Re-examing Steve McCurry’s iconic imagery: an unphotoshopped image can still deceive


Steve McCurry has been in the news lately, and not for good reasons. The latest hubbub really got going when Italian blogger Paolo Viglione posted a manipulated photo he saw at a retrospective exhibition, Steve McCurry’s World, in La Venaria Reale, one of 13 currently touring McCurry exhibitions. The image appears to have a poorly-done clone stamp applied to a lightpole and person in the background. On May 6, PetaPixel posted about this image and two other images that people posted about on facebook. PetaPixel’s post, which notes that altered images have been removed from McCurry’s own site and the Magnum archive, also includes an unsatisfying response from McCurry himself, excerpted below:

Today I would define my work as visual storytelling, because the pictures have been shot in many places, for many reasons, and in many situations… I try to be as involved as much as I can in reviewing and supervising the printing of my work, but many times the prints are printed and shipped when I am away. That is what happened in this case. It goes without saying that what happened with this image was a mistake for which I have to take responsibility. I have taken steps to change procedures at my studio which will prevent something like this from happening again. Steve McCurry, speaking to PetaPixel

Looking at the images, it seems to be a clear case of image manipulation, the sort of which plagues World Press Photo each year. Material portions have been removed from images. American photojournalists should recognize this as a clear violation of the NPPA Code of Ethics, specifically point 6: “Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context.” It’s a serious charge and one that often results in the end of a photographer’s career. It’s also just disappointing to see McCurry, who has inspired and influenced so many serious photojournalists, involved in something so small and petty as photoshop manipulation. But these sorts of accusations and discussions really miss the point.

GIF comparison of two versions of Steve McCurry image - one with two people removed from the background
GIF comparison of two versions of Steve McCurry image – one with two people removed from the background

Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael, writing on Time’s Lightbox site, delves a little deeper into the issues one should worry about regarding deception in photography. When talking about photojournalism (and journalism, generally), people tend to speak about “truth” and “objectivity.” Digital manipulation is a concern (though van Agtmael doesn’t think it’s a big worry, at least in this case), but trying to hold up a photo or body of work as a representation of truth or as an objective examination of a subject is a fool’s errand. A photographer’s conscious and unconscious biases are indivisible from the work they produce. A middle-aged, upper-class American white male’s photographs of India will necessarily be different from a young Indian woman’s photos of the same subject. The two photographers are operating from a different perspective and will choose different things to show in different ways. Van Agtmael writes, “We shouldn’t mistake something factual for something truthful, and we should always question which facts are employed, and how…. To capture something happening in a pinprick of time is inherently a limited means of understanding. Factor in history of representation, complex racial and identity politics, and the demographic breakdown of many World Press winners (white, western males, or those working for organizations dominated by them), and you end up with a very imperfect rendering of the world.” Van Agtmael has also responded to criticism of his piece on a public Facebook post by Time editor Olivier Laurent (embedded below):

I disagree with van Agtmael’s dismissal of the digital manipulation recently uncovered in McCurry’s work. McCurry’s work isn’t presented as digital illustrations, but rather to show something akin to “This is what the world looks like.” When he (or his employees) remove people from a photo, the photo is no longer connected to reality. This is clearly deception. The rest of van Agtmael’s argument is sound, though. It’s an extension of Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s incisive piece on Lightbox, How a lack of representation is hurting photojournalism. And it’s also worth revisiting Donald Weber’s great piece following the 2015 World Press Photo staging scandal: The Rules of Photojournalism Are Keeping Us From the Truth: Notes on a frozen art form from a World Press Photo juror and member of the VII photo agency. It’s easy to get lost in the deep weeds of epistemology. Truth is not an inherent property of an image that hasn’t been digitally manipulated or staged. And digitally manipulated or staged photos can present a subject in a way that is truthful. Photographers, editors, and the audience must consider the circumstances in which the photo was taken and presented to the public to determine whether it is an honest representation of the subject. This 2009 interview with Christopher Anderson by JM Colberg also contains some good discussion on the subject.

