When I read a few weeks ago that the esteemed photojournalist Steve McCurry whose work has been seen in National Geographic for decades was caught enhancing his pictures with Photoshop; this seemed significant but I did not know how much outrage I should be feeling. Fundamentally it seemed wrong.
Most everyone learns how to discern right from wrong very early, and I learnt that from my parents. I also learnt photography from my Papa, it’s an inherited passion. Something that bonds us today even more as I face his life’s end.
One of my earliest memories growing up in India during the 70s and 80s was sitting with Papa in his bedroom, light filtering in from the afternoon sun dappling the blue walls. Him in the middle of the bed, his glasses on his nose, I’d kneel against the edge of the bed or sit on his lap watching him clean filters, splice and spool film. Or, the two of us pouring over the latest issues of National Geographic, Amateur Photographer a U.K. based magazine and the yearly tomes published by PSI (Photographic Society of India) or PSA (Photographic Society of America).
As an amateur and self-taught photographer from the age of 10 in pre-independent India, Papa was always an eager student and generous teacher. He had acquired his first camera from his school friend around 1942, he recounts in a letter he wrote me around 2005,
I was a proud owner of a very small camera with two aperture openings and one shutter speed, I was elated.
I’d marvel at the photographs and he’d explain how it had been taken. We’d discuss the finer points about composition and exposure. In the days of manual SLRs there was a different nuance to training the eye. And knowing how to expose a frame, when each frame was precious and there were no do-overs. A photograph is the honest reflection of the world. That moment captured forever.
Papa’s friends and peers whom he admired like Avinash Pasricha, Raghubir Singh, Prabuddha Dasgupta and Raghu Rai went on to great commercial success. He had great admiration for their technique and I think he was perhaps a little envious that their lives had allowed them to pursue their art as a profession.
One such name common in our home was Steve McCurry, Papa of course did not know him, but we discussed his work intimately. Journalistic photographers like Raghu Rai and Steve McCurry influenced my interest in journalism. And photojournalism to me literally means the telling of a story through a photograph. And I believed this as a child that, Steve’s pictures were, truth from a true master. But I guess those were the standards then.
Papa’s brush with fame came when his winning 35mm slide was selected from a contest as the cover page for the British magazine Amateur Photographer. He was suddenly famous in our small town and amongst his buddies at the photography conventions. Local club members would ask him how he captured the perfect shot of a butterfly on the marigold. He’d tell them jokingly, with patience and without a tripod amongst other technical details. One of these conversations Papa had with fellow amateur stands out in stark relief.
A budding amateur club member who in his eagerness to learn would pepper Papa with lots of questions, Papa guided him, and taught him what he knew. One morning he invited us to his garden nursery for a morning photography session to capture nature in the first dew.
As a 9 year old, I wasn’t prepared for our semi-frozen models. This nursery owner had caught some butterflies and dragonflies the evening prior and had refrigerated them to dull their senses. These numbed winged creatures were to be our models that morning. I did know until then that one could manipulate or enhance images beyond the use of filters or during processing.
I think Papa was more bemused than shocked, and being the suave man he was, he went along. And when the numb creatures could not hold the pose, frustrating the nursery owner, Papa gently pointed out to him,
true photography is spontaneous, without human intrusion.
When a moment perfectly aligns, and you’re at the right place at the right time with patience, a good photograph is formed. When I was learning photography, you’d have to expose a Kodackchrome reel of 36 exposures to hopefully get 2-3 great ones, worthy of perhaps entering a national contest. Today I know this is changed. I went digital very reluctantly and now pay paltry attention to how many frames are exposed. The manipulation of each frame is instantaneous and 3000 images from a trip are not unheard of.
But with this kind of access to technology and today when almost everyone is a photographer, comes the grey area of manipulation. I’m not a photojournalist. I like to think of myself as a documentarian of places and the feelings an object evokes. When even color correction makes me cringe; as if a mark against me as a photographer. The truth is important.
I guess at the crux of this controversy lies the standards we hold for photojournalistic art versus recreational photos you’d see on your friends social media feed enhanced with filters.
It’s a trust we put in our media to be telling the truth. And yes, as I say that, the irony is very clear. Has media or technology corrupted the art of storytelling?
And in this telling what of the truth? Is a great like Steve McCurry victim of the times or is the reader the victim of truth?
The only way to know is to focus on the truth.
Training the eye to see a frame is a whole another spool of film.