Australian English is a lively dialect with all sorts of folksy phrases in everyday use. Take this one: “Steve McCurry has been taking some stick lately.” In other words, one of the most recognised and admired photographers in the world has been receiving lots of strong criticism from many quarters of late.

A few weeks ago the photography world was abuzz with a PetaPixel article detailing what they called a "botched" use of Photoshop on one of his images. This led to the revelation that many of his images have been digitally edited, sometimes in a fairly significant way, before being published.

Earlier this week, a friend forwarded me another article by Kshitij Nagar from the blog Writing Through Light. Nagar covered similar territory as the PetaPixel article but added juicy details of how several of McCurry’s India/South Asia photographs have been deliberately staged or altered, including arguably the most famous National Geographic photo of all time, the Afghan girl.

The articles got me thinking.

Most immediately, I had to smile at the claim both writers made that when they contacted Steve McCurry’s office for clarity on the issues they were informed that the photographer was busy travelling and would be in touch when he found some time in his schedule.

I have been in touch with McCurry’s office as well over the past several months asking for an interview for this column. An assistant quickly responded to my first email and enthusiastically agreed, asking me to submit the questions for Steve. But as the time passed, our interview with Steve McCurry was delayed indefinitely and the answers have not yet been returned. Apologies.

Issues to consider

Beyond this amusing twist of time and space, however, the issue of the ethics of digitally altering and staging images remains. To the extent that McCurry originally presented his images as being authentic (unmanipulated) representations of actual scenes when in fact they were not does merit some stick. That he had to be caught out in an embarrassing and public way to take corrective action justifies a slight increase in the thickness of the stick. You would like to think that someone of his stature would know better.

I’m not interested in reploughing the ethical minefield of McCurry’s actions. The articles I’ve mentioned have done a great job of that already. I’m interested in two other points.

In Australia, you’ll often hear that "so and so is a victim of the tall poppy syndrome". What this means is that someone is being unfairly singled out for criticism mainly because they are a "tall poppy", i.e. more famous, more rich or more successful than the rest of us. Is Steve McCurry just another tall poppy?

The writers of both articles as well as the Italian photographer, Paolo Viglione, who first brought the Photoshop error to light, deny any intention to defame McCurry. They claim to be interested only in exploring ethical questions. But the Nagar piece in particular does seem to enjoy rubbing the salt into McCurry’s (self-inflicted) wound.

People who were asked to pose for one of the photographs are interviewed. Others who worked with McCurry on some of his most famous image-finding tours speak about "not being surprised" that McCurry has been found out because staging pictures has been his MO for years. Heavy suitcases are proven to be empty and light.

All of this is genuinely interesting. And it may or may not be ethical. Nagar in a followup to the first article turns down the heat considerably, offering up another famous image by a different much-respected photographer as an example of how the manipulation of images after the shutter is pressed is actually commonplace.

If that is the case (which it most decidedly is), then why get all hot and bothered about McCurry? Could it be because his images are so identified with India and South Asia that he seems to own the franchise? Could it be professional jealousy? I mean, who would not kill to have their photos on the cover of National Geographic?

Is this storm really about the ethics? Or is it a roundabout way – a passive aggressive way – of telling McCurry that we are tired of your photographs and your style and your view of India/South Asia and Indians/South Asians? We would rather you just slunk away, thanks.

If so, then why not just say it, like others have done?

The sense of personal hurt and professional injury that McCurry’s use of Photoshop and deliberate staging has elicited, is remarkable. Comments from readers to both articles are myriad and passionate. Most are negative towards McCurry. Again, one can’t help but feel that McCurry’s tallness in the field of poppies has something to do with this.

The crucial question

At heart, the issue I believe all of this raises is, can any photograph claim to capture reality? So much has been written about this subject by so many that it is difficult to believe anyone, especially photographers, would argue that such a thing as reality even exists.

Photography, at best, can capture a moment of time that appears within a prescribed frame of vision. What happened before or right after that 1/125th of a second slice of time is irrelevant to the image. And how the elements were put together for that 1/125th of a second of time also seems beside the point.

Is the photograph of the woman standing with the coolie at the station, unreal? Is this a scene you would never see in India? The image and what it represents are absolutely real and authentic. There is no falsity about it.

In order to construct that scene in that particular way, McCurry called upon a friend to pose in the frame. This may offend our desire and ridiculous expectation that every frame should adhere to some standard of pure intention. And that photos exist in the ether waiting for photographers to pluck them from space like a ripe guava.

Photography is a trick of light and shadow, timing and position. Nothing more. It’s always been fake and there is no such thing as reality. It is only subjective interpretation.

So let’s criticise McCurry and every other photographers for what their photos represent, or say, or imply. Maybe they are old fashioned and dull. Maybe they are uninteresting. Fair enough. But let’s please not get self righteous that he or anyone else, be they Ansel Adams or Raghubir Singh, is betraying reality, truth and our trust.

He’s just a photographer.