“To consider a place largely from the perspective of a permanent anthropological past, to settle on a notion of authenticity that edits out the present day, is not simply to present an alternative truth: It is to indulge in fantasy.” Teju Cole, A Too-Perfect Picture

There is more manipulation at hand in McCurry’s work than moving a few pixels around, and it’s more difficult to point to than obvious photoshopping. I’ve written previously about the insidious idea of the “noble savage” in photography, and McCurry is a longtime practitioner of the genre. You could maybe even call him the modern inventor of it. For decades, his stock and trade has been the dignified poor person in a far-off land untouched by modernity, gazed upon with admiration and pity by a wealthy western audience. His most recent book, India, as well as his touring exhibitions feature these sorts of images almost exclusively. And sometimes, his work uses dark-skinned foreigners as props behind white people to sell luxury goods.

Teju Cole, writing for the New York Times Magazine, delivers a useful critique: “To consider a place largely from the perspective of a permanent anthropological past, to settle on a notion of authenticity that edits out the present day, is not simply to present an alternative truth: It is to indulge in fantasy.” Cole loses the thread a little, I think, by focusing on images that appear to perfectly composed as to almost be posed–compositional beauty is useful in drawing in viewers–but the rest of his critique is worth reading. He’s also careful to note than an outsider’s perspective is not always appropriative or otherwise problematic. But McCurry’s is. Even without the photoshopping, his work his misleading. McCurry’s work presents a quaint and orientalist vision of the world that is divorced from reality. That, too, is a violation of the NPPA Code of Ethics, but this time it’s the very first rule: “Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects,” and the third: “Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.”

Teju Cole’s critique drew out some defenders of McCurry’s work, most notably PhotoShelter co-founder Allen Murabayashi’s “In Defense of Steve McCurry” (also posted to PetaPixel, from where it was widely shared and where there are many comments). Murabayashi rightly counters Cole’s critique of well-composed images, but misses the greater deception and disservice presented by McCurry’s western gaze. The discussion at the Online Photographer is worth reading, as is the discussion at Reddit’s /r/photography subreddit. The Online Photographer discussion offers different perspectives on the idea of whether McCurry’s work fundamentally misrepresents India. The Reddit discussion is an eye-opening view of whether or not eliminating digital manipulation will restore any credibility to photojournalism. The top rated comment there includes this line, “He is an editorial photographer. Which means the goal of his pictures is to make illustrations along a story/article. If the pictures underline the article then he did a good job.” Lewis Bush also has good analysis of McCurry’s work on the disphotic blog.

“McCurry’s questionable ethic draws on subjects who seem happy (perhaps) to be photographed by a foreign tourist who wants to build on a fetish of the underdeveloped world and its supposed charms.” Paroma Mukherjee, A Trip Around Steve McCurry’s Photoshopped World

These are all criticisms made by westerners, and it’s worth considering the Indian perspective. I’ve found one recent piece about McCurry’s work written by Indian photo editor and photographer Paroma Mukherjee A Trip Around Steve McCurry’s Photoshopped World. Mukherjee writes, “[McCurry’s] gaze is imperialist and his understanding of the locations he visits poor, but his confidence and marketing skills – dazzling…. Over the years, I began to despise his idea of India too…. McCurry’s questionable ethic draws on subjects who seem happy (perhaps) to be photographed by a foreign tourist who wants to build on a fetish of the underdeveloped world and its supposed charms.”

Mukherjee also notes that McCurry dodged questions about his “outsider gaze and aesthetic” at recent promotional events in India for his India book. I found a discussion about this (found via RAIOT) started by Indian photographer Aditya Arya on facebook (embedded below):

On the other hand, Anindita Ghose, writing for Vogue India, writes that McCurry’s work helps Indians see themselves better. Her article, A Selfie with Steve McCurry, praises his photographs, “They’re intuitive; they make no claims to a deeper understanding of context. And most importantly, they betray a genuine curiosity…Sometimes, we need an outsider to hold up a mirror to see ourselves better.” The final paragraph includes a quote from McCurry that I think sums up everything about why his approach and the resulting work is so fraught: “India is losing some of its Indianness.”

