Thoughts on McCurry, Photoshop and Coffee

(image by Steve McCurry, taken from www.nikon.com)

In 2015 I went to see Steve McCurry talk for the first time. I was a latecomer to McCurry’s work, one of those people who’d seen (and liked) countless pictures by him without realising until I found out who he was, probably in about 2009. McCurry seemed to be the quintessential documentary photographer- always working for organisations such as National Geographic, socially concerned, always bringing to light corners of the world we wouldn’t otherwise get to see, with a seemingly compassionate eye. I’m more interested in gritty B/W work generally, but it was impossible to deny how beautiful he made dilapidation and poverty. And more people are willing to engage with beautiful pictures- look at them longer- so surely more people looking at and talking about these issues is a good thing (‘sticky beauty’ – thanks Simon Norfolk). Yet there was always something niggling me about his images. They were too perfect and what was with the sparse captions giving no information about the subjects, the places and their evident disrepair, or the people and the stories behind those worn faces or bright eyes. Perhaps I was just looking at the wrong books- poor ‘best of’ albums, which didn’t really get to grips with the issues McCurry must surely be concerned with.

When I saw him speak I hoped he could allay my suspicions. I was incredibly disappointed. He talked about ‘respect’, ‘psychology’, ‘humour’ (spot the odd one out there) – working with people and winning their confidence in order to take portraits. ‘For me (it’s about) human behavior, how we relate to each-other, how we relate to the environment… it’s more about people, what we do and how we do it that fascinates’ he emphasized early on. Yet far from being socially interested or critically engaged with his subjects, he seemed completely disengaged with his photography in general. The book he had just released was on the coffee trail. Given the still-hot topic of Fair Trade food, and whether little stickers are enough to get farmers a fair price for their goods, and given coffee’s close relationship to the whole fair trade movement, I foolishly expected McCurry to have something to say on this. Nothing. Despite claiming: ‘I’m interested in the story (behind the image). It needs to be technically proficient and there’s a certain craft, which we have to adhere to… (but I’m interested in the story)’, he had no stories to tell in answer to questions on everything from how the beans in the pictures got to their drinker’s mugs (the full project title is From These Hands: A Journey Along the Coffee Trail), to the methods/technology used in farming coffee. The book contains almost no text, and he gave no detail in his talk to elaborate on either the story of coffee, or those of individual farmers. He didn’t even seem to know the names of his portrait subjects.

At the time Starbucks, and Caffe Nero had recently been revealed (much as everyone suspected) of tax avoidance, in both the UK and America. Not only did McCurry not know who the farmers in the images were supplying, but he didn’t seem to think it was a relevant question to ask in ‘documentary’ book about coffee growing- just that the rise of multi-national corporations was ‘inevitable’. ‘That’s what interested me, it’s the human element, not really the technical aspects of coffee (growing)… Almost all the people I photographed were just small farmers, with little plots of land in hilly areas growing maybe 50 bags a year- very small production. (But) I’m not sure (if they’re part of the big production)’. For me this was too much and spoke of incredible negligence. Who people work for obviously affects their lives immeasurably- particularly in a industry with a notorious human rights record. In a book focused on the activity of the work itself, made by a “socially concerned photojournalist”, how was that not a pertinent question to ask during the shooting of this project?

By the end of the Q&A he was also becoming noticeably irritable with the audience lines of questioning- particularly one on asking permission to take pictures, persistently repeating: ‘I just think it’s impossible to ask everyone’s permission’. Well of course Steve, but it doesn’t hurt to try occasionally. He angrily pointed out how he’d gone back to find one of his most famous subjects- ‘Afghan Girl’ (Sharbat Gula) years later to thank her and pay her- painting himself as the heroic Westerner naturally… ‘I’m so glad we managed to help her..’ Nevermind that he was doing it for the anniversary of the image for National Geographic.

The determined ignorance of and lack of compassion for, his own subject matter was incredible, egotistical, colonial and above all disturbing. I’ve been meaning to write an article about it ever since but last month due to his photoshop controversy, there were at least three that have neatly summed up a lot of what I felt at the time:

 

The Wire

Disphotic Photo Blog

The New York Times Magazine

 

Forget about the Photoshopping. We should know by now that photography is not objective truth. Instead I think it’s more important to appreciate how disingenuous McCurry’s work is as a whole. Lying about using Photoshop to make major changes just compounds a negligent attitude and a failure to respect his subject matter, despite his claims to the contrary.