Every Photograph You’ve Ever Taken Is a Lie: Steve McCurry, Tom Hunter, and the Problem With Visual Storytellers

Every Photograph You’ve Ever Taken Is a Lie: Steve McCurry, Tom Hunter, and the Problem With Visual Storytellers

At the heart of photography as a medium is a fundamental problem: every photograph is a lie. This slippery instability is often what makes it effective as a tool for communication, but it can also create problems for some of the world’s most respected photographers, including Steve McCurry and, more recently, fine art photographer Tom Hunter.

Photography is a dishonest medium, presenting the impression of truth but only ever offering a representation of it. Like truth itself, our understanding and acceptance of it exist along an inconsistent scale, never black and white, and often contradictory. As Jamie Windsor explored in a recent video, as photographers we choose what to include and what to leave out, making subjective choices in what can seem to be an objective medium. The complications can go much deeper. For example, what happens if a photograph relies on fiction’s ability to convey a greater sense of truth than the truth itself?

Tim O’Brien, a renowned Vietnam War fiction author, often recounts in gripping detail the summer he was drafted by the U.S Army. He describes spending months working a brutally gory job in a meat-packing plant before fleeing to the Canadian border where, on the point of escaping the war, he had an encounter that prompted him to turn back and go to Vietnam. The tale is one of hacking pigs apart, of dreaming about blood and animal entrails, of the anguish at leaving his family behind, of the prospect of being branded a coward, and of a life-changing meeting with a man who allowed him to confront his fear and turn back.

After recounting this emotional story, O’Brien then reveals that none of it is true and that his summer leading up to being drafted was spent playing golf. However, a summer of golf did not convey what he experienced, and nor did it communicate the visceral fear of flying to a different country to kill people, and potentially be killed. For O’Brien, fiction does a far better job of communicating what he went through — a more accurate representation of what he experienced than what actually happened.

More Real Than Real

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard presented us with the idea of “hyperreality”, whereby the representation of something — however “true” that representation might be — becomes more authentic than the existing reality. As he wrote, it’s “more real than real,” where fiction does a more convincing job of conveying a sense of truth than the truth itself. Whether this new “truth” is true or not is then open to interpretation. Baudrillard is famed for his articles discussing the evidential reality of the first Gulf War, a conflict that was subjected to a level of media coverage and scrutiny not seen before, and where any truth of the war was lost behind how it was represented. As McLuhan had noted thirty years earlier, the medium is the message: essentially, the methods by which an event is mediated can shape our perception of it more than the actual event itself.

So where does this leave photography? We’re caught in a continual state of contradiction: every image, however untouched, is manipulated, first by our framing and exposure, then by the algorithms that generate the intricate combination of pixels on a screen, before raw files are tweaked and long before it gets dragged into Photoshop. Despite this, we rely heavily on the evidence that images deliver to us every day, even when a photograph of burning stockade on the streets of Paris is debunked, and then the evidence that debunks it is shown to be fake.

The Value of the Fake

At the same time, fakery has its place and also a value.

Photography, truth, lies, reality and representation.

Photo by Andy Day.

An audience’s preconceptions are key, as are the claims that an image seems to be making. Fargo, the movie cited by Windsor in his insightful video, claims in its opening frames that it is presenting a true story. However, the tale is entirely fictional and, as Windsor notes, cinema-goers had no problems with this. Art, it seems, has a license to play with our sense of what is real and as an audience, we are willing to participate in this deception, even if we don’t realize. Similarly, fine art photography frequently plays with our notion of truth, prompting us to ask questions about what is real and what is manipulated. 

In both fine art and documentary worlds, scandals regarding truth hit photography on a regular basis. Not long ago, Steve McCurry’s reputation was brought into question when a number of his images were found to be staged and others edited. The details are complex but, however these "staged candid moments" were created and regardless of how the edited images have emerged, it’s at odds with McCurry’s own words in various interviews. “I believe that the picture should reflect exactly what you saw and experienced when you took the picture,” he explains in this interview. He goes on: “I want to just capture life as it is without really interfering and I want it to reflect reality, actually.”

By his own acknowledgement, his photographs should not be edited or staged, and statements such as these shape an audience’s expectations of what his body of work — and importantly, his legacy — represents. In general, those buying his work and attending his workshops will believe that McCurry is capturing life, not a staged or edited version of it. McCurry, by contrast, regards himself as a “visual storyteller” and this is an interesting phrase. To some, it means that he is an artist, permitting him to create work that reflects reality as he perceives it, even if that means manufacturing something that he feels to be true, even if it’s not immediately in front of his lens. To others, “visual storyteller” is a convenience, a means of neatly evading an audience’s expectations of what his work should represent given his membership of Magnum, long association with National Geographic, and his four first prizes from the World Press Photo contest. All of these honors are intrinsically concerned with documenting life, not manipulating it.

