The Case of Steve McCurry: What Is 'Truth' in Photography?

The Case of Steve McCurry: What Is 'Truth' in Photography?

Recently, one of the most well-known photographers in history was caught in a Photoshop scandal. Naturally, this begs the question: where is the line between truth and manufactured reality in photography?

Steve McCurry needs little introduction. He's an absolute master of the craft. His famous photo, "Afghan Girl," was named the most recognizable image in the history of National Geographic. He has won the Robert Capa Gold Medal. Kodak asked him to shoot the last roll of Kodachrome ever produced. He's had the career of 50 photographers.

And so, it was inarguably strange when recently, an Italian photographer, Paolo Viglione, noted a rather obvious digital manipulation in one of McCurry's prints at a show in Italy. 

Clearly, the sign was moved, else it would have blocked the man seen next to it, arguably detracting from the balance of the composition. There are also other issues, such as the bricks making up the columns of the building not aligning properly, while the column on the right actually overlaps with the frame of the car in the foreground. In a statement given to PetaPixel, McCurry noted that much of his recent work was shot for "[his] own enjoyment," and he would define his work today as "visual storytelling." Regarding this specific error, he attributed it to a mishap in his studio while he was away and noted that changes had been made to prevent such an event from occurring again. In the meantime, other people quickly found such manipulations in other photos, though these have yet to be addressed. 

The problem, of course, is not that the manipulations were made. We manipulate photos all the time, often to the extreme. Anyone who claims not to manipulate photos is either lying or giving away their raws. We must remember that anything, anything at all, that modifies a capture in a way that makes it less faithful to reality is a manipulation. Is cloning a sign to a different location in the photo a manipulation? Yes. How about dodging and burning? How about just a global contrast adjustment or a slight saturation boost? How about even something as simple as an exposure adjustment? I would put it to you that in every one of these cases, the answer is: yes, it's a manipulation.

What Is Real? 

So then, the logical extreme is that a straight-out-of-camera image is the only true representation of reality, yes? Not a chance. The way a camera represents color, its dynamic range, etc. — all of these parameters differ from those of the human eye. In fact, the human eye works less like a camera than you think. So, arguably, the only real way to get an accurate representation of reality would be to edit a shot to be exactly as the eye saw it. But then, we'd be relying on memory, which introduces its own biases. Then, you might argue, one must edit in real-time, by getting the camera settings just right to create an image that exactly mimics reality at the scene, so they could check the results on the back LCD against the actual reality before them. Would that finally be a real image, devoid of manipulation, representative of the true existence that lies before the photographer's eyes? Of course not. What your eyes see is not what another's eyes see. Physical variations mean we all see the world a little differently: my yellow is not your yellow. Vision itself is not real; it's not a tangible thing. One cannot point to something and say, "this is vision." It's merely a process; it's our brains' representation of chemical reactions to a very narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum. What about all those wavelengths we don't see? What if Descartes' Demon is real? There is no absolute image; nothing is the "real."

Now that I've gotten that unintentionally nihilistic-sounding aside out of the way, we have to redefine the term "manipulation," because there are no manipulations if there are no absolutes. It seems, rather, that we wish to define a widely understood definition of "manipulation" that captures an essence of intention, rather than visual qualities, but the problem is that we can't infer intentions with certainty, so we must resort to those visual qualities. Part of the NPPA Code of the Ethics states:

While photographing subjects, do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events. Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images' content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound [referring also to video] in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

It seems straightforward enough, until you dig deeper into it. What is the "integrity" of an image? As we just saw, "manipulate" is a dangerous word. But as you can see, the admonishment ends with an essence of intention: don't "mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects." But we do that before we even snap a picture. When you put on a telephoto lens, you're deliberately excluding content from an image to funnel attention to a subject. Is this misleading a viewer? And what of "content" and "context?" What is the context of an image? Is it the immediate environment around the subject? If I take a photo of a homeless man, what is the context of the image? Well, if I'm trying to represent poverty, surely, it's the surroundings he lives in. Should I stop there? Perhaps, if by institutional failings, he has been brought to this place in life, the context is the city whose laws and lack of support system put him there. But perhaps that city requested federal funding for such programs and was denied it. Is the context then the entire country? What is the "context," the sum total of that which brought that which could be to be that which is? Photography, by its very nature as a frozen slice of an otherwise temporally continuous world, lacks "context." Richard Feynman was a master at deconstructing the idea of the absolute: 

What Do We Accept?

