isn’t down to the use of the clone tool to create them, it’s a problem embedded even more profoundly in his way of making photographs, and goes right back to those latent fingerprints. McCurry is engaged in a type of photography born in the ideological battles of the Cold War and which seems to have barely evolved since. A universalized world view which often appears to be attempting to simplify the complex and sometimes uncomfortable differences between people and places rather than fully acknowledging those differences or the things that create them. It’s an approach to photography and to the world it depicts which is reductive and unreflective, not least on the process that gives rise to the images themselves. In the words of Teju Cole, it’s astonishingly boring photography, and in Paroma Mukherjee’s words just well marketed visual imperialism (I recommend reading both of these pieces for more on what’s wrong with this type of photography in general). I suspect the reason that people really object to the discovery that McCurry or someone close to him has been manipulating his photographs is mostly just that it calls into question the sacred notion of empirical photographic truth to which so many hold dear, and reveals once again that absolute rules rarely hold strong. In that sense at least perhaps we should actually thank McCurry for allowing himself his own ‘unguarded moment’ and in doing so revealing the artifice not only of his photographs but also the framework of beliefs that lie behind them.
From where I stand unquestioning faith in the idea of truth as something absolute and human experience as something universal and self-evident have become a terrible burden on photojournalism, and perhaps these rigid conventions partly explain why so many are deserting the practice and instead aligning themselves with disciplines like documentary and art. It is a burden of truth which rather than enabling important work often seems often to paralyze photojournalism’s most zealous adherents, leaving them unable to respond to many of the major problems which face the world today. As I wrote recently about the World Press Photo, journalists can no longer believe in the idea of objective photographic vision in an age when so many things that they need to reveal are constructed exactly to exploit or defy exactly such ways of thinking and seeing. Instead they need to embrace alternative forms of seeing and storytelling, ones where the potential for revelation lies in partly a readiness to embrace difference, subjectivity and in a rejection of simple ethical binaries and moral black and whites.