Recently, one of the most well-known photographers in history was caught in a Photoshop scandal. Naturally, this begs the question: where is the line between truth and manufactured reality in photography?
Steve McCurry needs little introduction. He's an absolute master of the craft. His famous photo, "Afghan Girl," was named the most recognizable image in the history of National Geographic. He has won the Robert Capa Gold Medal. Kodak asked him to shoot the last roll of Kodachrome ever produced. He's had the career of 50 photographers.
And so, it was inarguably strange when recently, an Italian photographer, Paolo Viglione, noted a rather obvious digital manipulation in one of McCurry's prints at a show in Italy.
Clearly, the sign was moved, else it would have blocked the man seen next to it, arguably detracting from the balance of the composition. There are also other issues, such as the bricks making up the columns of the building not aligning properly, while the column on the right actually overlaps with the frame of the car in the foreground. In a statement given to PetaPixel, McCurry noted that much of his recent work was shot for "[his] own enjoyment," and he would define his work today as "visual storytelling." Regarding this specific error, he attributed it to a mishap in his studio while he was away and noted that changes had been made to prevent such an event from occurring again. In the meantime, other people quickly found such manipulations in other photos, though these have yet to be addressed.
The problem, of course, is not that the manipulations were made. We manipulate photos all the time, often to the extreme. Anyone who claims not to manipulate photos is either lying or giving away their raws. We must remember that anything, anything at all, that modifies a capture in a way that makes it less faithful to reality is a manipulation. Is cloning a sign to a different location in the photo a manipulation? Yes. How about dodging and burning? How about just a global contrast adjustment or a slight saturation boost? How about even something as simple as an exposure adjustment? I would put it to you that in every one of these cases, the answer is: yes, it's a manipulation.
What Is Real?
So then, the logical extreme is that a straight-out-of-camera image is the only true representation of reality, yes? Not a chance. The way a camera represents color, its dynamic range, etc. — all of these parameters differ from those of the human eye. In fact, the human eye works less like a camera than you think. So, arguably, the only real way to get an accurate representation of reality would be to edit a shot to be exactly as the eye saw it. But then, we'd be relying on memory, which introduces its own biases. Then, you might argue, one must edit in real-time, by getting the camera settings just right to create an image that exactly mimics reality at the scene, so they could check the results on the back LCD against the actual reality before them. Would that finally be a real image, devoid of manipulation, representative of the true existence that lies before the photographer's eyes? Of course not. What your eyes see is not what another's eyes see. Physical variations mean we all see the world a little differently: my yellow is not your yellow. Vision itself is not real; it's not a tangible thing. One cannot point to something and say, "this is vision." It's merely a process; it's our brains' representation of chemical reactions to a very narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum. What about all those wavelengths we don't see? What if Descartes' Demon is real? There is no absolute image; nothing is the "real."
Now that I've gotten that unintentionally nihilistic-sounding aside out of the way, we have to redefine the term "manipulation," because there are no manipulations if there are no absolutes. It seems, rather, that we wish to define a widely understood definition of "manipulation" that captures an essence of intention, rather than visual qualities, but the problem is that we can't infer intentions with certainty, so we must resort to those visual qualities. Part of the NPPA Code of the Ethics states:
While photographing subjects, do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events. Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images' content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound [referring also to video] in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.
It seems straightforward enough, until you dig deeper into it. What is the "integrity" of an image? As we just saw, "manipulate" is a dangerous word. But as you can see, the admonishment ends with an essence of intention: don't "mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects." But we do that before we even snap a picture. When you put on a telephoto lens, you're deliberately excluding content from an image to funnel attention to a subject. Is this misleading a viewer? And what of "content" and "context?" What is the context of an image? Is it the immediate environment around the subject? If I take a photo of a homeless man, what is the context of the image? Well, if I'm trying to represent poverty, surely, it's the surroundings he lives in. Should I stop there? Perhaps, if by institutional failings, he has been brought to this place in life, the context is the city whose laws and lack of support system put him there. But perhaps that city requested federal funding for such programs and was denied it. Is the context then the entire country? What is the "context," the sum total of that which brought that which could be to be that which is? Photography, by its very nature as a frozen slice of an otherwise temporally continuous world, lacks "context." Richard Feynman was a master at deconstructing the idea of the absolute:
What Do We Accept?