The Gap Between Reality and Representation: Fine Art's Plaything

Given McCurry’s reputation as a photojournalist, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the world of fine art photography would be immune from difficulties regarding truth given that it embraces this gap between reality and representation. Inevitably it isn’t that simple, especially given that, just as the boundary between truth and fiction is blurred and up for grabs, the line between photojournalism and fine art is also suspect, slippery and often meaningless. Truths are told and repackaged, sometimes exploitatively.

Last week, the London Evening Standard reported that Tom Hunter, a well-established fine art photographer, was accused of misrepresenting one of his former students in a work that is currently on sale in a London gallery for £9,500 ($12,500). Hunter is Professor of Photography at London College of Communication, an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, and was granted the Rose Award for Photography by London’s Royal Academy in 2016. He is accused — by the person in the photograph — of manufacturing the story behind an image, misleading his audience, and exploiting a former student and assistant. Upon reading the article, it seems that Hunter is not only creating a fake story that misrepresents the person portrayed, but also misleading those who are about to spend thousands of dollars on a photograph that’s not what it claims it is. The woman in the photograph has spoken out, saying that she was not about to start a long shift at a bar dressed as Santa; in fact, as Hunter’s student and assistant, she and the photographer were at the bar together, Hunter had asked her to pose for him, and the tale he had created about her was a complete fabrication in which she had no part.

The authenticity of this piece as a document of a moment, as a reflection of society and contemporary culture — and thus its value — is completely undermined. If you consider that there’s probably five limited edition prints of this photograph for sale, this lie could be worth over $60,000.

However, this being photography, the truth is more complex than that. According to the owner of the Purdy Hicks Gallery who represent Hunter and where this photograph is for sale, truth is not necessarily a part of his work. Like Jeff Wall reinterpreting a famous Japanese woodcut in his photograph A Sudden Gust of Wind, Hunter is a myth-maker, creating scenes and spinning stories around them. In effect, inhabiting a very different world to Steve McCurry, Hunter is a visual storyteller, though again it’s difficult to tell whether this is part of his artistic practice or a convenient means of evading accusations of dishonesty. Unlike Jeff Wall, however, this artifice does not seem to be on the surface, and one wonders whether those buying Hunter’s work are aware that the stories he tells are just that: fictional tales told to more conveniently romanticize the socially disadvantaged in order to create images that hang nicely on the walls of the wealthy homes of London’s art-buying elite.

Choose Your Truth

Truth, then, is up for grabs. As part of a photographic community that gives value to the work of those we admire and respect, we have a responsibility to hold people to account for the stories that they tell and how they tell them. This is not a vindictive move to try and catch out those who mislead; instead, it is our role as an audience to ensure that, at a time when truth is a rare commodity, our heroes must not be dishonest, however much they might lie.

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18 Comments

ALL Art is a 'lie' ... Photography is Art.

Felix Wu's picture

The art of lying. No wonder people say don’t be a photographer. We are in a wrong industry.

Kirk Darling's picture

A few years ago, a Palestinian photojournalist was criticized for having manipulated a photograph. His photograph showed four Palestinian missiles simultaneously fired into Israel.

And indeed, all the media reported, and Israel confirmed, that four missiles were fired into Israel simultaneously.

But later, it was revealed that because of the vagarities of his shutter's fps and the motion of the missiles, none of his images actually showed four missiles in the air as the published photo showed. He had composited another missile into an image that showed three of them.

A picture of three missiles would not only misrepresent what the photographer actually saw, it would also conflict with what was otherwise being reported.

What is truth? Truth has never, ever been in the photograph. Maybe that's something for "pix or it didn't happen" young people to learn. Pictures in themselves have never been truth. That's why photographs can't be admitted into court without the sworn deposition of the photographer that they represent the truth.

Showing what you saw is all you can swear to. It's the photographer whose reputation for truth proves his photography.

A well written article which tries to encapsulate all of photography into a single genre. Most of photography can be considered art where truth is subjective and even photojournalism is not always objective. Nonetheless, it is always useful to remind people of the importance of ethics.

Michael McCray's picture

The lies are the false assumptions of the audience.

Photography like journalism has always been a subjective media. Film photography kept the image somewhat honest.

I grew up on Life Magazine and loved to look at the powerful images that shaped people’s perception of reality. Film photography was an art, science and creation of the author. It still is even though the tools have changed.

However, digital imaging can be downright dangerous especially in photojournalism and editorial photography. There is nothing we can do except bitch about it because humans are manipulative creatures, like it or not.

Owain Shaw's picture

"Jerry, just remember, it's not a lie ... if you believe it" - George.

