I have mentally returned to these images this month, following a firestorm of criticism aimed at internationally-renowned photography Steve McCurry. McCurry, who is most famous for the National Geographic cover shot of Afghan woman Sharbat Gula, is undergoing a great deal of scrutiny following the discovery of a dodgy photo-editing job at an exhibition in Italy. But it’s not only the manipulation of his images that have raised various hackles around the world. It’s also Steve McCurry’s relationship to his subjects in places like Afghanistan, Cuba, and India that has attracted judgement.
When I was twenty years old I first went to India. My curiosity for the country had been raised largely through a friend, Sanjay, who introduced me to all sorts of pleasures related to India – even though he was born in Australia and raised by his white mother without having known his Indian father. I began listening to Ravi Shankar, reading the Bhagavad-gita, and writing out wonky lines of Devanagari script. I met a young woman from Chandigarh, who told me I really ought to travel there. Another friend got a job in Pune. I was going to visit.
My memories of those first hours in India wash over my brain in clear, inconsistent waves. Yellow glow falling on blue tarpaulins around Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. The taxi pushing through late night roadside activity. The first hazy morning on Alandi Road, cantankerous red buses and oblivious dogs and old men on bicycles and young women on construction sites. A white-clad old man yelled at me in Marathi (a language I didn’t realise existed at the time), for reasons which still elude me.
I raised my camera to it all. At first, I was so awkward about putting the machine to my face and squaring it at a stranger that I used a zoom lens. It enabled me to steer into the middle of a crowd and hone in on a detail, a face, a gesture. I could reach into the crowd, into the heavily-populated streets of whatever city scene, and find someone. But avoiding that initial discomfort produced some uncomfortable results, related to invasion of privacy and lack of consent.
On the other hand, I was pleased with some of the images; I thought I had made a modest achievement; I believed that by isolating individuals from the midst of an enormous population, I was affirming them.
I didn’t know much of the work of Steve McCurry then. I was more aware of trying to imitate Peter Bialobrzeski, whose misty, ghostly images of people on the Ganges I had perused in a mountain cabin in my homeland of Tasmania. But when I look back on this immature body of work, I see McCurry’s aesthetic and approach all over it.
It has nothing to do with editing – I didn’t touch the photographs, even if some of them could probably have done with it. But as a photographer, my attention is on many of McCurry’s themes: there are wrinkly old faces, women in bright colours and beautiful patterns, children playing in picturesque poverty, there are happy workers using outmoded technology.
This is an aesthetic that McCurry didn’t invent, but he has made his success from it and popularised it tremendously. It is an approach that requires the stranger to peer into a culture, find what is eye-catching, frame it well, and leave. As critics have said past month, it may well be a product of naiveté and privilege, or even ignorance and prejudice.
I was drawn to India by a concept of the exotic. Indeed, India is one of the easiest countries in the world for a white traveller to feel like they have been submerged into a unique cultural experience. Memorable cultural expressions are presented on the surface of the country: it is in the politics and economy, the newspapers and the architecture, the fashion and the food. It is also an open environment, with whites given preferential treatment, English spoken widely, and hospitality readily shown. And it’s cheap.
The naive western traveller finds a parade of colour, a profusion of smell and sound. Every erratic trajectory they might heave their oversized lens will find something of exotic intrigue to snap. But of course, what is interesting is what is beneath the surface. That’s also what’s difficult to grasp, and very difficult to photograph too.
But we’re still presenting India with these same tropes. “This idealized India,” writes Rashmee Kumar in the Guardian, “obscures the realities of a complex nation in favor of reductive tropes originally intended to preserve western hegemony...[it is] part of a system of representation that shapes how the west understands and engages with the world.” She’s referring to Coldplay’s music video this year, which portrayed India as “an exotic playground.”
Renaissance and baroque painters had their motif of the bathers, often observed by an outsider; the cliché lives on in the bathers of the Ganges, but now the photographer is the stranger looking on, creepily leering from the margins.
Modern, middle-class India is not represented in the work of any non-Indian photographer as far as I’ve seen. That’s the danger of Orientalism: it becomes a wholesale form of advertising, through which the wealthy can sell themselves a version of the world’s structures and their dominant place within it.
Even now, after having visited India more than 75 times, Steve McCurry appears to be rather naive about the country. His descriptions of India are often cliches, or attempts to express extremely complicate situations in simplistic terms, or contradictions. “The greatest thing about India is it is inclusive and secular,” McCurry told the Indian Express. In the same interview, he glows about the “openness and ability to speak freely”. These remarks make me scratch my head. Has he not, in all of his time in India (an estimate of five years in total time spent there), met anyone who has had their freedom of speech encroached upon? Has he not heard any news? Does he not realise, or not care, that his own personal liberty is not reflected by many, many, many people in that country?
