Your Opinion of Steve McCurry Doesn’t Matter

Your Opinion of Steve McCurry Doesn’t Matter

On April 3, The New York Times Magazine photography critic Teju Cole penned a piece largely dismissing the work of renown photographer Steve McCurry. The piece caused a minor ruckus in photography circles with people (like myself) writing in his defense, while others castigated his imperialist eye and amplified whispers of staged scenes.

Just when the news cycle was waning, a badly Photoshopped print appeared at a McCurry gallery show, and yet another vigorous debate ensued replete with name calling, more allegations of staged photos, and a wholesale call to re-examine McCurry’s entire ouvre.

None of this matters.

In photography, like in many industries, there is a tendency to get caught in our own echo chamber. This is particularly true in photojournalism, which continues to host on-going debates about ethics and manipulation. Indeed, every contest season, it’s comically inevitable that World Press Photos will generate another round of alleged manipulation and punditry.

This isn’t to say that the introspective discussion is unwarranted. Photojournalism, in particular, has continuously struggled with existential questions of veracity since its inception. However the discussion is academic. Photojournalists can debate the issues until they’re blue in the face, but the public at large simply doesn’t care. The public believes images are manipulated because they are. And they don’t discern between a photoshopped magazine cover of Kim Kardashian and a news photo from Afghanistan. Why should they? They only care whether the photo moved them during the 0.5s they viewed it.

Internet culture demands our outrage. We align or distance ourselves from Team McCurry instead of focusing on the real matter at hand: Can we produce an image that our intended audience believes they cannot make? And does it make them want to consume more? If “everyone is a photographer,” then professional photographers will only succeed if they offer a unique and “better” product to their intended audience, which translates into a high quality image and good service.

Greenwich Village Halloween Parade 2002. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

Greenwich Village Halloween Parade 2002. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

McCurry has an audience. Afghan Girl is so ingrained in popular memory that I’ve seen it used multiple times as a Halloween costume. I can’t think of another photo that has reached that threshold. Castigating him for having the imperialist eye of a white male? Totally valid, but remember he’s a 66 year old white male from Darby, PA who helped define the very genre he’s criticized of shooting within. This is akin to criticizing Bruce Springsteen for having an 80s rock sound.

McCurry’s response to the controversy was weak (and frankly disappointing), but it’s clear that he no longer considers himself a photojournalist. And perhaps this has been true for a while. But what photographers think of him doesn’t matter because he’s found an audience of consumers willing to spend thousands of dollars for a print, and he’s found a cadre of corporations willing to hire him to shoot commercial fashion at presumably top dollar.

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But unless you were planning on buying a $3000 fine art print, your opinion is unlikely to affect his reputation amongst his fans. And given the fashion industry’s support of Terry Richardson, it’s unlikely, that a Photoshop bug will cause his economic ruin.

History will be the ultimate judge of McCurry’s work. Perhaps his work will be viewed a level of skepticism and uncertainty that dogs photographers like Weegee, Robert Capa, Joe Rosenthal, et al. But I suspect the public will simply remember an iconic image of an Afghan girl taken in golden era of National Geographic, which was synonymous with “great photography” for a generation of Americans.

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Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 24 comments for this article
  1. Patrick Downs at 1:03 pm

    “Photojournalists can debate the issues until they’re blue in the face, but the public at large simply doesn’t care. The public believes images are manipulated because they are. And they don’t discern between a photoshopped magazine cover of Kim Kardashian and a news photo from Afghanistan. Why should they? They only care whether the photo moved them during the 0.5s they viewed it.”

    — WHY should they care? WHY? If you have to ask that question, you need to re-think the issues at stake. Truth, integrity, journalistic ethics. Integrity and an ethical reputation is hard earned, fragile, and that trust is easily lost or broken. If we’ve reached the point where the public at large doesn’t believe anything they see is real, unmanipulated to alter what actually was there, then we are doomed in photojournalism. We can blame ourselves in part for that. Yes, we can talk about Eugene Smith’s darkroom tricks and other examples, but that was then. We also have to define what is “manipulation” in this digital age but for photojournalism, NPPA and World Press Photo have worked hard to define what is acceptable.

    If Eddie Adams’ street execution in Saigon had been taken last week, on digital, is there not a terrible consequence of people being so suspicious, unbelieving, cynical that many would say “That never happened”? I believe the stakes are very high, and the truth growing ever more elusive in this world. We are being spun and manipulated, and it’s important to hold the line. I value the way that World Press Photo has drawn clear ethical lines about what is acceptable in re manipulation. In fact, in a photojournalists’ Facebook group, in a discussion of this McCurry Photoshop incident, a World Press official publicly stated that if McCurry had entered these in the WPP contest and the manipulation were discovered, the photos would have been disqualified. I salute that, and it has nothing to do with any grudge against McCurry. These are serious ethical battle lines and the rules apply to all stated practitioners of ethical photojournalism, or should.

