Steve McCurry and Photojournalism’s Burden of Truth

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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.

10 thoughts on “Steve McCurry and Photojournalism’s Burden of Truth

  1. It’s a tough one – but as a photographer, my personal challenge is to take the photograph that these images became, at the time of taking. I have hundreds of images that are not quite good enough because of annoyingly positioned lamp posts, that I have rejected and will never see the light of day. I strive to take the image without said lamp post first time round, For a photographer to remove these objects in post production in the name of creating a beautiful image rather than a journalistically correct one almost seems worse. Lazy in fact. In a way (to me) to edit an image to make it more visually powerful to ensure the story is told in a more effective way is not as bad as doing it to create a more powerful work of art. If a photograph is not good enough artistically, then don’t show it….to get into the mindset of “I’ll fix it in the edit” smacks of laziness and complacency. To not tell an important story because the image isn’t quite there is a shame and if fixing a random lamp post allows the story to be told strongly without fundamentally changing it, then perhaps it should be done.

    These particular Steve McCurry images were to all intents and purposes “art”. I just feel it was lazy of him, and his statement afterwards was dismissive…

  2. I wonder where this notion of objectivity comes from. I’ve always been something of a relativist which doesn’t always win many friends. The very idea of objective “truth” is problematic. Kurosawa’s Rashomon helped us understand the variability of subjective readings of events. Maybe the myth of objectivity in photojournalism is to established to be challenged seriously by this idea. More important for me are notions of authenticity, authorship/authority and trust. If Steve McCurry’s staff fully understood the values that the McCurry brand stands for then they wouldn’t have made such a simple technical error that got them called out. Or maybe they would.

  3. Shooting is not manipulation – it’s photography. Selecting is not manipulation – it’s editing. Bringing your pictures to life without altering reality is not manipulation – it’s retouching .
    Cloning grass to cover a person is manipulation. Cropping is debatable – I personally consider cropping to be manipulation.
    When I started as a photographer I had no clues but it only took me a few days to understand the principles and to act with honesty and integrity. I was always told that cropping is accepted by the industry but in the end I decided not to crop my pictures. So in all my work there is just one cropped image and it’s part of my first story (one month after picking the camera for the first time). I don’t regret it because it was part of my learning experiences. But I never did it again since.

    Some people only follow the perfect picture. It’s sad and laughable in the same time, but the joke is on them.

  4. Photo manipulation in press photography should be definitely banned and reprobate. In my opinion this type of photography should always show spotless truth.

  5. Thoughtful essay. I’m wondering in my limited way if there is still a place in the world for codes of ethical behavior. When we talk about photojournalism or documentary photography we are talking about a pretty small subset of the great mass of photographic practice. Is it still possible to expect a level of honesty there, a transparency of process? Where a creator can say this is what I did and this is the code i made it by? I think there can be, taking in an understanding of all you said about the bias and manipulation that is built in to the process and into ourselves. After all we still expect a level of honesty from the reporters and journalists who write news stories, we still hold them accountable if they transgress agreed upon rules. All the while knowing that they are presenting something colored by their own subjective biases, prejudice and indeed ignorance. We weigh that as readers as we can, measure it against other sources, and decide what is true. Can we expect the same of photographers?

  6. Thank you, Lewis Bush. This has to be just about the most intelligent and sensible statement about the so-called ‘truth-value’ of photography I’ve read for a very long time. (The fact that it coincides precisely with my own views is a plus!)

  7. Thank you for a piece that points out some of the many issues in photography that continue to challenge our thinking and personal values. I still think that “Afghan girl” as a single image is fascinating, but perhaps all the praise that it attracted contributed to his “signature” style. Some years ago I came across a book of his portraits and it was immediately obvious to me that he was attempting to reproduce that “stare” in many subsequent portraits. Sad that he couldn’t move on. The interesting thing will be whether he gets more Nat Geo assignments after this. Also, Nat Geo’s lack of opinion ’til now is quite deafening.

  8. While working on my B.A. and M.A. at the University of Alabama, I did a bit of research in the area of image exemplification. All of this discussion about image manipulation is interesting because in fact ALL photojournalists do this- most innocently or unwittingly. If the image doesn’t match the story, it tends to skew our perceptions of what’s really happening. The standard example of this is a TV reporter doing a voice-over, telling the viewers how horrible Ronald Reagan was and showing the former President smiling and shaking hands, kissing babies and looking like a “good guy”. Viewers who see this kind of reporting give higher attention to the visuals and come away with the perception that Reagan was a good guy, in spite of what the VO stated. Add to this the premise that “Fair and balanced” reporting is the ideal and you can get some very highly skewed perceptions of the reality of an event and in what the public *really* thinks. This is because the actual public opinion often differs greatly from the “50-50” reporting norms. When public opinion doesn’t match this 50-50 style of reporting, it causes additional skewing of the public’s perception of the actual story and can alter opinions, either rightly or wrongly, depending on the dynamics of the story and exemplars used. So, all of us who strive for this 50-50 reporting and visuals are guilty of this, although again most do this without realizing it and without “intent” to skew the actual story.

    However, knowingly skewing the perception of a story by altering the visuals content or representations within is ethically wrong. Photojournalism’s main tenant is to have a high level of honesty in what was recorded and faithfully reproduce that in the final product. When we knowingly alter an image’s content, its’ maker becomes suspect and the job of the journalist as a visual storyteller becomes moot, because their credibility is lost, which is the nail in the coffin for any photojournalist. Without your credibility, you can not represent any image as “truthful”. This is the main issue with the images in question because it becomes a slippery slope of compromise. Where does the manipulation stop? While there is no doubt that McCurry is a talented and capable photographer, he has opened himself up to macro inspections of his 40 year body of work. Even with his stellar reputation for making excellent images, there’s no room for this kind of manipulation within photojournalism. He is now significantly suspect because this changing of images has been so pervasive in his work.

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