But after all of this discussion (and countless more on facebook, twitter, and elsewhere), Allen Murabayashi probably correctly reminds us, Your opinion of Steve McCurry doesn’t matter. McCurry will continue to get huge commissions, exhibitions, and print sales around the world, regardless of what any of us have to say about his work. Back to that reddit thread linked above, the top-rated comment ends, “I’d hang any of his pictures on my walls in contrast to most of those that criticise his work.”

Publishers’ coalition releases Global Safety Principles and Practices for covering dangerous assignments and working with freelancers

The undersigned groups endorse the following safety principles and practices for international news organizations and the freelancers who work with them. We see this as a first step in a long-term campaign to convince news organizations and journalists to adopt these standards globally. In a time of journalistic peril, news organizations and journalists must work together to protect themselves, their profession and their vital role in global society.” Global Safety Principles and Practices

Last week at a Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma event, a coalition of publishers and journalism organizations released a set of Global Safety Principles and Practices intended to guide news organizations in how to work with freelancers and local journalists on dangerous assignments. It’s an ambitious but needed step, as so many deaths reminded us last year.

The document was signed by a host of news organizations from around the world, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, BBC, Agence France Presse, McClatchy DC, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Overseas Press Club Foundation, National Union of Journalists-Philippines, the Associated Press, and others. It’s a short document, but covers a lot of ground. Poynter has some additional background on the creation of this document.

The first section of the Principles and Practices guides journalists in ways to prepare for dangerous assignments, recommending first aid training, minimum safety gear, and preparations that may assist family and authorities in the case of kidnapping or death. The second section, aimed at news organizations themselves, stresses the disproportionate dangers faced by local journalists and freelancers. It states that news organizations should not contract with freelancers unless the organization can afford the same precautions and responsibilities it does for staffers and that freelancers should be paid on time and in a fair manner accounting for the additional costs of insurance, hazardous environment training, and safety equipment required for reporting dangerous assignments.

The document is a great step forward as conflict reporting increasingly shifts to local journalists and freelancers.

For more information about this subject, visit the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Rory Peck Trust, Global Journalist Security, RISC, International News Safety Institute, and the Frontline Freelance Register.

World Press Photo rejects 20% of final-round entries due to manipulation

When [post-processing] meant a material addition or subtraction in the content of the image, it lead to the images being rejected from the contest…. [T]he jury rejected 20 percent of those entries that had reached the penultimate round of the contest and were therefore not considered for prizes.” World Press Photo Managing Director Lars Boering

The 2015 World Press Photo awards have just been announced, and this looks to be a great year. I haven’t had a chance to go through all of the winners, but it’s nice to see some familiar names in the mix (Glenna Gordon, Andy Rochelli, Lu Guang, Sergey Ponamarev) alongside winners from around the world.

In the announcement of this year’s awards, however, there was a fascinating section on “Integrity of the entries.” Photographers whose work advance to the final round of judging must provide unedited files to the jury to verify the integrity of their images. World Press Photo Managing Director Lars Boering said that 20% of those final round images had to be disqualified from the contest due to “careless post-processing” that led to “a material addition or subtraction in the content of the image.” That’s an eye-opening statistic and sad to hear. Whatever credibility photojournalism has (and it might not be much in the eyes of the viewing public) depends on a commitment to truth and integrity in an image. While those are nebulous concepts–Aristotle, Aquinas, Russell, and other philosophers have been arguing about this for centuries–I think most would agree that “material addition or subtraction” from a still frame is a blatant affront to viewers and to the truth. We should all be alarmed that twenty percent of final-round images had some element of outright fabrication. We don’t have numbers for previous years to compare rejection rates, but this announcement is still sobering.

World Press Photo has taken some heat over the years for awarding apparent photo manipulation. Most recently, there was controversy over Paul Hansen’s 2013 Photo of the Year winning image of two Palestinian children killed in an Israeli airstrike. While that image never struck me as being manipulated, World Press Photo took the criticism to heart. The contest now requires original files for final round images. The organization now also wishes to become a think tank of sorts, providing research and guidance in the industry on this and other subjects. Last year, for instance, World Press Photo published a paper by David Campbell titled “The Integrity of the Image.” Here’s a direct pdf link to that paper.