In an interview during this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival – he was there to promote his book India – McCurry offered some very uncomfortable insights while discussing the altering of pictures. Photojournalists, he said, had an ethical duty to leave pictures as they are captured, while art photographers did not. Then, seemingly a propos of neither, he said to interviewer Dipsikha Thakur, “Okay, so you are Indian, right? Now what if I make you into a tone so dark that you look like someone out a village in Sudan – that would be weird, right?”
“I think I’d be far more worried if I look too pale, to be honest,” said Thakur. In what seemed a much more natural sequence of conversation, she then asked McCurry, “How important are political sensitivities to you as a photographer?”
Which is what makes me want to scrutinise my own young white male photographs from India. What did I understand then about the people of India? What could I represent of their societies and cultural practices, when I didn’t have enough understanding to see the subtle connections between themes? Surely I could only offer a satisfyingly familiar idea of what most of my audience already thought.
But at the time I was driven by a sincere urge to use my unearned privilege as a young man who could travel and write freely. Steve McCurry would say the same thing. “It is our duty—my duty and your duty—to tell the stories of those people who cannot tell it themselves,” he has said. “It is a great privilege that comes with being part of the journalistic community. After all, if we all put our feet up and refuse to go into unsafe landscapes to find out about these people, then how would their stories get told?” This is not a disingenuous dilemma.
One day, I was being guided by two middle-aged women, friends of a friend, who suddenly pulled up at a farm in rural west India. I had expressed an interest in the Indian countryside, and here was a chance to learn something. With these women as translators, I was given a tour of a small peanut farm. Our host was, typically, a colourfully-clad dark woman, and when she took me into her kitchen and clear light poured through a small window, creating a pleasing composition of colour and shadow, I closed the shutters once and captured the scene instantaneously. She seemed very pleased, and uttered a comment to me, which was translated to my great consternation. “Now that you’ve taken her photo,” I was told, “she thinks people will come back to make sure everything is fixed.”
The more I thought about, the more I knew a lot had slipped past me that afternoon. It is easy to boast – as Steve McCurry has done – that one holds a “deeper appreciation for the country than a casual traveler.” But in my photographs, and most western photographers of India, there is an obvious distance, an ignorance. As McCurry himself has admitted, most of the time, “interactions happen on a remote level with the subjects.”
In April, Teju Cole in the New York Times called McCurry’s work “astonishingly boring”. The title for this scathing article was ‘A Too-Perfect Picture’, which seems to forecast the recent controversy about the photographer. But Cole was not talking about Photoshop: he was saying the composition and subject matter in McCurry’s work failed to offer an authentic depiction of India. He alludes to prejudices in McCurry’s work, and a tendency to perpetuate “old ideas of what photographs of Indians should look like”. This, Cole says, is part of the popular appeal of Steve McCurry; and it’s also why a thousand travellers with a reasonable eye for colour and composition produce images from countries like India that bear the characteristics of his work. It’s easy, Cole argues, but it’s not “emotionally generous”.
Which is the link, perhaps, with the reaction to these image manipulations in the lab. Distracting elements in the composition of a photograph are inconveniences that are easy to eliminate. These pictures, too-perfect in several ways, may represent a desire to control streets and neighbourhoods, to force societies into pre-packaged moulds, and to manipulate people and manhandle them into something more picturesque or palatable.
In January 2012, house-sitting in an apartment in an area outside of Pune, I got to know a group of gentlemen who spent most of their days sitting outside a temple. One of them, it transpired, worked as a cook at the nearby mental hospital. (To get to our neighbourhood, riksha drivers were best directed with the address ‘Mental Hospital Corner’). He offered me a tour of his workplace. It was the worst day of my life. I have never been so close to sheer hopelessness. There were hundreds of patients; some, including a very intelligent young man – probably not yet an adult – seemed perfectly capable of living in any society, but had been committed by disgruntled family members.
In one area of the mental hospital, inmates stood in very small cages, heavily sedated, and naked lest they try to hang themselves with a pair of jeans. I had my camera bag slung over my shoulders; I also had both a water bottle and a bottle of Sprite. There are only a couple of visual memories that remain with me from that day, but the fact that I recall so vividly how I myself appeared gives some indication what happened at the mental hospital. I did not take a photograph. I turned within myself, not without self-recrimination, and began to question at what point journalism becomes voyeurism.
I still believe there is some value in McCurry’s work and I think many of his photographs go beyond the caricaturing of which he has been recently accused. But if nothing else, these criticisms should make us wary of where we point our cameras, and why. The practice of photography can teach us to see others more clearly and imaginatively, to address and accept complexities, to identify subtleties and try to trace them to their roots. Or we can objectify our subjects, lazily frame them as they have long been depicted, compose them as we want to wish to view them.
We are still, I believe, able to enter into an unfamiliar environment and use a camera with empathy and awareness. Likewise, even in our own home-places, we can be culpable of looking upon those around us with a patronising perspective. To raise a camera to these people, around us daily, we would run the risk of making them cartoons too, or worse, objects that we use to confirm our own mythologies of prejudice and power. But with effort, the photographer can not only see things, but see through them, and use their art to show what is beneath the visible.