“That’s really the big challenge—finding the right picture and trying to craft the picture out of a situation which is fluid and in motion, and grab that moment. All these elements swirl around in your brain. It’s an instinct. You’re not really thinking. It’s more from your heart.”
“It’s almost like a meditation. You’re out there. It’s a beautiful day. You’re discovering things, you’re seeing things. You’re experiencing your life at that moment in a much more complete and deep way than if you’re thinking about something other than what’s happening right now, at this very moment.”
Steve McCurry is a legend. Working as a photojournalist, he is credited with perhaps the most iconic image of the last 50 years, “The afghan girl”. The story begins 5 years earlier. Steve had crossed the Pakistan border into rebel-controlled areas of Afghanistan just before the Soviet invasion in 1979 disguised in Afghani garb. “As soon as I crossed the border, I came across about 40 houses and a few schools that were just bombed out……They were literally destroying whole villages with helicopter gunships.” He exited with rolls of film sewn into his turban and stuffed in his socks and underwear. The images were published by The New York Times, TIME and Paris Match and won him the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad.
In December 1984 Steve was in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan. He heard “unexpected laughter” coming from children inside a one-room school tent for girls. “I noticed this one little girl with these incredible eyes, and I instantly knew that this was really the only picture I wanted to take,” This was the first time she had ever been photographed.
The “Afghan Girl” remained unknown for the next 17 years until McCurry and a National Geographic team located the woman, Sharbat Gula, in 2002. “Her skin is weathered; there are wrinkles now, but she is as striking as she was all those years ago.”
McCurry has also covered the Iran-Iraq War, Lebanon Civil War, the Cambodian Civil War, the Islamic insurgency in the Philippines, the Gulf War and the Afghan Civil War. At time he was close to losing his life, being almost drowned in India and surviving an airplane crash in Yugoslavia.
Steve’s images are predominantly people, engaged in their daily lives. The images are rich in colour and texture and have a strong sense of human warmth. “We photographers say that we take a picture, and in a certain sense, that is true. We take something from people’s lives, but in doing so we tell their story.”
In April 2016 Steve became the focus of a “scandal”. A botched manipulation in photoshop was detected by an Italian photographer, Paolo Viglione attending an exhibition of his work. A subsequent article in Petapixel demonstrated that McCurry extensively used photoshop to change the composition of his images. He would commonly remove distracting details in order to create a central focus on the subject of the image.
In the above example, a couple of tables, a second rickshaw and a Stobie pole have all been removed. Some distracting elements have been darkened. This may be common practice in a photo club competition, but is it acceptable practice for a photojournalist?
One respondent to the article expressed their frustration as follows.
“Travel photography is very close to documentary photography as it’s supposed to document a place or a journey – ideally close to reality. When McCurry manipulates the content, how can his images actually portray a realistic image of the places he visited and documented? I wonder what National Geographic thinks of one of their photographers, submitting forged images for their magazines.”
Steve responded to these criticisms in an interview with Patapixel. He explained:
“Today I would define my work as visual storytelling, because the pictures have been shot in many places, for many reasons, and in many situations. Much of my recent work has been shot for my own enjoyment in places I wanted to visit to satisfy my curiosity about the people and the culture. For example, my Cuba work was taken during four personal trips.”
“My photography is my art, and it’s gratifying when people enjoy and appreciate it. I have been fortunate to be able to share my work with people around the world.”
“I try to be as involved as much as I can in reviewing and supervising the printing of my work, but many times the prints are printed and shipped when I am away. That is what happened in this case. It goes without saying that what happened with this image was a mistake for which I have to take responsibility.”
In other words, he was claiming to be a visual artist and not a photojournalist. the work was not presented for accuracy, but for aesthetic appeal.
It is very easy to be puritanical and condemn Steve’s approach. Surely the original image is good enough. Why mess with it? I must say, the details altered seem to be trivial in the grand scheme of things. It’s not like he’s adding UFO’s or giant apes or mermaids into his pictures. (Mind you others have done these things)
It could also be argued that sometimes the aesthetic image tells a greater story than the purely factual one. Take for instance an aerial photograph. They can be very useful. However an aerial photograph does not contain the richness of meaning of a map derived from that image. By selectively removing redundant information, the map can draw attention to structures of interest like roads and rivers and mountain peaks. The important issue with maps, is that the map maker needs to give us an accurate representation. The quality of the map is dependent upon the integrity of the map maker.
In my opinion Steve is a brilliant and inspiring photographer. His images excite me and I am not concerned by the manipulations that he employs. I trust him to not mess up the truth of an image. I feel that he has integrity. I believe that his resultant images are both beautiful but also true to the spirit of the experiences that he seeks to capture. What is your assessment?