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The Role of Standards in Photography

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Published: Mon, 18 Sep 2017

 Tian Xing (Bill) He

Steve McCurry is a world-famous photographer who rose to prominence after his “Afghan Girl” photograph appeared on the cover of National Geographic back in 1985. The photo has been called “one of the iconic images of the 20th century” (Cole, 971) and “arguably the most famous ever taken by a news photographer” (Letzter). His previous photojournalistic efforts won him a Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1980 for documenting the Soviet-Afghan War. In fact, he’s one of the most-awarded photojournalists ever, and is also a member of the prestigious Magnum Photos international photographic cooperative. Given his superstar status, when reports in the media revealed some of his photographs had been digitally manipulated, a firestorm of outrage spread quickly throughout the photojournalistic community. The controversy started a fascinating debate about the role of objectivity, truth, integrity and ethics in photography. Should any of these concepts be applied to photography? If so, when and why?

Some argue that trying to apply words like “objectivity” and “truth” to photography is futile because the very act of taking a photograph is inherently subjective. Photographers make all kinds of decisions when they go about capturing a moment using their cameras: “Style, lens choice, position, what to show and what to exclude in the framing, editing equipment choice, toning, sequence are all manipulative and subjective” (Agtmael). And yet when photography is intended for journalistic reporting, there is an expectation that it will “objectively” represent the moment captured. In light of the recent focus on “fake news” and “alternative facts,” ethical standards for photojournalism are perhaps more important than ever. Excerpts from the Associated Press Code of Ethics for Photojournalists is relevant:

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 (qtd. in Cooke).

There is still a question, however, whether or not McCurry should rightfully be held to these kinds of standards. None of the photos identified as manipulated were produced for photojournalistic purposes. Does the mere fact that he built his reputation in photojournalism mean he must forever be held to such standards? Is he not allowed to engage in a more artistic photography? McCurry’s own response to the controversy was to say, “Today I would define my work as visual storytelling, because the pictures have been shot in many places, for many reasons, and in many situations” (qtd. in Letzter). But he also went on to say the manipulations occurred in his studio without his approval and were mistakes. McCurry himself seems to be on the fence about his position; excusing himself from photojournalistic standards while still offering a mea culpa.

While it seems reasonable to relieve McCurry from being held hostage by photojournalistic codes of ethics for non-photojournalistic photography, his own positioning of his work as visual storytelling deserves further consideration, for even this aspect of his work has been roundly criticized as lacking integrity. In “A Too-Perfect Picture,” Teju Cole compares the Indian culture photography of McCurry with that of Raghubir Singh and finds McCurry’s work deficient.

McCurry’s series of Indian photographs from 1978 to 2012 aimed to evoke an “earlier time in Indian history, as well as old ideas of what photographs of Indians should look like” (Cole, 972). Based on this statement, one might be led to believe that McCurry is genuinely interested in documenting Indian culture and presenting it authentically in photographs, but Cole makes a case to the contrary. He considers McCurry’s style as one that so compromises photography as to render his work “astonishingly boring” (Cole, 971). Cole insists that what makes a nation unique is a combination of its traditions, customs, history, and how these elements mesh together with the present. Therefore, McCurry provides the spectator with a completely mythologized history of culture, as if it has been violently broken off from the present. McCurry’s consideration of “a place largely from the perspective of a permanent anthological past… [is] fantasy” (Cole, 972). McCurry’s methods are therefore dull because they repackage old ideas as if they are exotic and distant, which aside from dull, is wholly inaccurate. Cole even compares McCurry’s vision of “peacocks, holy men, painted children, and incense” to Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend” music video; he describes it as a “colorful backdrop to the fantasies of Western visitors” (Cole, 974). Cole then argues that McCurry and other Western photographers seem to paint the picture they want to see, not what is actually there, and uses fantasy as a way to make exotic something that is still very real and present in these respective societies.

When Cole evaluates Singh’s work, he holds it up as an exemplar of what photographers shoulddo. As he writes,

[Singh’s] work shares formal content with McCurry’s: the subcontinental terrain, the eye-popping color, the human presence…Singh gives [his audience] photographs charged with life: not only beautiful experiences or painful scenes but also those in-between moments of drift that make up most of our days (Cole, 972).

