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EDITORIAL: Eyes of the Afghan Girl- A critical take on the “Steve McCurry Scandal”

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An opinion piece by our EIC, Kshitij Nagar with vital inputs from Rakesh Nagar.


Also read a short follow up HERE


I will begin by saying that my intention is not to attack Steve McCurry or defame him in any manner. It is only an attempt to clear certain facts that have come to light regarding his work and to also raise certain questions on aspects that may or may not have been missed, but certainly have not been expressed till now, atleast not publicly. McCurry is an inspiring figure to many, therefore in the light of recent events, a close examination of his photographs and his practice has already been done, I only want to take it a few steps further.

Steve McCurry has come to India on numerous occasions to photograph. It has a special place in his work and in his life. He has expressed his love for India many times over the years. Some regard India as his ‘Karma Bhoomi’ (the land where one works). It is a place that has provided him with countless iconic images and it is the place where he returned to, to shoot about half of the last roll of Kodachrome.

It is also the depiction of this place that has attracted him the most criticism, both in India and internationally. He is often accused of depicting a certain stereotypical, exotic, almost “slumdog millionaire-ish” version of India that panders to western audiences. This is a criticism that Teju Cole of the New York Times also levied on McCurry’s recent volume of photographs titled ‘India’ which is a compendium of all the images he made here in between 1978 and 2014. He was also faced with the same criticism on stage at the launch of the same book in New Delhi. Further, in the review of his book, Cole goes on to remark “The pictures are staged or shot to look as if they were.” Again, McCurry was faced by these same questions at that launch event in January, which he chose to ignore then.

Five months on, a number of things have come to light regarding his work with many questioning his ethics, while others calling it a “targeted witch hunt.” Some of the things that he has come under fire for are astounding, while there are a few details that photographers and fixers in India have always known.

The controversy began with a so-called “botched print” as PetaPixel reported it citing photographer Paolo Vigilione who went to an exhibition of McCurry’s work in Italy and posted about what he had seen on his blog. While he “had no intention to attack McCurry” he certainly got the ball rolling on what has now snowballed into a full-blown controversy.

The images have since been removed from McCurry’s website as well as by Vigilione from his blog. These images were taken from PetaPixel’s article detailing the issue-

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A further cursory exploration into his work lead to the following few images that PetaPixel too published in its article. These images too have been removed from McCurry’s website, in fact the entire blog seems to have been removed.

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The shot of the children playing football was from a series of personal pictures, however a version of it was also published on Magnum Photos’ website, but has since been removed.

After the initial bit of articles were published in publications and blogs online, Indian photographer Satish Sharma made the following comments on his blog-

“I am not at all surprised at the digital manipulation (done by him) to create the perfect frame.

I have watched him rig (stage) his pictures. (He) Arranged the subjects (back then) because chromes (slide film) could not be that easily manipulated. “

Sharma goes onto cite an important and iconic image, that of the railway engine in front of the Taj.

Train Cover

Regarding this image Sharma says. “This famous cover picture of his National Geographic   story on the Railways was  a special case that I remember. He actually had to reshoot it and got the railways to take the engine back again, because the first shoot was not sharp enough”

Further elaborating Sharma says-

“For a shot of the kitchen in ‘The Great Indian Rover’ he actually had the railing around the work bench removed. I know because I was there. The last time I saw him he was arranging a picture in Delhi’s Lodi Garden directing a waiter where to stand. “

Perhaps, most perturbing of Sharma’s claims is the following image which also appeared in the same NatGeo issue of 1984 on travelling across India by rail-

 

avinash pasricha steve mccury

 

Regarding this Sharma writes- “This apparently off the cuff moment was arranged too. The lady is the wife of a photographer friend and the suitcases the coolie (porter) is carrying are empty. They had to be because the shot took time and lots of patient posing. McCurry’s pictures have been called STAGED CANDID MOMENTS by  Avinash Pasricha , a photographer friend who knows how he works because he  helped  him with  the pictures like the one above. The lady is his sister in law. “

In a bid to investigate and ratify Sharma’s claims, I made a call to Avinash Pasricha, veteran photographer living in Delhi. He had the following to say-

“Yes, from what I can recall, Steve used to stage quite a few shots back then. He needed help whenever he came to India and people obliged. Since my house was and still is centrally located in the city he would come here often. He was always passionate and longing to go out and shoot again. On one occasion that he had come, he told me of a particular shot that he wanted to take on how people travel in India. He requested my sister in law Vanita to accompany him to New Delhi Railway station” says Pasricha. On asking him about the suitcases on the porter’s head, he confirms that they are indeed empty.

