This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Kshitij Nagar. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Did The Photographer Of The Iconic ‘Afghan Girl’ Photo Manipulate His Work?

More from Kshitij Nagar

By Kshitij Nagar:

I will begin by saying that my intention is not to attack Steve McCurry or defame him in any manner. It is only an attempt to clear certain facts that have come to light regarding his work and to also raise certain questions on aspects that may or may not have been missed, but certainly have not been expressed till now, at least not publically. McCurry is an inspiring figure to many, therefore in the light of recent events, a close examination of his photographs and his practice has already been done. I only want to take it a few steps further.

Steve McCurry has come to India on numerous occasions to photograph. It has a special place in his work and in his life. He has expressed his love for India many times over the years. Some regard India as his ‘karma bhoomi’ (the land where one works). It is a place that has provided him with countless iconic images and it is the place where he returned to, to shoot about half of the last roll of Kodachrome.

It is also the depiction of this place that has attracted him the most criticism, both in India and internationally. He is often accused of depicting a certain stereotypical, exotic, almost “slumdog millionaire-ish” version of India that panders to Western audiences. This is a criticism that Teju Cole of the New York Times also levied on McCurry’s recent volume of photographs titled ‘India’ of the New York Times also levied on McCurry’s recent volume of photographs titled ‘India’ which is a compendium of all the images he made here, between 1978 and 2014. He was also faced with the same criticism on stage, at the launch of the same book in New Delhi. Further, in the review of his book, Cole goes on to remark, “The pictures are staged or shot to look as if they were.” Again, McCurry was faced by these same questions at that launch event in January, which he chose to ignore then.

Five months on, a number of things have come to light, regarding his work with many questioning his ethics, while others calling it a “targeted witch hunt”. Some of the things that he has come under fire for, are astounding, while there are a few details that photographers and fixers in India have always known.

The controversy began with a so-called “botched print” as PetaPixel reported it, citing photographer Paolo Vigilione, who went to an exhibition of McCurry’s work in Italy and posted about what he had seen, on his blog. While he “had no intention to attack McCurry”, he certainly got the ball rolling on what has now snowballed into a full-blown controversy.

The images have since been removed from McCurry’s website as well as by Vigilione from his blog. These images were taken from PetaPixel’s article detailing the issue.

steve mccurry 1
Source: PetaPixel
steve mccurry 2
Source: PetaPixel

 

A further cursory exploration into his work, leads to the following few images that PetaPixel too published in its article. These images too have been removed from McCurry’s website. In fact, the entire blog seems to have been removed.

steve mccurry 3
Source: PetaPixel
steve mccurry 4
Source: PetaPixel
steve mccurry 5
Source: PetaPixel
steve mccurry 6
Source: PetaPixel

The shot of the children playing football was from a series of personal pictures, however, a version of it was also published on Magnum Photos’ website, but has since been removed.

After the initial bit of articles were published in publications and blogs online, Indian photographer Satish Sharma made the following comments on his blog, “I am not at all surprised at the digital manipulation (done by him) to create the perfect frame. I have watched him rig (stage) his pictures. (He) Arranged the subjects (back then) because chromes (slide film) could not be that easily manipulated.”

Sharma goes onto cite an important and iconic image, that of the railway engine in front of the Taj.

steve mccurry 7
Source: National Geographic

Regarding this image, Sharma says, “This famous cover picture of his National Geographic story on the Railways was a special case that I remember. He actually had to reshoot it and got the railways to take the engine back again, because the first shoot was not sharp enough.”

Further elaborating, Sharma says, “For a shot of the kitchen in ‘The Great Indian Rover’, he actually had the railing around the work bench removed. I know because I was there. The last time I saw him, he was arranging a picture in Delhi’s Lodi Garden, directing a waiter where to stand.”

