Update – Steve McCurry scandal

When I first got wind of this story through Duckrabbit, my interest was piqued since I wrote a critical analysis of McCurry’s work for my last level.

It seems that a viewer noticed some Photoshopping in a McCurry image from Cuba on display in a Turin gallery and posted his observations on Facebook:

In more detail:

Apparently Paolo Viglione, the person who spotted it, is a fellow photographer and meant no harm, quickly removing the offending post but the damage had already been done, with PetaPixel picking up on the story and other readers looking for similar examples among McCurry’s online archive (which as I know from researching him is quite vast). The following results turned up:

In this image, a boy has clearly been removed from the background to improve the composition since the viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to that part of the image, and the smaller side-lit face is a distraction from the focal point of the image which is the boy whose face is in shadow.

A more pernicious alteration:

Here it appears two of the rickshaw riders have been obliterated, along with several unsightly background items, such as a lamp post, a couple of carts and the salespeople who have been reduced to their clothing or amputated from the waist down.

In a kind of apologia, McCurry says that the prints are made and shipped when he is away on assignment, and he is not always there to review the final results, while the issue in the Cuba image was, “a change that I would have never authorized,” and “the lab technician who made the mistake does not work with me anymore.” Passing the buck? More edited images have since been uncovered by readers, with many more discrepancies appearing between the images displayed on McCurry’s blog and website.

Forced to formally address the accusations against him, McCurry then decided to play his joker and state that he is now a visual storyteller, no longer a photojournalist (despite his website still citing him as the latter); as such, in all innocence he felt that he was at liberty to make any changes he saw fit to his images: “Reflecting on the situation… even though I felt that I could do what I wanted to my own pictures in an aesthetic and compositional sense, I now understand how confusing it must be for people who think I’m still a photojournalist” (Time interview May 30, 2016).

His blog and website are both currently inaccessible (deleted?).

From the NPPA website:

“NPPA Ethics Committee chairman Sean D. Elliot says that no matter what McCurry calls himself today, “He bears the responsibility to uphold the ethical standards of his peers and the public, who see him as a photojournalist.” Elliot, the chief photojournalist and assignment editor for The Day in New London, Connecticut, says this means that “Any alteration of the journalistic truth of his images, any manipulation of the facts, regardless of how relevant he or others might feel they are to the deeper ‘truth,’ constitutes an ethical lapse.” Elliot also called McCurry’s attempt to blame an assistant “disingenuous” and questions the professional standards of a studio in which a lab assistant “feels they have the authority to radically alter the work of Steve McCurry.”

It seems McCurry is not going to emerge from this scandal unscathed – the same article reveals that Magnum has removed a number of McCurry’s images from its online catalogue in light of these revelations.

Photo critic A. D. Coleman invited former Magnum Editorial Director Robert Dannin to address the McCurry issue in an extended open letter. He claims that the agency has long since ceased to trade in purist photojournalistic images (citing the examples of Parr and Erwitt), while McCurry accepted his marginal position within Magnum (he was never considered a true photojournalist) without milking the system as other photographers are known to have done (citing the examples of Gilles Peress and Bruce Davidson), while the use of McCurry’s Afghan Girl as cover image he considers “an act of exploitation, if not rape, by an American media giant“. Basically, Dannin seems to be aiming his polemic at National Geographic in an attempt to deflect attention away from the issue of McCurry’s tampering.

Perhaps the last word on the issue has to be the comments made by John D. McHugh: “It galls the shit out of me, that there are photographers who have looked at his work and strived to achieve something as near-perfect, and get their shit to near that level, and it turns out that that level is nearly fake,” while his rule of thumb on image ethics is really quite simple: “you don’t move the fucking pixels” (Crosbie, 2016).

In the meantime, they mention the sacking of journalists who are guilty of ‘lesser crimes’ than McCurry, though I beg to differ since these images were presented as news and McCurry’s were allegedly never presented as being that which actually took place:

AP severed ties with Narciso Contreras when it became apparent that he had edited this 2013 picture of Syrian rebels under fire. The removal of a fellow journalist’s camera would seem to bear little impact on the overall content of the image, but such editing contravenes AP standards, and as such all of Contreras’ images have been removed from the AP library. From an interview on the AP website:

Contreras said Wednesday he thought that having the video camera in the frame might distract viewers, but he said it is a decision he now regrets. “I took the wrong decision when I removed the camera … I feel ashamed about that,” he said. “You can go through my archives and you can find that this is a single case that happened probably at one very stressed moment, at one very difficult situation, but yeah, it happened to me, so I have to assume the consequences.””

And I say, you fool!

Back to Coleman’s analysis of McCurry:

McCurry’s problem lies in the fact that he uses the reputation he earned as a photojournalist, working under a set of clearly understood strictures, to market images made outside those boundaries. And those two kinds of images look very much alike, in his case, so asking viewers to intuit which ones in a traveling show he considers “photojournalism” and which fall into his category of “visual storytelling/art” places an inappropriate burden on the viewers.”

This then is the deception McCurry is guilty of – using a reputation built up within one set of image ethics (photojournalist) to promote his celebrity under another (visual storyteller) where he claims the same rules do not apply. It all comes down to how the image is presented – in what context, for what purposes, and with what accompanying text or caption. As Gross et al point out:

The meaning and significance attached to a visual image are a consequence of the label attached to it, the expectations associated with the context in which the image appears, and the assumptions made by audiences about which sort of images are produced by which sort of image makers and shown in which sort of settings” (1988, p 18).

In addition, photo sleuth A. D. Coleman claims to have dispelled the Capa myth by proving that the Magnum photographer only spent about half an hour on Omaha beach before chickening out, and the reason that he came back with so few images is that he fluffed it at the last minute, overexposing the film. The subsequent story of the bungling lab technician, destroyed negatives and slipped emulsion he suggests (and sets out to empirically prove) were fabricated to preserve the reputations of both Capa and Magnum, while the photographer’s knowledge that he hadn’t delivered the goods possibly led to his subsequent obsession with front line assignments and very probably resulted in the taking of unnecessary risks that ultimately precipitated in his death by personnel mine (!).

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