So, if we acknowledge that there is no absolute, the best we can hope to achieve is an agreed upon set of standards that constitute the "manipulation" merely by majority or by authority. The NPPA's definition is problematic; so, let's look for a set of rules that outlines specific techniques that are disallowed. Here's what the Associated Press has to say: 

The content of a photograph must not be altered in Photoshop or by any other means. No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph. The faces or identities of individuals must not be obscured by Photoshop or any other editing tool. Only retouching or the use of the cloning tool to eliminate dust on camera sensors and scratches on scanned negatives or scanned prints are acceptable.

Minor adjustments in Photoshop are acceptable. These include cropping, dodging and burning, conversion into grayscale, and normal toning and color adjustments that should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction (analogous to the burning and dodging previously used in darkroom processing of images) and that restore the authentic nature of the photograph. Changes in density, contrast, color and saturation levels that substantially alter the original scene are not acceptable. Backgrounds should not be digitally blurred or eliminated by burning down or by aggressive toning. The removal of 'red eye' from photographs is not permissible.

Though still problematic, this is better. But again, we can ask, what constitutes "normal" or "authentic"? When does toning become "aggressive"? You may accuse me of pedantry, but I would put it to you that the inherent nebulousness in these definitions is the same sort of nebulousness over which laws are fought over or philosophies fall; one need only examine legislature to see how difficult these issues can be. Nevertheless, let us focus on the first paragraph, as it's more pertinent to the specific case at hand and arguably more readily graspable 

"Only retouching or the use of the cloning tool to eliminate dust on camera sensors and scratches on scanned negatives or scanned prints are acceptable." There it is. We needed to move away from intention and simply present our "frame of truth" upon which rests the realm of what is a manipulation and what is not. So, did McCurry manipulate the images? Yes, if you accept the AP standard. 

The Problem

There's only one issue, however. McCurry defines his work as "visual storytelling," the implication being that he has moved away from strict photojournalism into a realm of fine art. Well, in that case, he's not subject to the above guidelines, unless he was working in a photojournalistic capacity, which does not seem to be the case here. Savvy readers have noted other cases of these manipulations, though as mentioned, McCurry has yet to respond to them specifically. 

The problem then is one of expectation. McCurry has a reputation as a photojournalist, and that reputation begets the expectation that his work follows the commonly agreed upon standards of photojournalism. The question remains, however: is that his issue or ours? Is he somehow bound to follow those guidelines or at least make it abundantly clear when he doesn't? Or is his work truly "his" and thus bound only to the conventions he subjects himself to? 

Furthermore, in this case, he has noted that the mistake was an issue at his studio, implying that he was unaware of it and would not have approved of it if he had been.

The Question

So then, we have to ask ourselves just what it is we're asking of Mr. McCurry before we assert that he violated it. We even have to ask ourselves if we have the right to ask those questions. If he is not working in a photojournalistic capacity, is he obligated by some imperative, moral or otherwise, to follow photojournalism standards simply by virtue of his reputation? If he had started a separate company called "McCurry Fine Art Images" and this work had fallen under that umbrella, would he then be justified? Should he even be held responsible, since he asserts that the error was not his and that he was unaware of it? Do we have the right to hold him to those standards? If so, what is the obligation that makes Steve McCurry beholden to his audience? 

