- Some of McCurry’s photographs have been digitally doctored. People and significant objects have been removed, fundamentally altering the scene depicted. McCurry has blamed these ‘errors’ on junior support staff during image processing, but this sounds like the equivalent of a lizard shedding its tail when faced with mortal danger. The more you think about it, the more absurd this claim sounds. Who decided which elements to clone out? An intern? I think you’d have better luck persuading me that the moon is made of cheese than Steve McCurry affords his junior staff complete autonomy with post processing, up to and including photoshopping out half a dozen objects, including carts, people etc. This is not taking responsibility, but the very opposite.
- Some of McCurry’s famous ‘photojournalism’ images were set up. McCurry has presented his work as photojournalism and has reportedly stated in literature and in interviews that he does not set up such shots. Eyewitnesses have provided fairly damning commentary that suggests otherwise.
These two issues are serious, but only if a person considers photographs within an ethical framework, or within a ‘conception context’. Photojournalism is, by definition, a form of journalism (see National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics). McCurry has referred to himself as a photojournalist for decades, but since this controversy burst, has removed this language from his website/s. One could argue that this act is in keeping with an acknowledgement that ethical guidelines have been violated. It’s worth noting that these guidelines are not unique. A wide array of photojournalism organisations have almost identical ethics and would all have been breached by the sort of issues alleged against McCurry.
Beyond Photography Ethics
If the images are no longer photographs of real scenes as they naturally occurred (photojournalism), surely the world McCurry presented to us is no longer valid as any kind of depiction of reality. I don’t think there is any need to delve further into the relationship between ‘reality’ and ‘photography’, because the allegations are much more fundamental. Are McCurry photographs therefore nothing more than photojournalism of Steve McCurry’s vision? [Referring to one of the photographs in the Petapixel article] If the Indian woman with the child was known to the photographer and the porter was asked to stand there and the suitcases on his head were empty, what is it we are looking at beyond an outdoor theatrical set with actors? I think it could be argued that the answer is ‘not a lot’. It may as well have been shot in a studio in New York, using a painted backdrop. McCurry has is reportedly now referring to himself as a visual storyteller, which affords much greater flexibility. As we know, stories can be fictional.
I know that when I look at photojournalism or documentary images, my mind is a whirlwind of imagination and visualisation seeking connection. I think we naturally try to construct some form of imagined, personalised reality to contextualise the image in real, human, existential terms. (When I refer in other pieces to seeking to share ‘a sense of understanding’ in my own work, this is what I am referring to, because there is no such thing as the reality which is the same thing/place for everyone). If a scene has been constructed, that feeling of connection becomes null and void. You’re chasing a phantom and, at least for me, there is a clear sense off having been defrauded. Our imaginations, our empathy, our voyage has been conned out of us. I realise that it can be argued that there is no empirical truth in photography, but we are not talking about framing, or image selection. We are not talking about partisan ‘angles’. We are talking about people who are not the people they are presented as, or people who were not where they were for any other reason than the photographer’s direction. Surely that changes everything? If it doesn’t, then would any image that looks authentic, but was created using actors and props, be as valid as the real McCoy? Maybe for some people, but not for me. Set up images might look the same as something that could have actually occurred, but the events did not occur and therefore it cannot be presented as any form of documentary of human history. Because this is what we are surely dealing with: fragments of human history and it’s not for anyone to grade them in terms of importance and decide which ones must be protected and which ones can be ‘simulated’. The word ‘history’ has an entirely inflexible definition.
Steve McCurry: The Unguarded (Constructed and Manipulated?) Moment
Henri-Cartier Bresson coined the ‘decisive moment’, which you are likely to be familiar with. McCurry’s version is ‘The Unguarded Moment’, but this phrase would now appear hollow. Portraits naturally involve direct involvement of the photographer. Even with photojournalism, there may be movement of both photographer and subject to make the shot, because the subject is the person alone. But what about street scenes in motion? What happens when these are constructed or multiple people and objects are cloned out?
For some years I have had concerns that some of McCurry’s most famous images have smelled a little…. fishy. Any vocalisation of this would have been branded envy by others. I therefore said nothing. Besides, it is only my own experience-driven hunch. I have McCurry’s book, ‘The Unguarded Moment’ but have never felt comfortable with it (for two reasons, this being only one). Too many of the images feel a little too controlled, too ‘managed’ and even predictable (trite?). They just don’t feel as natural (and authentic) as they are feel they’re supposed to be. A person who has spent a lot of time in India might call into question this image:
The alley is empty. There are no people, no animals and little visible cow dung. The child is alone. Both feet are off the ground as the boys runs away from the photographer. The framing is perfect. Here are two possible explanations:
- McCurry happened to find a perfectly calm scene where all the elements came together perfectly. He was at the right place at the right time. After immense patience, he was able to capture the ‘unguarded moment’.
- McCurry found the alley, saw the hand prints and thought, ‘wow, this would make an amazing photo, right here. I just need a running child’. He then asked a boy to run until he got the shot (while possibly ensuring that the space remained clear of visual distractions).
I guess you’d need to see the negatives, but if it is the first possibility, there will be very few frames of the boy running (perhaps only one). If it is the second, there may me quite a few. To me, this image just lacks the little marks of imperfection that tag it as authentic. Sadly, quite a few of McCurry’s ‘unguarded moment’ images feel that way to me. Take this image, for example:
Burkhas are coloured by region. In the West we are most familiar with blue ones (found in Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif etc), but some are white, red, yellow, green or white. These are less common, especially now, but one tends to find people in a given area tend to wear the same colour. That McCurry found a group of women standing together in blue, white(ish blue), mustard, yellow and light blue strikes me as ‘surprising’. That one (wearing a blue burkha on the left) has her foot cocked into the frame and is showing off contrasting white trousers and bright red shoes only raises my eyebrows further. The little girl on the right is also wearing blue and… has red shoes too. I wasn’t there at the time. I did not live in Afghanistan at the time. I did, however, live in Afghanistan for ten years and this scene just does not feel quite right to me. It feels contrived and constructed, but I may well be entirely wrong in this assessment. The problem is that once you have strong feelings of distrust towards a few images, you cannot help but wonder about the rest. It’s also like dealing with people in another sense: when your alarm bells go off and a person makes you feel highly uncomfortable, there is a very good likelihood that (given time) the cause of your discomfort will present itself. With McCurry, this seems to have taken a few decades, but seems to have done just that.
Now onto my second reason for feeling discomfort….
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