Because of this style, Cole argues that Singh has a “democratic eye” and goes above and beyond to take pictures of the entirety of the social space from “cities, towns, villages, shops, rivers, worshippers, workers, construction sites, motorbikes, statues, modern furniture, dresses, and the like” (Cole, 972). Singh takes approaches from highly sophisticated influences such as Edgar Degas and Helen Levitt, and it shows. Singh is able to tell a story with his photographs in ways McCurry fails to do because McCurry does not capture the wider social space. Rather than using compositional clichés, Singh is able to produce a story that is truly dedicated to providing a more objective account that attempts to break away from preconceived notions. Cole’s contrast of these two photographers is stark. While Single is “always emotionally generous” when it comes to acknowledging his subjects for what they are, McCurry’s work lacks depth and is a “quick message [of] sweetness, pathos, humor” that fails to deliver beyond its self-imposed limitations (Cole, 974).

McCurry’s fantastical portrayals of “ancient” cultures lack integrity in the eyes of Cole, although this problem is by no means unique to his work. It is a common Western narrative structure. In “How to Write About Africa,” Binyavanga Wainainaspeaks of the stereotypical images Westerners superimpose onto Africa in their descriptions. Africa is satirized by Wainaia as nothing more than depraved conditions. He writes of “an AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts” as if these subjects are utterly helpless people who are starving to death and rotting (Wainaina, 543 – 544). He goes into satiric detail about how Africans apparently “eat things no other humans eat…” and how they “wait for the benevolence of the West” (Wainaina, 544). While these are all exaggerations, they do make a point: The West is preoccupied with “preserving” stereotypical Africa. They are obsessed with conservationism and its nature, but they care little beyond this because it is all they see. For Wainaina, however, the real conservationists are the peoples in Africa who truly know the land.

Cole and Wainaina both discuss stereotypes as they relate to cultures in India and Africa, which are fueled by Western fantasies. It seems Westerners enjoy telling stories and painting pictures of a lost cultural past, but this is only to maintain their own preconceived notions. They have little to do with the actual lived experiences of these peoples. Masked by these stereotypes, Western spectators see India and Africa as consisting entirely of these brazen caricatures. For Cole, this is just outright bad photography since people’s stories must be told through the photo. If not, then the photo is a mere manipulation of real life. Because any photograph cannot capture the entire social scope of any particular culture, what is chosen for portrayal can paint a distorted, oftentimes dramatized look at marginalized peoples as if they lack agency. This kind of photography most certainly supports a world view with a decidedly Western bent.

Like any art, photography embodies subjectivity and bias. What shapes the story of the image goes beyond the subject it captures – it also includes the setting, the camera chosen, lighting, and innumerable other elements that go into composing and taking a photograph. If a photographer’s work falls squarely under the umbrella of photojournalism, there is a responsibility to adhere to a code of ethics to mitigate the subjective aspects. Outside the realm of photojournalism, while Cole’s criticisms of McCurry related to integrity are well-founded given Western photography’s penchant for stereotypes and fantasy in the depiction of other cultures, demanding that photographers always capture the fullness of a people’s culture and story in each photograph goes too far. Besides being unrealistic, photography that is more artistic than journalistic should be judged by standards of aesthetics rather than standards revolving around such concepts as objectivity and truth. Finally, aesthetic standards are themselves subjective and will differ from person to person, which helps explain why much of McCurry’s work can be loved by so many but can also invoke criticisms such as those offered by Cole.

Works Cited

Agtmael, Peter van. “Why Facts Aren’t Always Truths in Photography.” Time, Time, 12 May 2016, time.com/4326791/fact-truth-photography-steve-mccurry/.

Cole, Teju. “A Too-Perfect Picture.” The Broadview Anthology of Expository Prose, Edited by Laura Buzzard et al., Third, Broadview Press, Peterborough, 2016, pp. 971-974.

Cooke, Alex. “The Case of Steve McCurry: What Is ‘Truth’ in Photography?” Fstoppers, Fstoppers, 12 May 2016, fstoppers.com/editorial/case-steve-mccurry-what-truth-photography-129505.

Letzter, Rafi. “The ‘Afghan Girl’ Photographer Faked Some of His Photos. Does It Matter?” Business Insider, Business Insider, 21 May 2016, www.businessinsider.com/steve-mccurry-photo-editing-scandal-2016-5.

Wainaina, Binyavanga. “How To Write About Africa.” The Broadview Anthology of Expository Prose, Edited by Laura Buzzard et al., Third, Broadview Press, Peterborough, 2016, pp. 543-546.


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