I don't claim to have the answers to these questions. I certainly have opinions on them, but I'm reticent with regards to such matters, as the ability to cross from opinion to assertion requires a certain amount of authority, and certainly, I do not claim to have the photojournalistic authority that a person such as Steve McCurry has. Nevertheless, he presented these images for an audience — an audience that now claims to be affronted by the manner in which the photos were presented. And thus, they, as an audience, should have a say in the matter of the implicit contract between them and the performer on the proverbial stage. So, I put it to you: what are the answers to the above questions? What is right in photography? What is truth?

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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Except for photos used for legal or journalistic purposes, a photographer should be able to manipulate a photograph any way he/she wants without everyone going berserk. Any other artist in any other medium doesn't have this problem. Use pencils, pastels, oil paint, acrylic paint, conte crayons, metal or stone, instead of a camera, to create art, and you can do anything you want and people don't complain. There's no reason why photography should be held to a different standard. An artist must be able to create whatever they want in any medium to be true to their inner creativity.

Have Fun,

Steve McCurry has always promoted himself as a photojournalist, and never once has he tried to put himself in another category. I wouldn't have a problem with him doing a portrait series with highly retouched images, as long is the intent was clear to me. I actually know another photojournalist who did this, but declared very specifically, that the project wasn't documentary. It was art.

What McCurry did, was cheat. He categorized his work as 'true' photographs. Nothing but color and contrast had been altered. We believed his images to be true. Even though they weren't taken for a photojournalistic story of NG or something, we still believed McCurry's pictures to be true, because he never wanted us to believe otherwise. Until we found out he cheated. NOW he wants to be an artist. Come on man. He's a cheater. If I were NG, I'd fire him on the spot!

I think for many photography has and always will be a reflection of life. A moment captured. We have our own marketing to blame for those feelings. The reality being darkrooms and digital make it so much more, and that is wonderful. But when you show your work in the context of journalism or report it to be a reflection of an event, you are suddenly held to a higher standard and you should be. Outside of that, the viewer should always be aware that there is no standard of practice. How many of us have shot a headshot or portrait for someone when they asked to just "tweak" a feature of their face or body? Is this wrong? Would the casting director want to know that the person walking into the room would not look the way we represented? Probably. I don't blame Steve, and unless someone finds a glaring manipulation with a photo in National Geographic (were her eyes REALLY that color) who are we to judge? When you pick up your camera you are an artist, but when you do so with journalistic intentions you need to hold yourself to a different standard in post. But outside of post, what you point your camera at is up to you and your own integrity. Every minute of our lives influences where and how we point our cameras, and it is impossible to completely disconnect from those influences. Should we try? yes. I think so. But as with everything, even if we were perfectly able to do so, every minute of our lives influences how we view an image, and there is nothing we can do about that...

The only problem is that the pos is poorly done, Mc Curry has the resources to do it better. This is NOT a news coverage and rules by Associated Press are totally irrelevant.

Steve declares his intentions, "Storytelling" and thus any amount of post processing is completely legit.

Please stop this bigottery.

Martin Reiser

I think that Alex nailed the points of the photograph. I not saying that McCurry can't photograph for art after years of photojournalism; if the photo was for photojournalistic purposes, then it fails the manipulation. During his years as a photojournalist, he probably has taken his fair share of personal photographs and for art purposes. It's clear that he is passionate about photography. But since he said it was for art, then it's okay; but it was poor Photoshop editing.

What's the big deal? This is not even an interesting picture IMHO. It appears that Steve McCurry has "shot himself in the foot". Why? Perhaps we'll never know. I do agree with the Associated Press' guidelines for
photojournalism. I also agree that photography has always been about "a moment captured" - until we went digital. Now we have the tools to manipulate photos and make mistakes as in this photo.

I just find it strange that a photographer of the caliber of Steve McCurry would sign off on a print containing such a glaring error; or that he wasn't aware of it ... again, a photographer of McCurry's caliber is one I would expect to be closely inspecting prints, even if the work was done by members of his studio. It also makes me wonder about the people in his employ at that studio and whether there might be a vacancy there shortly.