A little bit of searching lead me to the lady in the above said image, Ms. Vanita Pasricha who briefly told me the following regarding the image-

“This image is from about 32 years ago. He was a very polite man, a thorough gentleman who wanted a picture on how people travel in India. I went with him to New Delhi Railway Station in the morning for a few quick pictures. Those suitcases are my suitcases and that is my son Mithil that I am holding, who is now infact 38 years old now. I only met him a couple of times, I did not even know whether the photo was published or not. It is only when my brother called from the states did I get to know that it was published in National Geographic.”

The image was indeed published in the June issues of 1984 of NatGeo in the following form, according to this archived copy.

Station

It was published with the following misleading caption-

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While the claims of these people are compelling, damning and perturbing what has been equally perturbing is McCurry’s own handling of this matter and his ultimate defence that he put forward in an exclusive interview with TIME. (The unedited copy of the interview was made available to me on contacting McCurry’s studio in New York for a brief statement. I was informed that Mr. McCurry is presently travelling and is difficult to reach, we will publish a follow up with his responses on these questions as soon as he becomes available.)

In a press conference held at an exhibition of his work in Canada on the 27th of May, he said the he was not in favour of “Photoshopping” or “adding and subtracting elements from a picture” and that the software should only be used as means of colour balance and correction. Three days later though in the interview with TIME he said that he will “rein in his use of Photoshop” when asked about the controversy, while not directly making a reference to the fact that he has done so in the past or what exactly lead to the glaring differences in between the different versions of the published images. The removal of his entire blog and subsequent silence for a number of days raises further questions.

The most perturbing of McCurry’s statements is his claim that he is no longer a photojournalist and more of a “visual storyteller”. The statement in itself is very alarming when you take into account the context that it was said in. The majority of McCurry’s career has been spent photographing subjects for journalistic stories and features, though he now believes otherwise- “The years of covering conflict zones are in the distant past. Except for a brief time at a local newspaper in Pennsylvania, I have never been an employee of a newspaper, news magazine, or other news outlet. I have always freelanced” he said in the interview.

One must surely argue that by merely categorising himself now as a visual storyteller, does not absolve McCurry of the ethics of simple photographic practice, i.e. depicting things the way they are, something he claims to always strive to according to this Ted talk from just a few years ago. Moreover, this is especially important as his work has been continually published in publications such as National Geographic that are bound by a strict code of journalistic ethics. While the days of photographing conflict may well be over, and while he is exploring these new ways of telling stories, his new and recent work continues to pop up in journalistic publications leading to a simple yet perturbing logical anomaly. To add to that anomaly, his own website continues to reference him as a Photojournalist, even though he is out exploring new ways of “visual storytelling.”

Further still, as a practicing photojournalist myself, I must also argue that while McCurry has the freedom to explore new ways of story telling and the freedom to alter images from personal projects (just like any other photographer) surely the publication of these images with a clarification detailing the extent of alteration is necessary considering the fact that the viewer will in most cases connect it to McCurry’s photojournalistic aesthetic, especially when the subject matter of these images(people/ travel/ street etc.) is so similar to McCurry’s photojournalistic work.

On the note of issuing a disclaimer, I must also add that McCurry also cites a previous iconic cover image of monsoon in India from 1984 for National Geographic, which was to an extent altered. The original image was of a horizontal orientation and could not be published in the magazine’s vertical format. NatGeo decided to extend the water to fit the format.

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Image Comparison via TIME

 

A critical piece of information not shared in the interview is that the image was published with a disclaimer detailing the alteration according to a copy of the issue that I found in an online archive. Further, the reason that NatGeo was legally bound to issue that disclaimer is the fact that just two years prior to that in February 1982, NatGeo was in the middle of a serious controversy where they used an image altering software called ‘Scitex’ to fit a horizontal image of the pyramids in Egypt onto their vertical cover resulting in a squeezed and altered view, different from the original photograph. The action lead to widespread criticism, which NatGeo finally agreed with and decided to change its policy whereby it declared any digital alterations of that nature.