    I do agree that McCurry (or anyone) can call themselves something else, rather than photojournalist, and do whatever they want. Taking out a lamp pole—meh. Dramatically altering a scene to deceive—to mislead the viewers of reality—not okay, in my *opinion*. But I have not seen proof that he does that. I think his photos are often gorgeous, but maybe they are illustrations if he’s taking liberties with altering the content of the images of directing the subjects and stage-managing the scenes. He just needs to disclose it as something other than photojournalism. IMHO

  2. Joe at 1:27 pm

    This article is bs, there isn’t a debate about ethics in photojournalism, the debate is over, you do not alter your images and especially in that manner. Steve McCurry knew what he was doing and he knows what the ethics of journalism entail. He also knows of the people who are shamed every year, who lose awards in major competitions for this very behavior. So do we now make am exception bc it was a ‘great photographer’ or are we just deadening our business client, photoshelter? Maybe you should have disclosed your inherent conflict of interst being in a business relation w SM, or are you guys now operating in your own echo chamber?

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 1:46 pm

      There isn’t a debate about the value of ethics in PJ, but there absolutely a debate over what constitutes manipulation. If there wasn’t, then we wouldn’t see 20% rejection of final round entries in WPP. There are discussions about neutrality in PJ and whether documentary photographers should be advocates. These are all challenges to a dynamically changing environment in which PJ operates.

      I have no problem criticizing McCurry (and I did). Yes, he’s a PhotoShelter subscriber, but a few hundred bucks of revenue buys no allegiance from my editorial opinions. The point of the article is to point out that inter-industry sniping has very little impact on how the world at large perceives photography.

      • Patrick Downs at 2:25 pm

        Good points, Alan. We’re watching a candidate who gets a 5 Pinocchio rating for untruthfulness surging to the GOP nomination for President. Clearly there are too many people out there for whom facts and truth are inconveniences to be ignored.

        As a 35 year practitioner of photojournalism, and a former newspaper magazine DoP, I side with World Press and NPPA on a code of ethics that is strict. I believe that holding that line—whether the general public and viewers care or are even aware of the issues—is very important.

        You are so right about what is “manipulation” and “truth.” I saw a comment: “I’m getting ticked off by this false purity that’s being forced by neophyte editors solely on photographers. Do they put limits on the adjectives and adverbs that the writers can use? Maybe not a perfect analogy, but…

        “False purity” – Interesting way to put it. If my photojournalist pal who shoots a lot with a Holga goes and shoots a scene with it and does a double exposure (disclosed in the caption) but otherwise prints it straight, is it a deception? Nope. It’s an aesthetic decision, imo. Could you see it with your naked eye? Nope, but you don’t see a scene polarized, or in 14mm wide view, or with strobe fill, or at 1/4000th or 1/4th of a second though your naked eye either, but the camera allows it. All those latter choices are considered kosher, but altering the scene to remove information with Photoshop—to deceive the viewer—is not acceptable. The deceptions should be pretty easy to identify and prohibit. Of course, photographers have, since forever, made other decisions that are subjective when they take the photo that can potentially mislead or influence: where they stood, where they aimed the camera, when they clicked, who/what was in and what was left out, the lens they used. I’ve seen photos and video from news event I’ve covered that made me gasp, because they weren’t an accurate perception of what I saw. And then the editors get involved…

        I am getting less Catholic and more tolerant of innovative seeing, and using the tools in new ways to record a scene creatively. Within limits that prevent deception of course, or it can’t be called photojournalism by NPPA/WPP standards. Artistic, aesthetic choices. Think of of Picasso’s painting of “Guernica” from the Spanish Civil War and apply that sort of vision to documentary photography—is it wrong? How far do we push the envelope? It may not be strict photojournalism, but you could call it “subjective documentary” or something else.

        We must continue the discussion. Of course, in this Kardashian-obsessed world, many viewers just don’t care. We do it for ourselves, not for them, just like telling the truth in daily life.