So, if we acknowledge that there is no absolute, the best we can hope to achieve is an agreed upon set of standards that constitute the "manipulation" merely by majority or by authority. The NPPA's definition is problematic; so, let's look for a set of rules that outlines specific techniques that are disallowed. Here's what the Associated Press has to say:
The content of a photograph must not be altered in Photoshop or by any other means. No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph. The faces or identities of individuals must not be obscured by Photoshop or any other editing tool. Only retouching or the use of the cloning tool to eliminate dust on camera sensors and scratches on scanned negatives or scanned prints are acceptable.
Minor adjustments in Photoshop are acceptable. These include cropping, dodging and burning, conversion into grayscale, and normal toning and color adjustments that should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction (analogous to the burning and dodging previously used in darkroom processing of images) and that restore the authentic nature of the photograph. Changes in density, contrast, color and saturation levels that substantially alter the original scene are not acceptable. Backgrounds should not be digitally blurred or eliminated by burning down or by aggressive toning. The removal of 'red eye' from photographs is not permissible.
Though still problematic, this is better. But again, we can ask, what constitutes "normal" or "authentic"? When does toning become "aggressive"? You may accuse me of pedantry, but I would put it to you that the inherent nebulousness in these definitions is the same sort of nebulousness over which laws are fought over or philosophies fall; one need only examine legislature to see how difficult these issues can be. Nevertheless, let us focus on the first paragraph, as it's more pertinent to the specific case at hand and arguably more readily graspable
"Only retouching or the use of the cloning tool to eliminate dust on camera sensors and scratches on scanned negatives or scanned prints are acceptable." There it is. We needed to move away from intention and simply present our "frame of truth" upon which rests the realm of what is a manipulation and what is not. So, did McCurry manipulate the images? Yes, if you accept the AP standard.
There's only one issue, however. McCurry defines his work as "visual storytelling," the implication being that he has moved away from strict photojournalism into a realm of fine art. Well, in that case, he's not subject to the above guidelines, unless he was working in a photojournalistic capacity, which does not seem to be the case here. Savvy readers have noted other cases of these manipulations, though as mentioned, McCurry has yet to respond to them specifically.
The problem then is one of expectation. McCurry has a reputation as a photojournalist, and that reputation begets the expectation that his work follows the commonly agreed upon standards of photojournalism. The question remains, however: is that his issue or ours? Is he somehow bound to follow those guidelines or at least make it abundantly clear when he doesn't? Or is his work truly "his" and thus bound only to the conventions he subjects himself to?
Furthermore, in this case, he has noted that the mistake was an issue at his studio, implying that he was unaware of it and would not have approved of it if he had been.
So then, we have to ask ourselves just what it is we're asking of Mr. McCurry before we assert that he violated it. We even have to ask ourselves if we have the right to ask those questions. If he is not working in a photojournalistic capacity, is he obligated by some imperative, moral or otherwise, to follow photojournalism standards simply by virtue of his reputation? If he had started a separate company called "McCurry Fine Art Images" and this work had fallen under that umbrella, would he then be justified? Should he even be held responsible, since he asserts that the error was not his and that he was unaware of it? Do we have the right to hold him to those standards? If so, what is the obligation that makes Steve McCurry beholden to his audience?
I don't claim to have the answers to these questions. I certainly have opinions on them, but I'm reticent with regards to such matters, as the ability to cross from opinion to assertion requires a certain amount of authority, and certainly, I do not claim to have the photojournalistic authority that a person such as Steve McCurry has. Nevertheless, he presented these images for an audience — an audience that now claims to be affronted by the manner in which the photos were presented. And thus, they, as an audience, should have a say in the matter of the implicit contract between them and the performer on the proverbial stage. So, I put it to you: what are the answers to the above questions? What is right in photography? What is truth?