We all want to believe what we see in a photograph. A photograph represents a reality and it represents an actual capture of a real moment. We want it to be reliable, genuine, and accurate. This is of high importance when it comes to news and accuracy because the public has a need to know and no one wants to feel duped by falsified evidence. It has to be authentic and the origins have to feel as real as possible.
This is where the case of the Steve McCurry controversy comes into play. After a photographer named Paolo Vigilione posted a blog about one of his photos being photo shopped, then all of his other photographs were surfacing with evidence proving it was a misrepresentation of true events. Vigilione went to an exhibition of McCurry’s work in Italy and noticed a difference between the work exhibited and what McCurry posted on his blog. The trigger was pulled on a photograph from Cuba, where a passing figure in the background fades into the steps behind it.
McCurry did make a statement to the editing of this photograph and others, but what is interesting that his post processing is done by his team in his studio. He claimed to not have supervised or checked the photos after posting them.
“I try to be as involved as much as I can in reviewing and supervising the printing of my work, but many times the prints are printed and shipped when I am away. That is what happened in this case. It goes without saying that what happened with this image was a mistake for which I have to take responsibility.”
After the controversy unfolded, all of the questionable photos disappeared from his blog as well as the article that Vigilione posted about the above photo. Is it possible to make something authentic if we erase the evidence? Can the Public and his devoted fans forgive him for altering a reality? It sure looks like that way, because none of his exhibitions have been canceled. One of his exhibitions opened at Galerie Got Montreal in Montreal, Quebec. This marks a milestone for him because this is his first Canadian exhibition and it opened shortly after the controversy developed. The photos that are displayed at the exhibition are the edited versions; but without his blog postings, it is difficult to compare the extent of McCurry’s post-processing.
When looking at the code of ethics for visual journalists where it reads “we have the responsibility to document society and to preserve its history through images”, that is where the concern stems from. Is McCurry a visual journalist, or just a photographer? This distinction is important when it comes to the authenticity of his images. He has been criticized for depicting South Asian countries as stereotypical exotic and poverty-stricken which is supposed to appeal to a Western audience. Take, for example, how India appears mysterious in his photos by showcasing traditional customs and clothing. Sure, he documents what the Western ideal of India should look like, but what about other cultural aspects of India—the modern India, if you will. Modernization and globalization in a country can be interesting and thought-provoking in photographs as well as the traditional elements.
What it really comes down to is what do we deem as an authentic image and how that image portrays our version of the perceived reality. If our perception downplays progression of a country or romanticizes the unknown, then it will affect how we choose to see authenticity in a photograph.