Steve McCurry in 2015: 'You Should Have No Adjustments in Terms of Photoshop'

The recent controversy surrounding Steve McCurry and his use of Photoshop has raised both questions relating to his past work and broader questions of representation in photography. Though an increasing number of images showing evidence of cloning and other manipulations have been uncovered, recently, two videos have surfaced that raise further questions.

The above video is a TEDx interview of Mr. McCurry from 2015. At the 7:00 mark, the interviewer asks him his stance on Photoshop, to which he replies:

I believe that the picture should reflect exactly what you saw and experienced when you took the picture. I don't think you should have any adjustments in terms of Photoshop — kind of garish colors. I want to just capture life as it is without really interfering, and I want it to reflect reality, actually.

While we can continue to debate both McCurry's status as a photojournalist or "visual storyteller" (as he puts it) and how his past dictates his need to clearly categorize his work for his audience, it's a thought-provoking quote, regardless of where you stand on the issue. He even goes so far as to call it an "ethical line" and mentions that one can consult any major news organization's guidelines as to where to draw said line in the video below (32:30 mark):

​For me, the fact that McCurry took these stances so recently (2015 and 2013 respectively) reinvigorated the thought of intention. Were we supposed to perceive the images he was producing as faithful (in the journalistic sense) to reality? That certainly seems to be the message behind his words, and yet, we have an increasing collection of images that deviate from that message. For me, one issue that particularly stands out is that his audience in both videos likely consists largely of photographers. If the claim is made that manipulations aren't being used when they actually are, it's a tremendous disservice to those who aspire to be like him, as it will leave them wondering why they can never attain that level of capturing "reality."

If we even allow that he is a "visual storyteller" and thus allowed to do whatever he pleases, how do you reconcile the dissonance between his words and apparent actions? What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments. 

Note: Thank you to Rick Johnston for bringing these videos to my attention.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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Still going with this witch hunt?

Prominence does not grant immunity from questioning, particularly when there is strong evidence to the contrary and aspiring people in a field look to that person. Lance Armstrong is a prime example.

I get that, but continuing to put out articles after the issue has been addressed by Mccurry himself seems attacking.

I would agree if we were to take his words at face value, but when new evidence directly contradicts them, I think it warrants further discussion. Let me be clear that I'm not engaging in a witch hunt or seeking to attack Mr. McCurry, whose work I still admire, else my writing would have a very different tone. I'm simply presenting new evidence and how it affects my thoughts and then asking for your thoughts in return to further what I feel is an important discussion. That's why I specifically asked for everyone's opinion, and I would sill value hearing yours.

It's not addressed... He is stilling hiding the truth...

Witch hunt is a bit strong....

However just about every profession in North America insists upon a certain amount of truthfulness and disclosure. I think when we see someone who is revered in an industry saying one thing and doing another, some people will feel like the playing field really isn't as level as it should be. He has made significant income with his work, I don't think it's out of line to ask if an image(s) has been altered outside of the usual cropping and sharpening. Photojournalism is different from producing an "entertainment" body of work, which he says he's doing now. The latter allows incredible freedom to edit images to fit his vision and fit together. But....should be honest about it. And all the shuckin' and jivin' has left a bad taste in the mouths of many...hence people just can't seem to let it go.

The keyword here being "...should be honest about it".

is this considered as public shaming?

I don't think so. I'd call it investigating carefully to find the truth about something that is important to many photographers.

His photographs are still wonderful works. And all photographers aspire to turn out images as strong as his. However, if he is economical with the truth then we cannot believe his shots are genuine in the photojournalist sense. As an advertising or PR photographer his work is outstanding.

I have to say that like most other people I am disappointed, as I looked up the Steve as an example of where I wanted to be. To work in tough conditions and to still turn out outstanding images. However when you look at today, tennis superstar Maria Sharapova has been banned for two years after failing a drugs test, VW is facing a huge bill to rectify cars that are not as green as they should be, cheating happens.

The big question is how do you stop it?

"To work in tough conditions and to still turn out outstanding images." That's exactly where it lies for me: being realistic about what's possible so those that look up to that person know what they're aspiring toward and what their relative capabilities are.

What will come to pass by hammering on this photographer? Will anything change? No. We all make mistakes, time to move on.

Even if nothing changes with this specific photographer, it's prudent to discuss such issues and examples as they shape the future of our industry.

I get why you guys keep writing about this but how about something new and exciting instead of a witch hunt. This has been talked to death, what else is there to say?

I think new evidence that illuminates both intentions and practice is relevant. I would be interested in your take on the questions I presented.

T C did someone have a gun pointed at your head, forcing you to read the article and then comment on it? The contents of this article can hardly have been a surprise to you, given the headline.

FStoppers publish many articles every single day - if the Steve McCurry topic isn't "new and exciting" to you, then you should have clicked on another article that you might find new and exciting, not this one.

Let's face it, journalism is dead. Just look at the elections and their coverage. The two things you should take away from the McCurry situation are A) journalism can no longer be trusted, and B) McCurry is utterly lousy at Photoshop...

It is sadly ominous.

It is sadly ominous.

The TedEx quote makes it painfully obvious, that he has a questionable moral about his work. Basicly he is lying. And yes, that does matter in his line of work. And no, I don´t think the debate is over yet, as new info keeps popping up.

Agreed, I think there are still both questions of intention and of where the bar of photojournalistic excellence (in terms of photographic quality) really is, seeing as McCurry himself frequently set that bar, and it's something many photographers aspire to.

Wow, how long can this BS go on for? Who cares???
How about you guys focus on writing articles that are no click bait and not about Steve McCurry for a change?

I totally understand it is still a relevant issue because people are still talking about it. I still cant help but wish this wasn't a story. From looking at the comments on here I don't think I'm the only one either.

