Trending: The McCurry Controversy, and the Nature of Truth

By David Schonauer   Tuesday May 24, 2016

The real question isn’t whether the Photoshopping happened.

It’s whether it matters.

The Internet has been buzzing since it was discovered that images by renowned Magnum photographer Steve McCurry had been manipulated. The discovery was made by an Italian photographer, Paolo Viglione, who noticed evidence of Photoshopping in a McCurry print while attending an exhibition of the photographer’s work. Viglione wrote about what he saw on his blog. “His intent was not to start a full-scale witch hunt, but in many ways that’s what happened,” noted PetaPixel. Subsequently, other people began examining McCurry’s work and found what appeared to be examples of manipulation.

McCurry blamed the doctoring on overzealous work done by studio technicians. But for some bloggers, the explanation, coming from a photographer who reached a rare level of fame for his 1985 “Afghan Girl” portrait for National Geographic, rang hollow.

The revelation came shortly after an essay  in the New York Times by photographer and writer Teju Cole that criticized McCurry’s “too-perfect” view of other cultures. McCurry’s images, noted Cole, often seem to feature “a certain ideal of photography: the rule of thirds, a neat counterpoise of foreground and background and an obvious point of primary interest, placed just so.” The results, he said were both “astonishingly boring” and “extremely popular” because McCurry captures easy stereotypes of exotic cultures.

Cole’s criticism and the subsequent news of McCurry’s photo manipulation have given rise to an interesting Internet conversation — one, it has sometimes seemed, that the photo world would rather have avoided, given McCurry’s iconic status.

In a Time LightBox  post titled “Why Facts Aren’t Always Truths in Photography,” photojournalist Peter van Agtmael noted that his first reaction upon learning of the manipulation in McCurry’s prints was confusion, writing, “If he wanted to manipulate the images, why would he have approved such incredibly shoddy work?” He continued:

His explanation that someone in his studio acted unilaterally seems plausible enough. I don’t know the answer, nor do I care much (for me, the content wasn’t meaningfully altered, nor were the prints being made for a context that demanded absolute adherence to a precisely captured moment).

Van Agtmael added, however, that any photographer "working predominantly in a photojournalistic context needs to be rigidly transparent about digital manipulation.” His central point — a nuanced one — was that McCurry’s critics needed to be careful when throwing around terms like like “truth” and “objectivity,” because photography, as he put it,  “is an incredibly subjective craft.”

At his blog Disphotic, photographer and writer Lewis Bush took an equally nuanced view of the nature of photography and the nature of truth. “In photojournalism notions of objective truth and universal human experience remain very popular ones,” he wrote. “They have perhaps been tempered by the growing number of voices who see these ideas as problematic, or at times even quite dangerous, but they continue to lurk,” he wrote. Bush went on:

The same people who rabidly condemn someone like McCurry are often the ones who fail to recognize the extent to which every other part of their own process is a form of manipulation.

Meanwhile, PhotoShelter chairman and co-founder Allen Murabayashi penned a blog post  titled “Your Opinion of Steve McCurry Doesn’t Matter.”

“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,” he wrote. The discussion over McCurry’s work is “academic,” declared Murabayashi, adding:

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.

Do we need to be concerned over this instance of photo manipulation? Or is it merely the photo community, feeling betrayed by one of its heroes, that cares?


  1. David Butow commented on: May 24, 2016 at 1:47 p.m.
    I think we should be concerned, not just by the actions of one photographer, but how this trend impacts people’s relationship to photography. With regard to the sort of "apologist" viewpoint of some (linked in this piece) who talk about the vagueness of "truth,” I think there is a bit of false equivalence. All humans have biases, so of course all photographers produce work that is subjective, in some cases, that is what makes the work interesting. Sophisticated journalists and documentarians acknowledge this. Subjectivity is not a choice, but computer manipulation and the context of how we present our work is. In writing, a great novel or short story can reveal "truths," and if it's presented as fiction, we feel enlightened, not ripped off. In the same way, we don't engage with a David Lachapelle photo the same way as we do one by Eugene Richards even though they're both great. Lachapelle is a surrealist and the style and presentation of his work make that apparent. Richards is a realist of great integrity which makes his work powerful for different reasons. When photographers who work in the documentary, photojournalistic or sort of naturalist context covertly manipulate their work after the fact, but are presenting the pictures as real scenes viewed and captured, the scenes, people or animals in their pictures become staged props just like models in a Lachapelle, except they’re probably not getting paid. Photography's greatest strength - what differentiates it from painting, sculpture or other visual art, or almost any art for that matter - is that, out of any context, there is a sense that an individual photograph has captured something that existed for a moment. The meaning is open to interpretation, but on it's own, the photograph reveals some physical truth. Unlike fashion, portrait, advertising or surrealist photography, work that is documentary in nature relies PRIMARILY on a sort of shared “truth” between the photographer and the viewer. That’s slowly being eroded and will in the future devalue this type of work, no matter who is making it.
  1. Ramin Talaie commented on: May 25, 2016 at 4:42 p.m.
    The point that I made on my Medium article is that this conversation isn't about "truth" and should not be about "truth." A part of this conversation should be about how these sort of things are viewed "ethically" and its relationship to photojournalism sp in places like the Middle East and Latin America.

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