Wednesday, 1 June 2016

POV: Visual Storyteller | Fact or Fiction?

" I would say that today I am a visual storyteller..."

The Steve McCurry controversy rages on, unmitigated by his recent statements (which I am paraphrasing here) saying that, except for a brief stint at a small newspaper, he didn't work as a photojournalist per se, but considered himself as a visual storyteller.

I have been critical of McCurry's work for quite some time, and never considered him to be a photojournalist. I recall being harshly criticized by many of his fans when I published this point of view, and wonder where are they now. He might have explicitly described himself as a photojournalist or insinuated it, but I always viewed him as a travel photographer with a high propensity to stage his images, with a concomitant affinity for post processing.

During my recent photo talk at Travel Photographer Asia 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, I addressed the recent fracas and, in a way, condoned his evolution from photojournalist in the distant past to the current commercial-fashion photographer (Louis Vuitton, Valentino, etc) specialization.

In that photo talk, I said that it must have been the forces of the marketplace that molded McCurry's evolution. We all know how difficult it is to make a living from photojournalism and documentary photography, even for photographers as famed as he.  So, I'm not surprised or shocked that he chose the route he's following right now.

Some of us argue that storytellers ought to tell the truth; others like me argue that stories can be fictional or non-fictional. In my view, travel photography can be either. I adopt a true story telling discipline in my own travel imagery, adopting my "travel photography meets photojournalism" philosophy, but on rare occasions, I've staged some of my photographs. If I had to put a percentage to this staging, I'd say 5% of my images were/are staged....or directed. I've never hid that fact when asked, nor will I do so in future. And I'm not a photojournalist, and never claimed to be.

With that in mind, McCurry's prevarications about being a photojournalist (hence no staging and no heavy-handed post processing) have disappointed many of those who viewed him as an "eminence grise" in his field. Many more are outraged and angered because the image manipulations (especially the cloning and removal of things) discovered so far are tainting the whole industry with the same brush. Photojournalists who have abided by the strict ethics of photojournalism are justifiably angered.

McCurry has been recently shown to digitally modify (or have his staff digitally modify) some of his images to show what he wished he had seen and taken the picture of. That, in my view, is fictional visual storytelling, and is as far from the truth and photojournalism as can be. To wit, the 1983 photograph of the locals riding a rickshaw through heavy monsoon rain in Varanasi, in which people were removed. It's's what McCurry would have liked to see but didn't. It's also what McCurry wants us to see, and believe that it happened as shown. As for blaming a staff member for heavy handed post processing, it's always the photographer who must take final responsibility. Blaming an intern or staff is unworthy of someone of McCurry's stature.

However, many of the public took him to be a "reality visual storyteller", but he wasn't and from his many interviews, he didn't dispel this widely held view and possibly encouraged it.

It's always tragic when a renowned figure in any field falls from grace, but it also serves to remind us that truth is always liberating, and is always the best approach in anything we do. Is this an idealistic concept? Yes, it is, but it's also the right one.