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Infact the editor of NatGeo wrote the following at that time- “At the beginning of our access to Scitex, I think we were seduced by the dictum, ‘If it can be done, it must be done.’
But there’s a danger there. When a photograph becomes synthesis, fantasy, rather than reportage, then the whole purpose of the photograph dies. A photographer is a reporter — a photon thief, if you will. He goes and takes, with a delicate instrument, an extremely thin slice of life. When we changed that slice of life, no matter in what small way, we diluted our credibility. “

What truly needs to be examined is the state of McCurry’s legacy, especially for those that he has inspired over the years, especially in India where he has had a lasting and inspiring footprint. The apparent staging and subsequent publishing in NatGeo raises further more questions for him and NatGeo to answer. Especially if we take into account the stringent rules imposed on photographers by publications in their written contracts, even for freelance basis as well as the close examination of work done by World Press Photo in the past few years, leading to many awards being rescinded and photographers and publications being forced to issue clarifications and apologies subsequently.

In a casual conversation with my father on the issue, he said the following “ I am very pained by this. This is almost unbelievable. I remember going out during the monsoon seasons with my Asahi Pentax in hand, just to see if I could get a picture like McCurry’s. It really pains to even think about this.” Later, on pondering over McCurry’s most iconic image, that of the “Afghan Girl” he also found another, small discrepancy. The dirt,muck and glare from her right eye seems to have disappeared. Below on the left is the original image published by NatGeo and on the right a screen grab from a poster that McCurry is currently selling on his website. (right click image to see in full size)

Afgan Girl

 

 

 

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Ignoring the obvious difference in the colour of the two images due to different scanning/ printing processes, the difference in the eyes is a bit difficult to miss when kept side by side. The flesh around the eye orbit is flatter and cleaner as compared to a more natural inwards concave shape. The dirt and muck (a vital element to the picture and the character trait of this girl as well the area she was living in) is missing too.

Afgan Girl

Interestingly though, the glare/ muck is back in the version printed by NatGeo in the 100 Best Pictures commemorative issue.

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The variance in between different versions of published images seems to extend to McCurry’s most iconic image too, just like his other work.

In a polite exchange with his studio over email, seeking a statement from him, I was informed that Mr. McCurry is presently travelling and is difficult to reach, we will publish a follow up with his responses on these questions as soon as he becomes available.


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30 thoughts on “EDITORIAL: Eyes of the Afghan Girl- A critical take on the “Steve McCurry Scandal””

  1. I’m glad I just happened to stumble across the reference to this article on the Peta Pixel website.
    This is my personal opinion, but I am dead against adding or removing elements of a photo, particularly journalism or “street” photography. I’d long suspected that McCurry had also staged many of his photos in India. I’ve travelled India a few times and it’s not too difficult to detect small nuances which lead me to believe some photos are definitely staged. Sure, stage a portrait or a group of people you want to photograph but when it comes to photographing people in their environment on a candid level… I believe there is a skill in doing that. If you have to stage or use Photoshop to alter the scene you’ve captured then you’re basically misrepresenting things and reducing your credibility as “talented” or professional photographer. My respect for McCurry has diminished dramatically and it’s important that he is exposed.

  2. Hi! Would you mind if I share your blog with my myspace group? There’s a lot of folks that I think would really appreciate your content. Please let me know. Cheers

  3. So no-one has ever edited an image or ‘enhanced it’?

    The differences to the viewer of the Afghan girl is marginal and still recognisable as ‘the image’

    Try the art world if you want to see true fakery from the masters, half of whom never painted their masterpieces but were done by other pupils in the ‘school’ , this being to satisfy the demand for copies by patrons and customers.

    I think the strength of someone’s work is in ‘image it portrays’ and the story it communicates. If there is white plastic bag in one of my landscapes I am going to remove it, if not at the time then in post editing.

    The main question is of authenticity. Did that photographer take that picture? Is he or she the sole copyright oner? If so, I believe they have authority to ‘create art’ from their original sources and not as might be the other case, someone else doing it!!

    I do believe in the integrity of what the author/artist says is true and they are the true owners of the work and we should stick with that instead of having a ‘Spot the Difference’ competition.

  4. Below are my views on this article. It seems to be a well thought plan to defame him and hog the limelight. In 1984 there weren’t any digital camera’s for Steve (or anyone) to examine his shots and than retake them. Even if he had to stage them for perfect shot, it will require him to print his film shot, evaluate them, rearrange the whole team, keeping alive the enthusiasm of every person involved and retake, only to reprint and re-evaluate those shots. The loop continues until he agrees upon the final shot. Given this was 1984 and beyond, the Indian society was not so comfortable with media especially the professional gears and lenses. This dosen’t makes sense to me. Moreover Nat Geo panel is comprised of passionate pioneers, cracking them with every shot is not just possible even for Steve McCurry.

