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Famed photojournalist Steve McCurry speaks out on his use of Photoshop

Where do photojournalists draw the line between processing a photograph and changing its integrity?That’s the question photographer Steve McCurry is facing after multiple versions of his images were uncovered online, some completely removing or adding elements to the scene. McCurry, the photographer behind National Geographic’s arguably most memorable cover photo of an Afgan girl with deep blue eyes, recently released a statement, saying he would rein in his use of Photoshop, but that he also no longer classified himself as a photojournalist, but a visual storyteller.

“I’ve always let my pictures do the talking, but now I understand that people want me to describe the category into which I would put myself, and so today I would say that I am a visual storyteller,” McCurry told Time Magazine. “The years of covering conflict zones are in the distant past. Except for a brief time at a local newspaper in Pennsylvania, I have never been an employee of a newspaper, news magazine, or other news outlet. I have always freelanced.”

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The reason why McCurry has to defend in work started in May, when a photographer spotted an error in one of McCurry’s prints at a show in Italy. The image appeared to have an incomplete cloning, where the bottom of a sign post appeared twice and a pedestrian’s foot was missing. McCurry responded by saying the error was made by a former member of his team while he was traveling.

Since the initial report, several people have found Photoshopped images by McCurry, largely when multiple versions of the same image were posted on his website. While many images contain simple color adjustments, several remove distractions from the image, cloning out entire people in some cases. While the adjustments wouldn’t have been an issue for, say, a fine art portrait, McCurry’s long history as a photojournalist brought criticism to his post-processing methods.

“Some of my work has migrated into the fine art field and is now in private collections and museums,” he said. “I understand that it’s virtually impossible to assign me to a specific category or classification, but that’s partly a function of working for 40 years, and having a career which has evolved as media itself has changed.”

The initial Photoshopped image was part of a gallery, not a newspaper publication. As for McCurry’s work for National Geographic, the publication’s director of photography, Sarah Leen, said it has a rigorous process for images, receiving all the RAW files and doing their own color correction. McCurry’s “Afghan Girl” image was shot on Kodak film.

Still, McCurry says that, moving forward, he will limit his use of Photoshop, even for his personal work.