Perhaps the most perturbing of Sharma’s claims, is the following image which also appeared in the same NatGeo issue of 1984 on travelling across India by rail.

steve mccurry 8
Source: National Geographic

Regarding this Sharma writes, “This, apparently, off-the-cuff moment was arranged too. The lady is the wife of a photographer friend and the suitcases, the coolie (porter) is carrying, are empty. They had to be because the shot took time and lots of patience to pose. McCurry’s pictures have been called ‘staged candid moments’ by Avinash Pasricha , a photographer friend who knows how he works because he helped him with the pictures like the one above. The lady is his sister in law.”

In a bid to investigate and ratify Sharma’s claims, I made a call to Avinash Pasricha, veteran photographer living in Delhi. He had the following to say, “Yes. From what I can recall, Steve used to stage quite a few shots back then. He needed help whenever he came to India and people obliged. Since my house was, and still is, centrally located in the city, he would come here often. He was always passionate and longing to go out and shoot again. On one occasion that he had come, he told me of a particular shot that he wanted to take, on how people travel in India. He requested my sister-in-law, Vanita,to accompany him to New Delhi Railway station” says Pasricha. On asking him about the suitcases on the porter’s head, he confirms that they were, indeed, empty.

A little bit of searching, lead me to the lady in the aforementioned image, Vanita Pasricha, who briefly told me the following regarding the image, “This image is from about 32 years ago. He was a very polite man; a thorough gentleman, who wanted a picture on how people travel in India. I went with him to New Delhi Railway Station in the morning for a few quick pictures. Those suitcases are my suitcases and that is my son Mithil that I am holding, who is now, in fact, 38 years old now. I only met him a couple of times and I did not even know, whether the photo was published or not. It is only when my brother called from the US, did I get to know, that it was published in National Geographic.”

The image was indeed published in the June issues of 1984 of NatGeo in the following form, according to this archived copy:

steve mccurry 9
Source: National Geographic

It was published with the following misleading caption:

“Bearing any burden. corps of vendors haunt the stations. In New Delhi, a porter balances the luggage of first class travellers to Agra (left). Licensed by Indian Railways and identified by red jackets and brass tags, porters usually sell their services for the equivalent of 20 cents a bag. For readers, a bookseller (above) hawks a pile of current titles. Vendors offer food and trinkets of every kind, including the great Indian status symbol, sunglasses.”

While the claims of these people are compelling, damning and perturbing, what has been equally perturbing is McCurry’s own handling of this matter and his ultimate defense, that he put forward in an exclusive interview with TIME.

(The unedited copy of the interview was made available to me on contacting McCurry’s studio in New York for a brief statement. I was informed that McCurry is presently travelling and is difficult to reach. We will publish a follow-up with his responses on these questions as soon as he becomes available.)

In a press conference, held at an exhibition of his work in Canada, on May 27, 2016, he said that he was not in favour of “photoshopping” or “adding and subtracting elements from a picture”, and that the software should only be used as a means for colour balance and correction. Three days later though, in the interview with TIME, he said that he will “rein in his use of Photoshop” when asked about the controversy, while not directly making a reference to the fact that he has done so in the past or what exactly lead to the glaring differences between the different versions of the published images. The removal of his entire blog and subsequent silence for a number of days raises further questions.

The most perturbing of McCurry’s statements, is his claim, that he is no longer a photojournalist and more of a “visual storyteller”. The statement, in itself, is very alarming when you take into account, the context that it was said in. The majority of McCurry’s career has been spent photographing subjects for journalistic stories and features, though he now believes otherwise, “The years of covering conflict zones are in the distant past. Except for a brief time at a local newspaper in Pennsylvania, I have never been an employee of a newspaper, news magazine, or any other news outlet. I have always freelanced” he said in the interview.

One must surely argue, that by merely categorizing himself now as a visual storyteller, does not absolve McCurry of the ethics of simple photographic practice, i.e. depicting things the way they are, something he claims to always strive to, according to this recent TED Talk from just a few years ago. Moreover, this is especially important as his work has been continually published in publications such as National Geographic that are bound by a strict code of journalistic ethics. While the days of photographing conflict may well be over, and while he is exploring these new ways of telling stories, his new and recent work continues to pop up in journalistic publications, leading to a simple, yet perturbing, logical anomaly. To add to that anomaly, his own website continues to reference him as a ‘photojournalist’, even though he is out exploring new ways of “visual storytelling.”

