The exhibition presented by the Maillol Museum in Paris until May 29, 2022, “The World According to Steve McCurry”, gathers 150 large format photos by one of the photographers who will have most marked the current era.

You know him, perhaps without knowing him: the portrait of the Afghan Girl with green eyes is one of his pictures.

Steve McCurry, now 72, has traveled the world for 40 years. In 1979, he crosses, dressed in local clothing, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan to enter the areas controlled by the mujahideen just before the invasion of the USSR. His photos – the first to show the conflict that had just begun – ensure him a stunning start since he receives the 1980 Robert Capa Gold Medal Prize, recognizing photographers who had shown courage and an exceptional initiative.

His Afghan Girl makes the cover of National Geographic in 1985 and his success has never faded since. Recognized by numerous awards, he notably receives the Magazine Photographer of the Year Award from the National Press Photographers Association (in 1984), the Magazine Photographer of the Year Award from National Geographic (in 1985 and 1995) and the Lucie Award for Photojournalism (in 2003).

From a pictorial point of view, the pictures presented at the Maillol Museum are a monumental slap in the face. The photos are pictorially magnificent, the portraits are striking, the looks are absolutely hypnotizing.

Steve McCurry’s talent as a photographer is undeniable. But the question is to know what we are really looking at: are these the photos of a photojournalist or an artistic photographer?

It turns out that the question arises for Steve McCurry and his work. In 2016, an Italian photographer, Paolo Viglione discovers that one of Steve McCurry’s photos exhibited in Turin has been retouched (and badly): a half-digitally erased piece of a yellow sign post is lying around the feet of a pedestrian and evaporates. Paolo Viglione amusingly reveals his discovery in a Facebook post, but this latter is taken up very seriously all around the world, having the effect of a wildfire: different versions of the same photo published several years apart emerge and show that people have been erased from the photos, or that certain subjects are friends of friends whom Steve McCurry has asked to pose, or that the colors of the photos have been outrageously saturated.

The controversy is such that it forces the same year Steve McCurry to redefine his professional status – going from “photojournalist” to “visual storyteller” (and in fact, this is how he is presented at the Maillol Museum).

Magnum and NatGeo remove suspected Photoshopped photos from their websites, and the National Press Photographers Association Ethics Committee considers that moving away from photojournalism, on which McCurry built his career, is not as easy as issuing a press release and become a self-proclaimed art photographer.

Any alteration of the truth constitutes a breach of ethics. The vast majority of us will not necessarily understand the controversy, especially in the era of Instagram filters.

The distinction between photojournalist and art photographer is however more than important. What I do here with my photographer Cedric Doux is art photography. I am the first one to impose the photo session’s theme, to suggest attitudes that may explain the topic of the day or to erase the cigarette butts appearing on a picture (a running joke, I know).

A photojournalist is supposed to photograph raw reality to report on a current topic. The editing is unthinkable. Because in “photojournalist”, there is “journalist”. It is a question of ethics, especially when a photographer has received a Robert Capa Award, National Geographic Awards, a Lucie Award for photojournalism or when his photos are regularly on the cover of NatGeo.

However, Steve McCurry has built his career, reputation and success for almost forty years under the title of photojournalist, whether he likes it or not.

Obviously, knowing where to put the ethics cursor in a photo is complex, because there is nothing more subjective than a photo. The simple choice of what you decide to photograph, the choice of equipment or the framing of the photo are already subjective decisions, which every photographer knows. Choosing a type of film is another – and Steve McCurry will have, in this regard, made the glory of Kodachrome 64 film – quite bold in terms of colors.

If we have to talk about pre-production, the portraits of Steve McCurry are undoubtedly striking and penetrating – but the viewer does not know and will never know how much they were thought out, posed or staged. I am thinking in particular of the photo of this child so young who points a gun at his temple while crying: what is the story of this highly uncomfortable photo? Did the child spontaneously decide on the gesture? Did the photographer ask him? Why is he crying? And above all: as a human being, isn’t anything better to do at this precise moment than to take a picture?

Did the photographed people give their informed consent (apparently not, in the case of the Afghan Girl – aged 12 at the time of the photo – according to an article in the Indian magazine “The Wire ” published in 2002. Besides, this Afghan Girl also has a name, her name is Sharbat Gula).

If we have to talk about post-production, color saturation, erasure of minor elements or, more boldly, people present on the photo are questionable choices if we talk about photojournalism.

And finally, there is another issue: Steve McCurry has a very dated and very fantasized vision of the third-world countries. It’s exotic. It’s very colorful. It is ancestral. Nothing modern disturbs the harmony of his photos. The children are victims of war (which is true) and there is a Roussauist relationship to nature that feels incomfortable because “those people” are necessarily something bigger than that (but we will never see it in “The World According to Steve McCurry” – which is the title of the exhibition, let me remind you).

Steve McCurry, great photographer? Yes, absolutely.

Steve McCurry, a great person? To be proven.

I enjoyed the form, but I hated the substance. The photos are sublime, but once again: you have to know what you are looking at. And take it as such.

April 1st, 2022

Nuristan – Afghanistan – 1979

Kunar – Afghanistan – 1980

Nuristan – Afghanistan – 1980

Nuristan – Afghanistan – 1980

Nuristan – Afghanistan – 1992

Nuristan – Afghanistan – 1992

Timbuktu – Mali – 1986

Pol-e-Khomri – Afghanistan – 2002

Xigaze – Tibet – 2001

Gulmarg – Kashmir – 1999

Tagong – Tibet – 1999

Angkor – Cambodia – 2000

Peshawar – Pakistan – 2002

Peshawar – Pakistan – 1984

Peshawar – Pakistan – 2002

Amdo – Tibet – 2001

Beirut – Lebanon – 1982

Kathmandu – Nepal – 2013

Yanesha – Perù – 2004

Morondava – Madagascar – 2019

Central Mexican Plateau – Mexico – 2016

Antigua – Guatemala – 2017

Srinagar – Kashmir – 1996

Peshawar – Pakistan – 1983

Welligama – Sri Lanka – 1995

Mazar-e Sharif – Afghanistan – 1991

The Old Delhi Train Station – India – 1983

Rajasthan – India – 1983

Uttar Pradesh – India – 1983

Uttar Pradesh – India – 1983

New York – USA – 2001

New York – USA – 2001