    Where he went wrong is while using the next generation devices i.e digital cameras. Since he is from film era, I feel he was never comfortable with new image editing software’s like Photoshop. Probably he hired a team of Photo-shoppers to edit his images with liberty to edit them.

    Those guys must have botched up his shots with content aware feature of Photoshop, hence the portion of yellow pole near the foot of that guy walking across the shot.

    Off-course he has a team who must be managing his website and sales through them. Now those people are not photographers to spot the botched up images.

    Had it been film era, he would have still ruled this segment coz film shots are not easy to edit like digital. His statements seems to have been twisted to present them as truth.

    I personally do not agree with the views express by this Indian author.

    That was my take on this article. One cannot underestimate how Steve’s shots moved the world and the differences it made to people’s life.

    1. It was a standard practice for film to be developed on assignment. No body would take undeveloped films back as it was too risk. And kodachrome was widely developed in India earlier. Secondly, do you know how well funded NatGeo projects are? The photographers would come with trunk full of films!
      And don’t you think Steve McCurry should be supervising what his team is doing? be logical atleast. You sound like his lawyer, trying to get him off on the lowest charge possible. Sure blame it on the small guy. Do you think his assistants would have his permission to work on his prints and make so many changes without approval?

  5. Excellent article, for the sake of all photojournalists he must be held to account for this. One thing in here seems innaccurate though. You quote another blogger claiming that Mccurry ordered the train back to roll again “because the first shoot was not sharp enough”, he was shooting film, how was he to know the photos weren’t sharp?…

  6. As a working freelance photographer and writer, and member of the NPPA, the veracity of an image, the truth in what we see is of utmost and crucial importance. If you start making changes, even small ones such as retouching eyes and removing small annoyances or objects that detract from an image, you have to start asking, what is real, and what is not? What else was changed? This is the unfortunate debate that now rages about Steve McCurry’s body of work, and his apparent lack of ethics.

    I have chrome slides from 1974-75 from six months spent working in Chittagong, Bangladesh when I was a young lad of 22, and it is truly amazing how I have been able to rejuvenate and restore the faded colour and quality of the original chromes. Scanning technology and of course Photoshop allows one to saturate colours and sharpen an image much better. But at some point, you have to ask where does one loose the truth in the image, when you start altering colours, softening skin tones and actually removing objects to “tell a better story?”

    That the storied career of a famous photographer has now taken this trajectory due to bad judgement, and loose ethics, is truly lamentable.

    Frederic Hore,
    Montréal, Quebec

  7. i still think most of the hue and cry about the retouching and image manipulation is spurred by the usual social media feeding frenzy. none of those manipulations changed the story or created a story that wasn’t there. i don’t understand some of those changes myself, since they haven’t necessarily improved the photograph, but i can’t see it as a big deal.

    if, however, the tales about staging shots and setting up stories are true, that’s harder to defend.

    1. I absolutely agree with you. Photography is an art, an the artist has the discretion to what he wants to portray.
      Whereas photo journalism has these ethics pertaining to the truth not being distorted, I feel touching up a work of art, or even staging what are believable subjects to tell a story is hardly worth making such a hue and cry about.
      At the end of the day, he has clicked some brilliant photos in terms of subject and composition both – so shouldn’t we just stay with that?

      1. Photography may be art, but photojournalism is photojournalism. Is it ok if a journalist makes up the odd fact here or there to help the flow of his/her story?

  8. Perhaps another proofreading would be good. For those little spelling mistakes that you must’ve missed the first time :) Other than that, good article! I enjoyed it :)

  9. I can’t believe these comments. Photography is NOT a sporting event. SO WHAT if he touched up the eye. It doesn’t alter the story or impact of the image. Are you all wolves feeding on the same HS? Does this make all of Ansel Adams images less important because they were not exact? Does this mean the camera interprets the image better than the human mind? You all have to be kidding me???? I understand the importance of accuracy in journalism. But what is accuracy? The cameras vision? UFB

    1. Camera’s vision? You’re kidding right? What you wrote it’s the same as saying ” are you going to believe me or what the camera wants?” Reality is based on perception, therefore to change intentionally elements within a photograph to create a new perception , is the same as manipulate reality.