I think we need to realize that NOTHING is objective. Every time a photographer presses the shutter they are telling the story the way they want to show it, (and lets face it, the way it will make the most money for them and the publication) not necessarily how it is. And it is not all the fault of photoshop or image manipulation. In fact, I would argue that a heavily photoshopped image, complete with items photoshopped out, and cloned away, with heavy dodging and burning and every other sort of levels and curves adjustment, etc could still be far more representative of the reality of a moment than a RAW image, based solely on when and where the photographer chose to point their camera and how they framed the shot. Much the same way a print journalist can completely change a story without lying by simply choosing which facts to include, a photographer can change the "truth" of an event well before even depressing the shutter. And the best photographers are the ones who know how to do this the best.

McCurry has said some of his work is personal art so Photoshopping objects out is not an issue, and he also said it was done without his knowledge or permission. Hmmm. And then there is the issue of staging photos as great captured moments. Hmmm. So are the famous Afghan girl's captivating eyes real ? Increasing I see really striking images that impress me until I read the caption or text and see the dreaded word, composite.

As a travel photographer, I work with one guideline - anybody who visits the spot should be able to take the same photo that I did. This means that if the sea is brown when I shoot at a beach resort, I leave it brown.

What are we to do about the so-frequent misuse of the phrase “begs the question?” In precise usage, it does not mean “to raise the question” or “to beg that the question be asked” or even “to evade the question.” Rather, it refers to a circular argument; it means “to use an argument that assumes as proved the very thing one is trying to prove.”

Yes, Rob, indeed it does hail from the realm of formal logic, but it has been accepted as common usage to refer to a raised question:

Mr. Cooke is correct. Another case of dumbing-down the language, more's the pity.

Mr. Cooke, you pose a wonderful question of photographic philosophy that I have played with for years.

Yes, strictly speaking, anything we do to an image is "manipulation."

Two things are at play here:
what is the degree of manipulation and what is the intended use of the image.

Did Ansel Adams manipulate his pictures? You bet he did. Any and every darkroom trick he could devise.
But, of course, Adams wasn't a photojournalist.

As several commenters mentioned, this image wasn't intended as photojournalism either.
But, there have also been several scandals in recent contests that seem to indicate a basic lack of ethics in some people. Those folks need to read and heed what this article is about.

The man and the sign were both moved, which makes me question why it was even done in the first place. If you look at the man, his right foot is behind him.

I saw McCurry at a state university several years ago. I think respect for him and his work is largely misplaced. At the time I saw him he admitted he had little technical knowledge of his craft, and it showed in his work. He is largely known for one photo. Imagine a career based on one photo only. To other posters saying he should be fired from NatGeo, there are no staffers at NatGeo, only contract photographers, so he doesn't work there to be fired.

The act of framing a photograph in the camera is a manipulation in itself, as you crop out the rest of the planet to show only what you choose. Therefore, the entirety of photography is not realistic in any meaningful way. We choose to accept the limitations of 2 dimensional representation of a 3 dimensional world.

Professional ethical standards are a good thing, and people involved in the profession should adhere to them. If you are shooting otherwise, those standards do not, and should not apply. We struggled for years to have photography accepted as art, now that it is, some seem to be pulling the other way, to have it accepted as 'truth' and only that. It isn't, and isn't going to be, 'truth' since the medium is inherently subjective, and manipulable.

Good article, makes you think. The gift of life is that one can do whatever one sees fit to do, but then has to accept any consequences that comes along with such actions.

I think the right thing to do would have been for Paolo Viglione to discreetly point it out to Steve and granted him the opportunity to correct it and who knows, perhaps in doing so, made a friend and saved the rest from their fragile perception of their sad little world.

We are people, me make mistakes, dispite of reputation, expectations and experience.

Paolo Viglione did what he did for selfish reasons. There are people, especially people with little going for them, that enjoy seeing others stumble and fall. Poor character qualities if you ask me.

As for Steve, this might be your best photograph yet.