  3. Jim Colton at 2:34 pm

    >>>And they don’t discern between a photoshopped magazine cover of Kim Kardashian and a news photo from Afghanistan.<<< I think that just about says it all Allen! The vast majority of the viewing public…just doesn't care. #SadTimesWeLiveIn

  4. Patrick Downs at 3:10 pm

    BUT—we can’t give in or up! Never, ever

    “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” ― Winston Churchill

    The analogy I like to use is this: Many people may be satisfied with music played through crap headphones on an iPhone, made by mildly talented entertainers using autotune, sampling, dubbing, and other trickery, but it isn’t a substitute nor will it ever replace true musicians who know their craft and produce the real thing. The true artists and craftmen depair, just like in photography, but they stay true to their art and craft. They know there will always be a core of people who understand and appreciate what they do, and know that is is far better than the mass-market crap. They too struggle to make a living and buck the tide of mediocrity. I don’t have an answer for that, except it beats selling cars—and I have done that.

  5. Barton at 9:27 pm

    Slightly off topic, but why is it as you say ‘totally valid to castigate the imperialist eye of a white male’? How is his view imperialist. I just see it as the view of the outsider, the foreigner. People are and were interested to see that view into foreign lands that he provided. Of course it was through the field of reference of a westerner — but how can you not interpret something through your own field of reference of the world. From my own experience as a westerner and having lived in Japan as a teenager I can vouch for that effect not being a western or imperialist trait.

    And besides ‘white men’ are far from having a monopoly on imperialism. Why the need to mix up issues of race with this?

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 4:08 pm

      We are at a moment in time where the notion of “authenticity” is a salient discussion point. Photography has traditionally been dominated by white males (as have many industries), and I think diversification of photographers brings many different points of view. As I mentioned in the article, I think it’s actually a fallacy to accuse McCurry of having an “imperialist” viewpoint (not my words) because he represents a point of view from a point in time. But it’s a valid criticism because some people want to see India through Indian eyes. This doesn’t make the photography objectively better, but it does provide a voice that may have been marginalized or never heard before.

      • Patrick Downs at 4:34 pm

        I agree that the cultural “imperialist” charge is weak to unfounded. I had that discussion over at Photojournalist Co-op on FB with an Indian photog Suchit Nanda, and he agrees. He likes McCurry’s work, and charges that indigenous photographers can be just as guilty of making clichéd images as foreigners (they might be good selling images, and money talks). There are Indian photographers who have done stellar work, like Ragubir Singh and Ragu Rai, and it may delve deeper and be more nuanced. Different but not always “better.” It is wonderful now that local photographers in underdeveloped places now have a means to distribute their images via the internet—it really has leveled the playing field for them. (They need Photoshelter websites! 😉 )

        I feel like a stranger when I go places even in America, and know that the “indigenous” photographers know it better and deeper that I ever will. The charge that photographers who parachute in to cover a story often provide only a superficial look at a story and a culture has been argued for a long time, and has merit even now that the world has become a smaller place. The answer is to think harder, do better research, spend more time, and be versed in what has been done to avoid clichéd and superficial images. Hard to do these days when you’re on small-to-no day rates and expenses, or self-funded projects with tiny budgets.
        #imo

      • Barton at 8:13 pm

        It’s really easy to talk about ‘white males’ as though they are some kind of homogeneous creature — yet an American white male is a different thing to a French white male or a Norwegian white male or a New Zealand white male, or a Lithuanian white male, etc, etc. But they all get lumped in to the same boat (here as photographers) regardless of their very unique cultural perspectives and sensitivities.

        A lot of the work that McCurry did that is being questioned was in the distant past and the past really is a foreign country. The idea of the authenticity of work done 30, 40, 50 years ago being questioned by modern standards is fraught with issues in the first place.

        If we really want to see India through Indian eyes we would need to start with an Indian publication — and even there we would encounter warped lens of the caste system (or religious) and which particular level of society we were looking at India from. Like I said originally we are all seeing things through our own cultural frame of reference.

  6. Nick at 10:04 pm

    So you trying to convince us that McCurry is now a fashion photographer and a fine artist, therefore he can manipulate the image as he wishes for a specific effect? McCurry made a name as a PJ and he is part of Magnum. Despite the fact that Magnum is changing its photographic arsenal, it is not, by all mean, an artistic visual organization.

    Also, this has nothing to do about his print sales etc, it has to do with ethics, which are disappearing not only in photography but in our society as well. Personally, and it’s my opinion, if you had made a name and a living as a PJ, the agency should investigate your entire archive, including camels, blue walls and exotic portraits. Any other photographer that have done such manipulation and worked in the editorial field would have been crucified. He is an establishment, therefor nothing will happen. There has been several people that their careers have ended because they have intensified smoke, that’s it. If there are elements in the picture that I don’t like or don’t work for me, I don’t take the picture..I was a newspaper photographer and a street photographer at the moment. I abide by those rules.

