Fabricated reality: Steve McCurry and the scandal of altered photographs
I am sure that there are images in Steve McCurry’s vast collection that are unaltered yet brilliant. However, I feel let down by the fact that he had created a false reality
Steve McCurry — a name that rings a bell in mind of photographers across the globe. His images have captured the imagination of millions of people including mine. His beautifully composed images of exotic nations across the globe easily excited my teenage mind many years ago. I used to imagine his life as an adventurous photojournalist, an Indiana Jones in his own right, travelling to an unknown place every day and coming back with fantastic photographs.
I am not overstating when I say that Steve McCurry played a part in inspiring me to become a photographer. And it is just not me. Even the 2010 World Press Award Winner, Jodi Bieber, said that Steve McCurry’s portrait of the ‘Afghan Girl’ played a part in inspiring her award winning image. While McCurry is best known for his portrait of Sharbat Gula (commonly known as the ‘Afghan Girl’), he has produced many beautiful images over a career spanning nearly four decades.
One of my most treasured possessions is one of his photo-books, South Southeast, that he had personally autographed when I met him in 2011. He seemed like a quiet and an unassuming person on that September afternoon in London. He was shorter than I had imagined, dressed in a pair of jeans and a casual shirt, the master of photography would be indistinguishable in a crowd. And I thought it was the compactness of his stature that allowed to him so discreetly capture ‘the unguarded moment’ as he calls it.
When the recent news of the photo manipulation emerged, I honestly hoped that it was a one-off occurrence of a single image that had somehow passed through McCurry’s steely supervision. There must be a mistake, his editorial team must have goofed up, I thought. But after a few more images came to light, I was devastated. It became obvious that his images had been altered by removing/adding elements to the original image. In one of the altered images, quite a lot has been changed – distracting electricity poles have been removed, an entire fruit stall vanishes and even a person is cloned out.
For a significant part of my life as a photographer, I had believed that McCurry’s work defined perfection. He had made these dream like images — too flawless to be real. But, I also believed that he had only managed this level of excellence through his patience, ardent research work, and a masterful understanding of light that led him to be in the right place at the right time. I used to tell my peers that if you were not able to achieve the same level of mastery as McCurry, then you simply were not committed enough.
Today, it is evident that he used extra ingredients to create the perfect images. A touch of post processing, some cloning and alterations to produce that look of finesse. A finesse that never existed in reality and never will. Make no mistake, the skills that are required to be a good photographer are still the same as ever. Lots of research and patience is an inherent part of the evolution of a photographer. But perhaps that’s not enough.
McCurry built his career in the era of film photography when manipulating a negative or a print beyond the basic dodging and burning would have required significant effort. With the advent of digital photography over the past decade or so, a phrase that is often heard is that you cannot trust digital photography since one can change everything in Photoshop. While that is true to a certain extent, we still trust the professionals to have an ethic to not mislead the public.
The important lesson for young photographers here is to never knowingly mislead your viewers. When you are embarking on a pure photojournalistic mission to tell the truth about a place or issue, then make sure that you present the facts as they are. Of course, a bit of colour correction is normal but altering of the subject of the image would be crossing the line. On the other hand, if you are taking up a project (fashion, fine art, etc) with the intention of doing detailed post processing to bring out your vision, then edit and alter the images by all means but be honest about the changes you have done.
At the end of the day, I am sure that there are images in Steve McCurry’s vast collection that are unaltered yet brilliant. However, I feel let down by the fact that he had created a false reality for all photographers and made us work towards a nonexistent state of perfection.
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