Eyes of the Afghan Girl: A Critical Take on the ‘Steve McCurry Scandal’
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… at least 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 the PetaPixel article:
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.
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.
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 writes:
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 traveling across India by rail:
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.
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 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 in fact 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.
It was published with the following misleading caption:
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 defense 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 traveling 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 favor 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,” he told TIME. “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.”
One must surely argue that by merely categorizing 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.
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 that was 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.
In fact, 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. (click image to see in full size)
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.
Interestingly though, the glare/muck is back in the version printed by NatGeo in the 100 Best Pictures commemorative issue.
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 traveling and is difficult to reach, we will publish a follow up with his responses on these questions as soon as he becomes available.
About the author: Kshitij Nagar is an independent photographer and videographer based in New Delhi, India. He’s also the Editor in Chief of the photography blog Writing Through Light. You can follow him on Twitter at @kshitijnagar. This article was also published here.