    Again, his entire archive should be investigated and the fact that many are fabricating the facts is simply wrong. The public never got anything not point to bring that in the arena. I am sure most of us have photographs that with some additions could have won a Pulitzer, or are we allowed to only take stuff out? Ridiculous.

    Cheers

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 9:24 am

      >So you trying to convince us that McCurry is now a fashion photographer and a fine artist, therefore he can manipulate the image as he wishes for a specific effect?

      Based on his own statements, I think that McCurry sees himself as something other than a strict PJ. I think the level of manipulation that he considers to be acceptable (whether directing subjects or post processing) is still unclear.

      Again, I am all for ethics in PJ, and think discussions need to be had. But I think it’s naive to believe that the public cares. If you found out that the winner of the 2007 Grammy for Rap had used a sample without credit, would you suddenly think less of the artist? Or would you not have known the artist in the first place, and just rolled your eyes.

      So we can re-examine McCurry’s archive and find inconsistencies, but the consumers who love Steve aren’t going to be moved by a discussion of whether a photo of a geisha was an environmental portrait (i.e. he positioned her) or he passed it off as reportage when in fact it wasn’t.

      • Nick at 5:11 pm

        I don’t believe bringing the public into this is going to resolve anything. The point i am trying to make is that McCurry started his career as a photojournalist, with hundreds of assignments under his belt for respectable publication. This has nothing to do with liking his work or not, that’s besides the point. What I am trying to say is that he is not a fine artist, regardless of what he is saying now. If at some point in his career divided that he is now an artist, he should have made some sort of announcement, when he wanted his images to be some sort of a document. He is being protect because he brings money to an organization from sales..regardless of he is now an artist, his work should be question. You know for a fact that if the average Joe similar manipulation (and we are talking about some major manipulation here) he would have been stripped from his credentials. Also, if he now considers himself an artist, would he be trusted if let’s say, the NYT would send him on an assignment? Or Time Magazine? Wouldn’t you, as an editor consider the possibility that he will do this on assignment? Or is there a button that flips from an Artist to a photojournalist? Your Grammy paradigm and Rap was entertaining.

        It is also futile to be still having the conversation of “truth” in photography. It’s about showing an accurate representation of the events unfolding in front of your lens. There was a recent politically correct article on Time regarding this. In that article, it is stated that photography is subjective, and that your position, lens choice, framing, etc is all manipulation. It isn’t, it’s an asthetic choice to represent the facts, or what the photographer found interesting at the moment in the most accurate, interesting, or let’s dare, “artistic” way. Removing people, adding backgrounds, etc, for starters, it shows me that you are not a good photographer, don’t know how to frame, etc. And you know what else? This whole thinking and approach is taking the fun out of photography, the add alone of the specific genre, of sometime getting what you want, and sometimes, when the design elements don’t work, you don’t take the photo, or if you do, you cope with the not so great result and move on. By removing the people in that bicycle, above all you disrespecting the people that you supposedly trying to respect and dessiminate their culture. What’s so hard to understand? I always believed, and I think I am now justified that photography is being hurt by being called an “art”, because events like that occur and the fun, of being out striving to capture something unique is lost.

        You know what is art my friend? To be able to make an image that is powerful the moment it hits your sensor or silver hallides, and it’s a result of your intuition, dedication and ethics. That’s art. And if you are in India, Cuba or any other visually elementary and easy exotic place, and you will need to remove elements to make a powerful image, maybe you should think about what you are doing wrong.

        Cheers

        Also, the fact that Magnum is keeping silent is a sad sight.

  7. Valerio at 11:09 am

    Allen,

    to put the simplest example I can think of, imagine a sport photojournalist reporting from the Champions League final next week and, to make one of his images more aesthetically pleasing and sellable to his audience, removes Cristiano Ronaldo from the football pitch with a clone stamp tool in photoshop. You know, the picture comes out more balanced and nicer.

    Would the public care? Yes indeed.
    Would his fan or newspapers buy the image?

    McCurry did the same, as Narciso Contreras did few years before him.
    Contrera lost his job at Associated Press despite being a Pulitzer winner to have removed a camera from a frame. Why? Because it matters to the integrity of a whole category.

    There are photographers risking their life out there to report the world and what they see, it cannot happen that the quintessential PJ, a man still signing Magnum next to his image, which is the quintessential photojournalism agency, let this pass as if was clear water.
    If only for Robert Capa its founder, who died to get the shot.
    Magnum has to take a stance on this.

