Steve McCurry’s Depiction of The Developing World
If we assume/accept for a moment that substantial image/scene manipulation has occurred, it’s perhaps most important of all to ask ‘why?’. Why has McCurry, whose reputation was so formidable, stooped so low as to ‘shop out’ swathes of the ‘real world’ he is surely supposed to be sharing from his scenes? I’m going to suggest a possible explanation that is quite simple and which may make McCurry fans quite uncomfortable. It is my best ‘thinking out loud’ explanation for what we are seeing and I am putting it out there for discussion. It is personal opinion, based on what I have seen and read, and it goes like this:
‘McCurry’s depiction of the world is a fantastic fabrication. The vision Steve McCurry ‘shares’ with us through his photographs does not exist. It vanished decades ago, yet he is compelled to continue to produce work according to the same winning formula: a somewhat condescending view of the developing world in which the subjects are afforded the status of ‘noble savage’ and which pleases a privileged Western audience. McCurry’s photography does not attempt to show a version of ‘what is out there’. Maybe he is not trying to document and share with us unguarded moments at all? Maybe he is sharing images that show the developing world as some (who don’t inhabit it) might like it to be? It is comfortable. It is nice. It feels good, even if the subjects suffer from poverty or work their fingers to the bone as child workers. It’s pictorial candy floss (cotton candy to Americans). We aren’t learning new perspectives. We aren’t being enlightened, or challenged. We are just being given what we are asking for: nice, colourful, comfortable photographs of cute kids, animals and old people looking, well, wrinkled but adorable. It’s the ‘photojournalistic’ equivalent of kittens and balls of wool.
Inconveniently for McCurry, the developing world is actually developing. In contrast, his world view seems to be frozen at an imaginary point in history. The photographs he wants to show are becoming increasingly divorced from the real scenes he encounters. McCurry said in an interview, “perhaps India is losing its Indianness”. What on Earth is that supposed to mean?) I take it as meaning exactly what I just said: India looks less and less like the depiction of post-colonial quaintness he wants to present. It is shifting ever further from an ideal. His ideal.’
If McCurry were like Madonna, he’d have changed with the times, but the acid test is this: do McCurry’s images from India/SE Asia today look much different to those he shot 20 years ago? I don’t think they do. If I were to be harsh, I would say McCurry has been like the a musical one-hit-wonder, who for years has been rearranging his hit song to make enough tracks for album after album. It is rumoured that Steve McCurry has been very financially successful (compared to other Magnum photographers) and maybe this is part of the issue: is there a formula for making images that sell and which he daren’t stray too far from?’
What a mess. I’d be fascinated to hear the discussions inside Magnum over this. I can only imagine that there are some absolutely horrified members. To state this in very English terms, I find myself profoundly disappointed. What about the men and women who have been inspired by McCurry to seek out magical moments just like his ‘unguarded moments’? Were they chasing a mirage? How many other much admired photojournalists and documentary/reportage photographers are up to similar (apparent) antics? I am sorry if my tone has been harsh in this piece, but I find it hard to gloss over the magnitude of what has occurred. Put in simple terms, arguably the greatest icon in modern Nat Geo image making history appears to have been caught making it up. On their own, I was just about OK with McCurry’s many lovely, but all-too-comfortable photographs (although I wish he stretched a little (OK, a lot) further and revealed much more depth). But this casts a film of dirt over all ‘real life’ photography. What will the public think when they see a hard to believe but honest photograph of yours? Wrinkled noses and knowing smirks of knowing suspicion? What does this say about the world Nat Geo has shown to us for decades? What will you think next time you go an an exhibition of remarkable (but honest) work? Will you find the images too remarkable?
I think one piece of good news to take from this is that in the communications era, it will be increasingly difficult to set up images or manipulate them and get away with it (at a high level). The other ‘plus’ is that you are all better photographers than you thought you were, assuming you have been making your documentary/street/reportage images the hard way, i.e. no set-ups and no cloning! Amazing photojournalistic/documentary/reportage images are entirely possible without heavy use of the cloning tool, or the use of actors. Thousands of talented professional and amateur photographers across the world are doing so every single day. Mr McCurry needs to go back to using film and re-learn his craft. Legions of no-name photographers are already way ahead.
The other bit of good news is that I have discovered just a bit more tea (Lapsang Souchong to be precise) in my flask to wash down the last chocolate digestive. Excellent.