ETHICS MATTERS: A commentary from NPPA’s Ethics Committee regarding the photographs of Steve McCurry

By Steve Raymer

It has been a difficult spring for Steve McCurry, one of the most gifted and widely published photojournalists of the past 40 years. Revelations that a fine art print by the celebrated Magnum photographer and National Geographic contributor was digitally manipulated for an Italian photography exhibition have triggered a troubling reexamination of McCurry’s storied 40-year career. 

Magnum Photos has removed several of McCurry’s images from its Web site after online sleuths found they didn’t jibe with the same pictures posted on McCurry’s own site. In one instance, a Facebook user discovered a McCurry image from South Asia in which two people, two carts, and a light pole seem to have been removed from the original street scene, according to PetaPixel, an online photographic blog.

National Geographic has done its own forensic examination of images that McCurry, or one of his assistants, posted to the Society’s Instagram account. National Geographic spokesperson Anna Kukelhaus says two of McCurry images violated Society’s standards for image enhancement and have since been deleted. McCurry’s studio in New York assisted in the investigation. 

Separately, New York Times photography critic Teju Cole has labeled McCurry’s work in South Asia, and a new book of some 150 unpublished images taken over 40 years in India, “boring” and nostalgic for an earlier time during the British Raj. Cole suggests McCurry’s photographs of India are popular - he has more than a million Instagram followers - “because they evoke an earlier time in Indian history, as well as old ideas of what photographs of Indians should look like, what the accouterments of their lives should be: umbrellas, looms, sewing machines; not laptops, wireless printers, escalators.”

Repeated attempts to reach McCurry through his private email and his New York assistant have gone unanswered, as have emails to McCurry’s editors at Magnum Photos in New York. McCurry’s sister, Bonnie McCurry V'Soske, the president of Steve McCurry Studios, LLC, would only say that the photographer is traveling overseas and not checking email.

A photographic icon and economic powerhouse, McCurry has published 14 illustrated books, sells fine art prints, mounts exhibitions, and is in constant demand as a speaker. He has been closely associated with National Geographic since the early 1980’s, when he started taking freelance assignments after working on Today’s Post in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and traveling in India. National Geographic describes McCurry as “best known for his evocative color photography. In the finest documentary tradition, McCurry captures the essence of human struggle and joy.”

McCurry is perhaps best known for making one of the most iconic and widely published images of the 20th century - his portrait of an Afghan refugee girl published in National Geographic in June 1985. McCurry won the Overseas Press Club’s Robert Capa Gold Medal Award for the Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad in 1980 for his Time Magazine coverage of Afghanistan under Soviet occupation. He also was named NPPA’s Magazine Photographer of the Year in 1984 and has received numerous awards from World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year International, and an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. 

However, the blistering New York Times critique in March and recent revelations of digital manipulation, which McCurry blames on a low-level assistant in his New York studio, has unleashed a storm of invective, most of it on the Internet. McCurry life’s work has been vilified in the most personal way as set-up, staged, and akin to wallpaper, while his vision of India and other developing countries has been called “imperialist” and lacking empathy and understanding of the poor. McCurry’s defenders include former National Geographic editors and photographers and Magnum contributor Peter van Agtmael, who posted a provocative piece on the Lightbox Web site, saying, “There were a lot of loaded words like ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ being thrown around (at McCurry). I don’t really believe in these words. I’ve never met two people with the same truth.”

In his defense, McCurry told PetaPixel that “like other artists, my career has gone through many stages,” which presumably includes photojournalism – given his coverage of conflicts in Lebanon, Cambodia, the Philippines, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and the First Persian Gulf War. But McCurry now calls his work “‘visual storytelling,’ because the pictures have been shot in many places, for many reasons, and in many situations … My photography is my art.” McCurry has made four personal trips to Cuba in recent years, and an image from a 2014 trip is part of the online examination of his work that discovered a crude attempt at digitally moving a traffic sign. 