Further still, as a practicing photojournalist myself, I must also argue that while McCurry has the freedom to explore new ways of storytelling and the freedom to alter images from personal projects (just like any other photographer), surely the publication of these images with a clarification, detailing the extent of alteration is necessary, considering the fact that the viewer will, in most cases, connect it to McCurry’s photojournalistic aesthetic, especially when the subject matter of these images (people/travel/streets etc.) is so similar to McCurry’s photojournalistic work.

On the note of issuing a disclaimer, I must also add that McCurry also cites a previous iconic cover image of monsoon in India from 1984 for National Geographic, which was to an extent altered. The original image was of a horizontal orientation and could not be published in the magazine’s vertical format.

steve mccurry 11, 12
Source: TIME Magazine

NatGeo decided to extend the water to fit the format. A critical piece of information not shared in the interview is that the image was published with a disclaimer detailing the alteration, according to a copy of the issue that I found in an online archive. Further, the reason that NatGeo was legally bound to issue that disclaimer, is the fact that just a two years prior to that in February 1982, NatGeo was in the middle of a serious controversy, where they used an image altering software called ‘Scitex’ to fit a horizontal image of the pyramids in Egypt onto their vertical cover, resulting in a squeezed and altered view, different from the original photograph. The action lead to widespread criticism, which NatGeo finally agreed with and decided to change its policy, whereby it declared any digital alterations of that nature.

steve mccurry 13
Source: National Geographic

In fact, the editor of NatGeo wrote the following at that time, “At the beginning of our access to Scitex, I think we were seduced by the dictum, ‘If it can be done, it must be done.’ But there’s a danger there. When a photograph becomes synthesis,  fantasy, rather than reportage, then the whole purpose of the photograph dies. A photographer is a reporter — a photon thief, if you will. He goes and takes, with a delicate instrument, an extremely thin slice of life. When we changed that slice of life, no matter in what small way, we diluted our credibility.”

What truly needs to be examined, is the state of McCurry’s legacy, especially for those that he has inspired over the years, especially in India where he has had a lasting and inspiring footprint. The apparent staging and subsequent publishing in NatGeo raises more questions for him and NatGeo to answer. Especially if we take into account the stringent rules imposed on photographers by publications in their written contracts, even for freelance basis, as well as the close examination of work done by World Press Photo in the past few years, leading to many awards being rescinded and photographers and publications being forced to issue clarifications and apologies subsequently.

In a casual conversation with my father on the issue, he said the following, “I am very pained by this. This is almost unbelievable. I remember going out during the monsoon seasons with my Asahi Pentax in hand, just to see if I could get a picture like McCurry’s. It really pains to even think about this.” Later, on pondering over McCurry’s most iconic image, that of the ‘Afghan Girl’, he also found another, small discrepancy. The dirt/muck/glare from her right eye seems to have disappeared. Below on the left, is the original image published by NatGeo and on the right a screen grab from a poster that McCurry is currently selling on his website.

steve mccurry 14
Source: Kshitij Nagar

Ignoring the obvious difference in the colour of the two images due to different scanning/printing processes, the difference in the eyes is a bit difficult to miss, when kept side by side.

Interestingly though, the glare/muck is back in the version printed by NatGeo in the 100th anniversary commemorative issue.

The variance in between different versions of published images seems to extend to McCurry’s most iconic image too, just like his other work.

In a polite exchange with his studio over email, seeking a statement from him, I was informed that McCurry is presently travelling and is difficult to reach.

The article was also published here.

You must be to comment.

More from Kshitij Nagar

Similar Posts

By Vivek Verma

By Taha Iqbal

By Imran Khan

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below