      1. You may be right – if someone is changing elements within another person’s photograph. In this case, though, he was altering the very “reality” he himself created by taking the picture in the first place.
        As you said: reality is based on perception. And a photograph or image will always just represent the photographer’s/artist’s perception of a certain moment in time.

      2. Then what about everything you don’t see that’s happening outside the frame of the camera or moments before or after the picture was taken? The elements within a photograph, the reality you see is always what the photographer decides to show. You can’t see everything everywhere all the time. You could say the chosen moment, the chosen composition is manipulation. What if the photographer would even go as far as deleting a picture?

      3. I couldn’t agree with you more in relation to your retort regarding Gary Feltons’ comment. The ethics of photojournalism are not the equally the ethics or practice for that matter of photography. We must remember though that Mr. McCurry is not the only photographer, who has manipulated images to create an iconic oeuvre, to adorn a gallery wall.

    2. Some of his manipulations are forgivable. The glare in the eye of the Afghan Girl is a negligible detail or the visual narrative. Posing a scene is a dirty trick. Steve is taking the brunt of the industries blowback. He is not the only one. The larger issue, as I see it, is his recreation of scenes. If he was a painter, he could choose what’s in and what’s out. But as a journalist, he should understand that choosing aesthetic composition over truthful narrative should never be done out of camera. Removing a kid playing soccer, erasing an out of focus rickshaw, these don’t improve the frame, they just change it. If Steve believed that these elements were distractions in focus, he should have moved on and chose another shot.

      Photography works on the honor code. NatGeo, Time etc have tried to make it difficult for photojournalists to manipulate photos but no system is perfect. They have access to his negatives, they make the call for what gets printed. They are as much to blame as Steve for these larger manipulations.

      This all reminds me of plastic surgery gone too far. It starts with a wrinkle…

      1. Whilst in conceptual photography, were manipulation of a photograph to achieve a particular result is accepted i.e. Cover of a magazine or an artistic composite to achieve a desired look. In Photojournalism and Documentary photography it is wholly unacceptable. Whilst some Pulitzer prize winning photographs containing emotional content could be an actual ‘staged’ photograph, (Don McCullin 1968 and his admissable tampering of a scene of a North Vietnamese soldier and his plundered effects). It disregards what could be construed as factual truth and becomes much more dramatized in that a new fictional truth takes it place leaving the viewer or rather the public to become much more wary and question the credibility of the actual photographer.

        However in Don McCullins’ work, the photographer himself wanted to “Give him some justice”. In some ways this relates to the photographers personality and his ethical reasons for wanting to give a soldier some form of retribution, for actions taken against him during such a conflict.

        Many would have in the social documentary fraternity of toys being placed in such photographs taken in the war torn middle east, this is a factual occurrence. However, the photographs themselves do nothing to justify the reason for such actions other than to provoke an emotional response in the eye of the public, many of us forget that this world of photogarphy is a cut throat business, and they’re those that will stoop to such a level as to persuade said public to react in a certain way.

        Whilst this maybe going on a slight tangent, the current EU debate is one example of how those who want to manipulate a certain outcome, will stop at nothing and create a certain spin, which will endeavour to change the public perception of the current debate, just as this new found evidence is wholly subjective in the eyes of many, it has been going on for centuries in the lifespan of mankind. We are what are, and we do decieve in order to create a false hope.

  10. Yeah, I dont know about the text, since I cant read it, because of jumping screen, due to the spinning GIF-commersial thing. Please remove it. It’s annoying!

  11. If you look carefully, you will see another point in the Afganishtan Girl portrait, compare from the NatGeo cover , and the other, look upper the last character C in ofthe word Geographic, it has a white scrash on the red scarf, and with the later published of this portrait, it was disappeared ! It also happened with this photo in 2 different books : The cover of National Geographic’s book “The Photographs” different with Phaidon’s book PORTRAITS by Steve Mc Curry …with the notice I mention above.
    I love all Steve works, and I hope most of the manipulated problems (clone/ clean, remove and re-compositioned… ) are not just caused on Steve, but from some other sides that changed on last minute before the print and out of Steve Mc Curry’s controls !
    Some of disapoints to us when people found the manipulated problems from Steve and his pictures, but at all I still admire him and his works, even in both sides as he said “a photojournalist’s mindset” and as an artistic mindset of a visual storyteller.

    Nhat, Le Quang (Vietnam)

    1. I thought a photographer is a storyteller, no matter what the style/genre. Every photojournalist always try to tell a story using pictures instead words, that’s what that language is all about.

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