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The many realities of photography: In defense of Steve McCurry

For the past few weeks, the name Steve McCurry has been all over Facebook as he was on the hot seat for an alleged photo manipulation scandal.

It involves one of his photographs that was recently exhibited in Italy.

McCurry is the world famous photographer who took the iconic photograph of the Afghan Girl which landed on the cover of National Geographic in 1985.

He is a member of National Geographic and the elite group of photographers called the Magnum, an agency founded by icons Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa.

The issue involving McCurry was first raised by the photography blog Petapixel, and they showed a "botched" and altered print of a photo he took in Cuba. In the said photo, a man is shown walking, but his right foot seemed to have disappeared in place of a yellow pole.

McCurry dismissed the accusations as his own fault and said his staff who was left in the studio had something to do with it.

Meeting McCurry

I met McCurry when he was introduced to me by a good friend of mine, Hossein Farmani. Hossein is McCurry's closest friend and owns the Lucie Awards—an annual photography event in New York that honors the achievements of world-renowned photographers. McCurry was one of the past honorees of this award along with Annie Leibovitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Nick Ut, to name a few.


Photographer Steve McCurry at the Lucie Awards in Carnegie Hall, New York. All photos by Ruston Banal


I must admit that I was starstruck during those several days the event was held. McCurry was always there to lend his support, making it possible for me to talk to him about various subjects as I was part of the team of Lucie.

From the photo exhibit somewhere on Canal Street, to the gathering at a private house in Brooklyn, and to the final night of the Lucie event at the Carnegie Hall, McCurry was quite charismatic. He even mentioned spending time in the Philippines when former First Lady Imelda Marcos offered him the use of a personal helicopter for a shooting assignment. 


Photographer Steve McCurry (3rd from left) with the Lucie Awards team headed by Hossein Farmani (2nd from left), Barton Silverman (3rd from right), and Filipino photographer and writer Ruston Banal (rightmost).


Selective process

The latest issue against McCurry makes me wonder why we need to make a judgment based on what is supposed to be real. Why don't we see things from the standpoint of a photographer like McCurry? Why do we judge based on one"botched" photo?

The onset of digital revolution may have changed the process of producing pictures, with output immediately available in pixels. But the fascination to capture moments and immortalize them has been here ever since the camera was invented. And perhaps the only difference is that the production of images on an everyday basis nowadays is spurred on by social networking sites with millions of uploads daily. One thing remains constant though: Photography is a process and the way a picture is constructed depends on the intent of the one who takes the image.

Analyzing another photo of McCurry being questioned, this time of children in Bangladesh running through a swamp, we can ask ourselves: To what extent can a photograph be called "altered" in showing what really transpired? The premise of discourse starts when some elements like the kid at the back were removed using a photo manipulation software. Several photojournalists slammed the idea and generalized that the revelation is a smoking gun, suggesting that every photo McCurry took in the past may have been altered.

In photography, subject and picture will never be the same as the "frozen" picture is an isolated fragment of a certain event with an exaggerated importance and relevance. In a nutshell, the edges of the sensor of the camera demarcated what is only important for the photographer.

This selective process of choosing and eliminating what goes in a photo represents an alternative truth which can never wholly represent an absolute truth as there is another reality beyond what the four edges of the frame shows. McCurry's photo of kids running through a swamp may have been against the ethics in photojournalism. But we must also understand how images are constructed. Visual literacy is not universal as interpretation and explanation of images vary from culture to culture. It's not enough that we know what we see visually and consider ourselves visually literate. 

Perhaps McCurry was telling something beyond our grasp. Perhaps he wanted to tell something that could have happened in a fraction of the moment that could have been very possible. Whatever his intentions, the owner of the photograph is McCurry and he can do anything to it. And I really don't think that any photographer should always be put in a box and define his/her evolution all the time.

Given this context of representation, there is also selective judgment in photojournalism especially in black and white photography. Years ago, when colored photography was not yet available, black and white photography was an accepted form of pictorial representations of reportage or documentary. Even today, a large volume of photos coming from different photo clubs and uploaded on Facebook is about street photography, and most of these photos are rendered in black and white.

I find it difficult to accept that manipulating photos becomes taboo when a world full of color encapsulated in a two-dimensional space of black and white is fine. Truth is eternal. And the real world has always been in color. How can a black and white photo be a basis of truth when pigments of a real scene are rendered in mere shades of grey and black? If we are to generalize alterations, we have to blast all sorts of photographic endeavors. 

Let's take for example my image of Kuraldal in black and white compared to another photograph which is in color. The photos show an event in my hometown in Pampanga.

Photo 1 of Kuraldal is an altered image from colored to black and white.


Photo 1 is an altered image from colored to black and white. In Photo 1, there is the feel of a focal point apparent in the way the composition leads the eye to the subjects which are the people carrying the cross. The choice of black and white is intentional in order to unify elements and express drama, not to mention the symbolism explicit in the whole picture which is basically religious.

Now let's compare Photo 1 to Photo 2.

The latter one lacks the attention emanating from Photo 1. Aside from the fact that plenty of elements distract, the focal point is spread out.

But Photo 2 is closer to the truth as the frame captures what people naturally do at the event. Unlike in Photo 1 where things were selected and exaggerated for significance, in Photo 2, the atmosphere is shown and you can actually feel as if you are attending the event.


Photo 2 of the same event, Kuraldal, is closer to the truth.


Photography under the disciplines of art history is very new; it is less than two centuries old. Compared to other forms of art that have shaped our understanding on how ancient people express themselves in visual forms throughout history, photography is still in a constant struggle to find its absolute niche as a form of expression and representations of facts.

Maybe McCurry made a mistake in not delineating the line between his photojournalism work and his fine arts (self-expression) work. But McCurry refers to himself now as a storyteller, thereby defining the evolution of his work. Art evolves that is why it continues to exist. And beyond being a photojournalist for the longest time, McCurry is also an artist. And no one can "alter" that. —KG, GMA News

Ruston Banal finished his art history degree at the UP College of Fine Arts Department of Art Theory and is currently taking his MFA at the same university. He teaches photography and art history courses in different universities in the Philippines.