McCurry also said he has fired an errant lab assistant whom he blames for the botched manipulation of the print in the Italian exhibition, and “taken steps to change procedures at my studio, which will prevent something like this from happening again.”

But distancing himself from photojournalism, on which McCurry has built his career, may not be as easy as issuing a press release and calling himself a fine art photographer. 

NPPA Ethics Committee chairman Sean D. Elliot says that no matter what McCurry calls himself today, “He bears the responsibility to uphold the ethical standards of his peers and the public, who see him as a photojournalist.” Elliot, the chief photojournalist and assignment editor for The Day in New London, Connecticut, says this means that “Any alteration of the journalistic truth of his images, any manipulation of the facts, regardless of how relevant he or others might feel they are to the deeper ‘truth,’ constitutes an ethical lapse.” Elliot also called McCurry’s attempt to blame an assistant “disingenuous” and questions the professional standards of a studio in which a lab assistant “feels they have the authority to radically alter the work of Steve McCurry.” 

Former National Geographic director of photography Kent Kobersteen goes even further, saying the “All too perfect image, to me, is unbelievable,” and that images that are less than perfect have a “greater degree of credibility.” A long-time National Geographic picture editor before assuming the top photographic job at National Geographic magazine, Kobertsteen says there are a number of well-known photographers who admit they manipulate pictures for advertising, books and exhibitions. “These same photographers maintain that they do not manipulate their journalistic images,” he says. “To my mind, such an admission taints ALL of that photographer's images, and makes that photographer someone that I would not assign.”

For many media professionals and academics, the controversy raises the larger issue: how can photojournalists navigate the world of fine art photography transparently, making clear to book buyers and gallery audiences the aesthetic impulses that drive their work? For some it may be a clear admission that their journalistic work has been altered and that their images are not a literal rendering of reality. For others it may be working in an entirely new genre of photography. 

For example, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Hume Kennerly published a book in 2014 of images, anecdotes, and tips using his Apple iPhone. Similarly, long-time National Geographic contributor Jim Richardson has exhibited images from a hike across Scotland, from Edinburgh to the country’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, during which he only used his Apple iPhone 5s. 

Tom Kennedy, another former National Geographic director of photography and now executive director of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), says he is not surprised the issue of photojournalists moving into the fine art arena is becoming an issue. “To make a middle class living,” says Kennedy, “a creative person has to wear more than one hat and work in areas that go beyond his or her original aesthetic motivation for making images. Steve (McCurry) falls in that category.”

For Kennedy and other editors, the issue is one of transparency. “If one is presenting photojournalism as art and asking people to evaluate it using the same criteria as applied to expression in print or broadcast or digital journalism media,” Kennedy says, “then any manipulation that alters the fundamental scene beyond customary color adjustments or toning is unacceptable.” For Kennedy, “The confusion is when photojournalism is expressed to the audience as art and the audience is asked to consider the photograph as the most truthful depiction of reality possible … but the image is then altered in a way that is fundamental such as removing people or objects.”

Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael, one of McCurry’s ardent supporters, agrees that “Any photographer working predominantly in a photojournalistic context needs to be rigidly transparent about digital manipulation.” Writing on the Web site, van Agtmael says “I don’t take issue with most forms of manipulation, but deception isn’t acceptable.”

The larger issue here, of course, is the nature of journalism - it is unlicensed, there is no body of knowledge to be professed or practiced, there are no governing organizations or norms, and unlike other professionals, journalists are focused, at least ideally, on being loyal to the truth, the public, and a functioning democracy, not a client, a patient, or a company. Anyone can call themselves a journalist if they get their pictures published. But a professional journalist, by contrast, holds himself or herself to ideals that are morally permissible in ways beyond - the key word - what the law, the market, morality, and public opinion would otherwise require. Being a journalist today is no longer defined by whom you work for, but how you work. Or at least this is what I tell students.

“When a person works as a journalist,” says professor emeritus Terry Eiler of Ohio University, who is the chairman of the NPPA Best of Photojournalism contest, “they are required to work under the constraints of journalism. Those same constraints are not expected of anthropologists, street photographers or artists.”

