Contreras, but not McCurry?

When Narciso Contreras was sacked by The Associated Press for cloning out a video camera from the corner of one his photographs of the Syrian civil war, Roger Tooth, the head of photography at The Guardian, in an article published on the paper’s website contemplated that perhaps a warning would have been a more suitable form of punishment.

Narciso Contreras photo (before-right & after-left)

However, after praising Contreras’ strong work, Tooth quickly shifts to support AP’s action. Tooth states, “in a news environment it’s all about a chain of trust: from the photographers through to the agencies, newspapers and websites, and then to the readers.” Concerned with the trust that readers and visual consumers put on the media, he goes on to say that when that chain is broken, “any picture could be suspect, and that can’t be allowed to happen.

In an opinion piece in Time LightBox on Steve McCurry’s image manipulation controversy, Peter van Agtmael, a Magnum Photos photographer whose words are just as eloquent as his pictures writes, “I don’t take issue with most forms of manipulation, but deception isn’t acceptable.” He takes aim about truth in photography, but there is something missing in this article. Even though Agtmael brings up legitimate concerns about the state of photography, he goes on to say “His [McCurry’s] explanation that someone in his studio acted unilaterally seems plausible enough.

Steve McCurry

Looking at my Facebook feed I wasn’t alone in finding Agtmael’s reasoning more of a defense of McCurry than anything else. Philip Blenkinsop, a former member of Noor Images, refuted Agtmael in a long Facebook posting and raised his own concerns about McCurry. Blenkinsop writes, “unless McCurry had already set a precedent for removing and rearranging elements within the frame, how is it that an artist working in post-production would make such a decision by him/herself?

In the original article published on PetaPixel’s website, McCurry’s only published response to the controversy seems to be a discussion of one sole image from Cuba. However, at least two other heavily Photoshopped photographs have since surfaced. In his own defense, McCurry talks about his long career and his love of art without addressing any ethical issues.

Steve Mccurry — Gif by Kenneth Bachor for TIME

In a sharp contrast to McCurry, Contreras admitted his fault and was quoted, “I took the wrong decision … I feel ashamed about that.” He goes on to take responsibility by adding, “this is a single case that happened probably at one very stressed moment, at one very difficult situation, but yeah, it happened to me, so I have to assume the consequences.

Contreras was among a team of five AP photographers who shared the Pulitzer Prize for their compelling coverage of the civil war in Syria just a year before. He was a rising star from Mexico in a world dominated by mostly European and American photographers.

AP editors could not find any another issues with the remaining images filed by Contreras —all 494 of them — in their archive. They concluded that this was an isolated issue, yet Contreras was still terminated.

As far as I know neither Steve McCurry nor Magnum have not admitted to any wrong doing. In his Facebook posting Blenkinsop writes, “Magnum’s silence is ominous to say the least.” McCurry himself has dismissed the issue by faulting his studio staff.

Supporting Agtmael’s argument, noted photographer, Donald Weber, of VII Photo, writes on his own Facebook posting “He [Agtmael] is right, the time is long past to pierce it and flush out those who hide behind it” as ‘it’ being the “veil of deception.” He goes on to say “time to take control of authorship and intent and dispose of antiquated fealty to an aesthetic.

I can only agree with Weber, and Agtmael, and others if we apply the same standards to McCurry as we have to Contreras.

I am not going to debate what is truth in photography, or what is real and what is this veil of deception, and what isn’t. Any ethical photographer working in news or documentary field would be a fool to admit that his or her pictures are the truth and nothing but the truth. So let us not rehash that discussion here.

Steve McCurry, a celebrated member of the Magnum Photos, and the photographer of Afghan Girl, has used Photoshop to change his work. I know I felt deceived by this revelation.

It certainly was unwise of Contreras to clone out something insignificant in his work, which didn’t add or change anything about his picture. If you agree with that statement then, what do you think of McCurry’s work now? What do you think we really need to hear from McCurry, or Magnum, or the National Geographic?

The issue that Peter van Agtmael wanted everyone to pay attention to was the lack of context and diversity in photography. I would argue with Agtmael that there are photographers sitting in Tehran wondering how McCurry can get away with a slap on the wrist and how can they do the same to win international awards. I would further argue that there are photographers sitting in Mexico City wondering about the Western dominated landscape of photography and the double standard which has been applied to McCurry, but not to one of their own.