    Years ago Luc Delahaye another Magnum photographer decided to move into art stopping doing PJ anymore, he left the agency and declared his intents.
    McCurry is exploiting his image as pure photojournalist, his selling himself as that, he never mentioned storytelling in any of his talks (I saw a bit), he his not Toledano, he has always used the same style for 40 years, but now was caught manipulating to the point of deception his photographs to match the perfect composition he seeks. And, to make things worse, he accused someone else implying he doesn’t control his shots. Unbelievable.

    Everyone here accepts Kardashian images are PShopped as McCurry Valentino commercials and no one says it is a scandal. It pretends to be fiction, in Kenya no woman will ever afford a Valentino dress.

    The scandal emerges when he exhibits among the other of his photos in a gallery in a retrospective exhibition about his world view and someone finds out that what he showed was not a world view at all.
    He changed the course of a football match removing a player from the pitch.
    If people don’t care about this, they don’t care about journalism altogether, which is about education and ethics. A totally different matter.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 4:17 pm

      Valerio, I want to make it clear that I support ethics in photojournalism. I think that the industry has to continually address ethics and manipulation – particularly as new digital tools emerge more quickly than we can understand their implications and build rules for them.

      That said, the point of the article is that the way pros perceive photography is not how the public sees it. You simply cannot expect the average person to understand the difference between an environmental portrait (i.e. “staged”) and a reportage photo. There’s difference in intent, but visually they could be the same, and the only “visible” difference might be the caption.

      Removing Ronaldo from a frame is obvious. Removing a flag pole behind him is less obvious. I’d imagine the majority of the public would say it’s not a big deal, whereas PJs would say it absolutely does. And even within the PJ community, it’s a matter of degree. This is why Paul Hansen’s 2012 WPP image caused so much discussion.

      The world is filled with things to be outraged about. For me, the McCurry saga has been disappointing, but I’m saving my outrage for another day and topic.

    • Nick at 5:13 pm

      Amen. This guy is being protected. They don’t understand that any other PJ would never see the light of day, like ever again. But now he is an artist. Crewdson is an artist, you’re not Steve.

  8. Valerio at 11:18 am

    Not really Allen,

    You may be right that the people do not care about ethics in photojournalism, what kind of photo McCurry takes and whether or not regarding to the photo manipulation is acceptable.
    This is normal.
    It doesn’t change the fact that at a more professional level there must be a control.

    To give you a similar example
    I, you or anyone in the public may not mind what regulatory processes a new medicine needs to undergo before it gets approved and released to the market.
    But people do not mind because there is FDA and a lot of professionals, expert in each field, to guarantee a control the set of rules needed for an ethical and safe development before the marketing. This way, once marketed, the customer is safe and doesn’t have to worry beyond what it is written in the information leaflet about side effects and dosage.

    It doesn’t change much for photojournalism.
    The public that buys National Geographic, NYTimes or browse Magnum website doesn’t have to worry about the ethics of the content and don’t need to know the details.
    This is because there is a set of ethical rule above that, which all the professional involved must abide to.
    Steve McCurry knows the rules very well, but cheated on them.
    This is the same thing of releasing on the market a new drug without a complete clarity on the side effects.

    It is not acceptable, despite the great audience wouldn’t mind, it’s more important than that.

    PS:
    My reference to Ronaldo was as a comparison to the photo where McCurry removed a kid (and an arm) playing in a football match. He also cloned a hand and part of the pitch.
    By a man who pretends to be a photojournalist, THE quintessential National Geographic travel photographer, this is far beyond acceptable.

  9. Gail at 5:38 am

    I like Steve and have always loved his work and been inspired by his storytelling images.
    I don’t define images that move me as Steves have done.
    Steve had paid his dues and brought awareness and I respect him for doing so.
    Thanks Allen for writing this article

    Gail Mooney

  10. Steve Simon at 9:20 am

    Maybe an update of this article is in order, particularly if the recent allegations of outright staging situations and passing them off as real moments proves true.

    http://www.writingthroughlight.com/news/editorial-afghan-girl-steve-mccurry/

    If true, this completely crosses the line and dates back to 1984….like Barry Bonds & Mark McGuire, there will be an asterisk with Steve McCurry’s name. A great talent…who cheated.
    It’s complicated I know, but right and wrong is not.

  11. Tom Kostes at 4:44 pm

    His images are fantastic, as is his skill and vision. Both images were stronger for the edits and nothing important was changed, just created a stronger composition. To me this is all a “tempest in a teapot.”

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