Which can be unpacked as far as one wants to unpack it. For the person who believes his own lie, that lie is not an intentional deception because he believes it to be true. I'm sure a lot of us have told a lie, then repeated it, repeated it some more until you tell it as if it were a true story which actually happened. According to a Spanish author I read once (and this may be a lie, I'm taking the word of a fiction writer) there's an Italian saying which is “Se non è vero, e ben trovato“ or 'If it isn't true, it's well told' and for the audience of fiction or films that's normally enough. Photography, for whatever reason, still sticks far closer to the idea of objective truth despite numerous instances of high-profile stories (the Cottingley fairy photographs) and fabrications. Obviously nobody likes being lied to, and many photographers have made claims for something to be other than what it is, but I think this was perhaps the conclusion of the article - that we need to stop assuming photographs are true, and probably also stop claiming them to be as well. I suppose it's important to be honest about our dishonesty.

There were some very interesting articles on this site about three years ago called The Real vs. The Beautiful or The Desert of the Real, I don't recall precisely but these dealt with the subject very well and I'd recommend reading them. I might read them again now.

Mike Gillin's picture

I would take it one step further, everything we see, or believe we saw is a lie. We process everything through our own experiences, so sometimes what we thought we saw and what was, were two different things.

lee arthur's picture

Sounds like someone's been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or Discourse on Method. Either way I agree.

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

I really like the way that Erin Banik told it, that the more educated audience, the better for photography. To me, photography isn't the best choice to carry a sense of reality, no matter how convenient it seems to be at the spot. It's tempting to point to something, press a shutter button, print and say "it's the reality", and our brains will do everything to convince us it's true. But, as someone mentioned earlier, we're not really capable of perceiving objective reality. Our bodies (and minds) were developed to let us survive, so we're capable of interact only with the things that our survival rely on. Cameras, on the other hand, were developed to mimic what we see, although they failed at it utterly.

Galen Rowell also made a point, by saying (direct quote): "The ability to recognize a pattern from limited bits of random information is what separates brains from computers. Every animal needs to make quick decisions based on limited information. An insect assumes that any point light source is the sun. A rocket scientist assumes that a set of curved lines in a newspaper cartoon is the face of President Clinton. The public, through photography, assumes that Eskimos live in igloos, Hawaii is always sunny, wild buffalo can be safely approached for point-and-shoot snapshots. Powell's Law. No wonder people assume that nature photography is simply having the right equipment in the right place at the right time." And I strongly believe that's one of the most important reasons why we still think that photography is a representation of reality - cause it carries enough information for our brains to make it a recognizable pattern.

Having said all that - I made a strong shift in my opinion. I started as a purist, but with knowledge and experience I came to realization that, in fact, all photography is a lie. And then I simply embraced it.

Rod Kestel's picture

I partly agree - dare I say, it's partly true. But he overstates the argument.
So 'nothing' in a photo is real? Better chuck out all photos from court evidence then. Stop showing news footage.

Now of all times, with a full frontal assault on facts, we're on the slippery slope that nothing is real. Even a person's words - taken out context, they become false. Then how do you interpret the highest grade lab DNA tests?

We'll lose ourselves down a fantasy rabbit hole if we're not careful.

lee arthur's picture

"The Art of Photography" is not a lie. It may not show everything involved, how can it? "Photography as Art" can be a lie. But what a beautiful lie it can be.

JK Shearon's picture

Photography (Art) is not inherently dishonest. The tools are faithful. The faulty part of these communications are not the medium, nor the tools, but the liars that operate them.

Garrett Mynatt's picture

Great article!

Kyle Goulden's picture

An incredibly important and timeous article. Thank you so incredibly much for the well-thought-out approach to this subject. In my own work, I have had a creative block for the last 6 years, creating imagery that at every step I felt disappointed in.

The works of "raw" photojournalists and surreal manipulators all inspired me to create my own work but as time went on, there was a need to create something "magical yet real", that intangible feeling that dawn or dusk has on a person, the feeling of experiencing something "for the first time" and that sense of awe and wonder.

Yet, naturally, that is an unachievable feat in the same context that the true depth of the "reality" of these situations, in essence, cannot be captured truly since we cannot capture raw truth.

I think an interesting argument would be for the realm of 360 VR Photo/Video Journalism. Whilst that is still a representation of perceived truth, it's harder to obscure the entire space. That an unstaged moment in time in that realm could be as real as possible, yet without the context of the space, time and situation, it still is a false reality.

For someone like myself, who is battling desperately to re-find their voice in the world it's a tough challenge.

How does one capture that "truth" of the first time you saw a sparkler or fireworks in real life?
Maybe the real answer is, what of the many realities that exist in a situation are you trying to show?
To the Gazelle, the story is of pain and death. To the Lion, the story is of feeding a family and growth. Yet both are true, and both are a reality of each.

I feel there is so much more for all of us to grow in this space so I hope to see more articles like this.

Andy Day's picture

Thanks Kyle, glad you enjoyed it. :)

An example of just how much framing alone can change perception, form a TV ad back in 1986
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SsccRkLLzU

I think the writer does not understand the difference between editorial work and art.

As for my "responsibility" as "part of the photographic community" no-one, least of all some writer on the internet, gets to impose on me their idea of what my responsibility "should" be, any more than I get to impose my ideas on them.