But putting theory into practice is not always clear-cut. As a long-time colleague of McCurry’s at National Geographic and, more recently, a professor who has authored five books of documentary photography, I have struggled with creating images for sale as exhibition prints and how to ensure that gallery-goers and buyers understood my esthetic motivation for an alteration - to create a work of beauty that goes beyond the strict limitations of journalism. Some years ago, for a retrospective exhibition, I reluctantly okayed a National Geographic printer removing a telephone wire from a street scene of St. Petersburg, Russia, that had been published double-page with the less aesthetically pleasing wire clearly visible. I wrote in the exhibition catalogue that several images were digitally altered to enhance their aesthetic appeal, but by today’s standards this seems insufficient. Indeed, altering a work of photojournalism intended to portray a universally understood moment, or to inform some segment of society, or to expose a social evil, or to document something for history now seems difficult to justify without greater transparency. Perhaps the answer lies in creating a new context for a photographer’s work that emphatically calls digitally altered images “The Art of ….” 

ASMP’s Kennedy says he is not surprised that photojournalists crossing into fine art photography is “emerging as an area of potential controversy” as photographers struggle with creating images “in very different contexts for very different purposes.” As newspapers have shed some 50 percent of their staffs in the last decade, increasing numbers of photojournalists find themselves freelancing and trying to earn enough money to live something approaching a middle class lifestyle - a home mortgage, children in college, the occasional vacation. “Art serves a different function from journalism,” says Kennedy, “and gives far great latitude for artistic expression.”

In the meantime, the McCurry controversy also has drawn attention to the subjectivity of all photography, photojournalism included. There is the subjectivity of the viewfinder - what is left in and what is left out of the picture is an emphatic decision made by the photographer. There is the old aphorism that says no two photographers will ever see the same subject in the same way. 

“Robert Frank, Gary Winograd, and Lee Freelander do not share the same vision,” says Ohio University’s Eiler, “And yet they were all cast as documentary photographers and artists.” 

The NPPA Code of Ethics insists that photographs maintain the integrity of an image’s context and content. It 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.”

Yet how can photographers, their editors, readers, viewers, and Internet clickers square this circle in the 21st century? One photographer, for example, can go to the City of London, Britain’s financial district, and seek out the millionaire “one percent” class with its over-the-top salaries and high-flying ways, while a second goes to the same place and finds his or her visual truth in the architecture, elegance, history of ancient London. Which photographer has found the proper un-manipulated context?

Writing about the McCurry image manipulation controversy on the F-Stoppers Web site, Cleveland editor and photographer Alex Cooke calls that part of the NPPA Code of Ethics  “problematic.” 

Photography, Cooke writes, is a frozen slice of an otherwise continuous world and therefore lacks "context." In his view - and in the opinion of many of McCurry’s supporters - there will never be any agreement of what constitutes acceptable context or manipulation. 

Certainly McCurry’s critics have used this controversy to damn him for taking a rose-color view of the developing world that lacks an understanding of contemporary context - more computers, clogged freeways, and crowded universities - and fewer portraits of old-timers with a dyed beard and doe-eyed children in colorful tribal head scarfs, observed New York Times’ photography critic Cole. 

What is certain, says ASMP’s Kennedy, is that social media is “the devil’s playground when it comes to libel and slander” of an otherwise distinguished photojournalist who has repeatedly risked his life to bring to the public some of the most compelling images of recent conflicts and humanitarian crises. But the microscopic examination of McCurry’s otherwise exemplary journalism will continue. 

And it’s fair to note that in the last 10 years, several high-profile newspaper photojournalists have been fired for transgressions lesser than McCurry’s.

Meantime, Ohio University’s Eiler cautions that “it seems unfair to apply 2016 ethics and journalistic standards to images made four decades ago.” 

Most of us might not pass that test.


Steve Raymer is a professor emeritus of the Media School at Indiana University and a former NPPA Magazine Photographer of the Year, recognized for his coverage of global hunger.