I agree - this is a really sad and disappointing story.

I'm glad it is generally being told in a responsible way within the photographic community, via articles such as this one. Discussing carefully, checking and referencing facts, and avoiding revelling in someone else's fall from grace or any character assassinations.

I hope this largely responsible type of discussion continues, especially as people go through the anger stage of grief about their fallen hero, which will naturally occur in time.

Hey, Alex. Not only did McCurry's brief statement do nothing to dispel the idea that he has been misrepresenting himself for years upon years - there indeed continues to be new evidence mounting that he has flat out lied about the way in which he conducts his work.

As he is such a seminal photographer, I can't think of a more important topic that should be dragged out into the open and discussed. What we need to do right now is establish and talk about what we're okay with.

The fact is, the field of photojournalism (and magazines like Nat Geo), have strict guidelines about the work photographers do - and McCurry appears to have broken them. It's flat out appalling and for many of us who consider him a hero - it's infuriating and heartbreaking. This is not the time to back down due to his legacy. It's the time to make clear what's acceptable and what's not.

If the latest rumours of not only his image manipulation, but his 'image setups' are true - he has got a lot to answer for. And we all deserve those answers.

I completely agree; it needs to be discussed both for the sake of this specific situation and for the sake of photography as a whole, particularly as new evidence continues to trickle out. If the bar has been set artificially high, then at the very least, I simply want to know where the bar truly is, so I know where I stand.

I am glad you are looking into this. It isn't a witch hunt. How many people calling it a witch hunt have been admirers for years? How many also believe that NG was holding their own to a standard that was similar if not the same as a news wire bureau? It's a question of ethics and I think the conversations and dialogue this whole series of articles on multiple sites are good. Conversations about standards and practices are good.

I think it's very important to always be ready to have a conversation about standards and practices; it's the kind of thing that guides how we operate, but can very easily slip away from us if we don't keep our finger on the pulse, e.g. politics.

Interesting to see so many people in denial when one of their heroes has been exposed. Of course it is a big deal worth discussing, because Steve McCurry was a big deal. Just like the Lance Armstrong story was a big deal.

No doubting that Lance Armstrong was a fast cyclist, just as Steve McCurry made some terrific images. But, just like with Armstrong, the real truth about how McCurry achieved his seemingly incredible feats has come back to bite him.

And, just like with Armstrong, the cries of "witch hunt" will, in time, be replaced with sadness and disgust by those who initially had trouble accepting their former hero wasn't all he was cracked up to be.

I don't find his images any less spectacular of their own accord. But yes, it's how they were made that is in question here, and that's an extremely important question, as you've pointed out.

I agree - both Lance Armstrong's and Steve McCurry's feats are spectacular by any measure. Armstrong had great times riding up huge mountains and McCurry made some terrific images. Nothing will ever change that.

One of the things we most admired about both of them was that we believed they achieved those feats in a particular way. They deliberately communicated to us that they achieved the feats in a natural, organic way, knowing this heightened our admiration of them to a level above their peers.

Unfortunately, this admiration, this thing that separated their achievements from others' achievements, was proven unfounded.

It is the disappointment of this realisaton that I think many of the "witch hunt" commenters are trying desperately to avoid.

Yes, exactly. It's not about what they did, but how they did it, and more so, as you note, how they represented how they did it. As you note, disappointment is a powerful motivator, but at the end of the day, I'd much rather have the truth.


I think that since a camera does not perceive the world the same way the human eye does it is near impossible to not have to modify a photo to render a similarity to what the photographer remembers seeing. If photo-god hero Ansel Adams couldn't portray most scenes without dodging and burning negatives, then I cannot imagine most photographers not doing the same basic level adjustments in photo editing software. When it comes to making large scale changes in photos to remove distracting elements, or other changes to heighten emotion or content and cover up the fact you did it after holding the photography community to a higher standard that you yourself do not adhere to? I cannot think why anyone serious about photography, or even felt a connection to the photos this man created would not feel deceived, or at least a bit suspicious for now on about photojournalist ethics and whether a photo is genuine or not.

Come on already, this man has taken tens of thousands of brilliant images that none of us can ever imagine being able to even come close to to shooting, and probably never will. A few were altered, big freaking deal. Enough already. He's a master, but he's also human.

Really a "Master'? Calls into question his entire body of work, I think. Did he achieve his 'Master' status with loose moral,s his entire career or is this a recent 'discovery'? Did he feel so pressured to be the "Master' you think he is to fall to the dark-side?
I live in the world with a forgive, but never forget attitude. From some of the supporting comments here people would do well to remember that themselves. YMMV

The title of this story is misleading – without the four other words completing the quoted partial sentence. Even though the entire sentence is in the article - the title has already misled. But, moving on…

Does the camera accurately record what you saw and experienced when the shot was taken?

Quite often the camera has not captured what I saw and experienced, The camera has manipulated the scene being photographed. It takes a 3 dimensional scene and produces a 2 dimension image, there may be lens distortions, color differences, and almost invariably there are highlight and shadow differences. Also the camera records everything – while my eyes and mind may focus on what is of interest to me at the moment, the camera records even minor distractions that I may not have noticed.

If I manipulate the captured image to reflect what I saw and experienced, which is more accurate and ethically correct - what the camera captured, or what I saw and produced?

If photography is all about the most accurate and ethically image being what the camera has captured, then why RAW or any post processing software? Hence the reasons there are photojournalistic standards for photojournalism photography - but they only apply to this genre of photography. Maybe it is too complicated for some to understand that a photojournalist could also produce other photography genre.

The "...kind of garish colors" was an example of Photoshop usage, not the sole thing he was referring to.