Photographer Steve McCurry on accusations of cultural appropriation in the latest Valentino campaign: \"It's ridiculous\"

Photographer Steve McCurry on accusations of cultural appropriation in the latest Valentino campaign: "It's ridiculous"

Steve in Singapore

Text: Adibah Isa

Image: Valentino,
Courtesy of Sundaram Tagore Gallery,
Getty Images

In town for the opening of his exhibition, 'Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs', we meet the lens behind the 'Afghan Girl' and Valentino's Spring Summer 2016 campaign

I'm into question number three on my list of 10 for Steve McCurry, and it's then that I realised he's a man of few words.

We are talking about the award-winning photographer who shot the 'Afghan Girl' for National Geographic's cover in 1985. Yes, it's the same Philadelphia native who discovered Sharbat Gula — a name that was previously not known until the pair reunited in 2002 — in Pakistan in the thick of the Soviet-Afghan war. You know the story by now: McCurry went on to indulge the world with his rich portraits of culture, punched with an ability to connect you with a striking pair of eyes. As the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words...which is probably why McCurry's a little tight-lipped.

We meet an hour before a private preview of his exhibition at Sundaram Tagore Gallery, where 55 of his photographs are shown. Spanning more than 30 years of his career (he started as a photojournalist for a local newspaper upon graduating college), some of his subjects are instantly recognisable. Among icons such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi captured in 1991, there was also 'Girl in Green Shawl', shot in 2002. Against the stark grey and white walls of the sprawling gallery, McCurry's photographs transport viewers to an intimate journey through Afghanistan, Burma, China, Thailand, Pakistan, Turkey, Tibet, Sri Lanka and India.

Steve McCurry, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, nonviolent activist and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, Rangoon, Burma (Myanmar), 1995

Surrounded by his images, McCurry sits across from me in formal black and whites. He answers question after question in a slow, still voice — as if he's heard it all before. Perhaps I had been asking the wrong questions. For starters, some had been initially crossed out by his media representative — questions I thought the general public would want to know: Does he seek permission before he shoots portraits? Has he ever been sneaky in trying to get a good shot? How much of the environmental elements in the Valentino Spring Summer 2016 campaign were real? But alas, in the interest of political correctness and good public relations, the world will never know.

What I eventually learned were nuggets of trivia that were still relatively interesting. For instance, in his most recent picture book, India, he shared that he sought to make a poem expressing his ideas, views and feelings about the country. "The poem? It's the book," he explained. "It's hard to talk about pictures because pictures are pictures, and I'm not a writer. Hopefully the pictures speak for themselves, know what I mean?"

Since his first visit to India in 1978, the Nikon-equipped man has been to the country more than 60 times. When asked how different a photographer he is now, he generalises his response. "I think we all hope that we're evolving, and we've grown and are becoming better people," he said. "I think you learn things along the way and hopefully you improve."

Steve McCurry, Dust Storm, Rajasthan, India, 1983

His favourite shot out of 96 from India is that of a group of women caught in a dust storm in Rajasthan. Shot in 1983, McCurry spotted that opportune moment in a field and ran over. "I was just lucky," he said nonchalantly.

His ears perked up at the mention of the Valentino Spring Summer 2016 campaign. Released recently, the campaign featured models Greta Varlese, Alice Metza, Cameron Traiber, Kirin Dejonckheere and Tami Williams dressed to the nines in the fashion house's African-inspired collection by creative directors Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri. While McCurry's not a fashion photographer, the duo wanted to tap into his gift for "creating a story through expressions, gestures and details."

"His photography makes one imagine what lies before and after the photographic shot, which reflects the meaning of a dream," reported Picciolo and Chiuri in a press release released by Valentino. "This is the same concept that coincides with our sense of fashion."

Valentino Spring Summer 2016 campaign

They contacted McCurry's agents in Italy, and the photographer came on board without hesitation. Together with the designers, they came up with various locations but ultimately settled on Kenya for its convenience in bringing up to 30 people onto the location. Shot over three days in the Amboseli National Park, the photographs also feature Maasai tribes in the backdrop.

Upon the release of the campaign images early this month, critics were quick to accuse the luxury brand of cultural appropriation. Calling out the fact that while the campaign was "dedicated to Africa and to a reciprocal recognition of different cultures", it predominantly consisted of a line-up of white models sporting cornrows, with the Kenyans as a backdrop.

"Oh fashion. When will you learn?" remarked Huffington Post.

"Designers — and not just Valentino — still fail at racially diverse casting in their ad campaigns and runway shows, regardless of theme or location," commented Fashionista.

While not everything inspired by another culture is cultural appropriation, the Daily Life, an online platform associated with The Sydney Morning Herald, lamented that the Valentino campaign is different. "Here, the sampling of cultures is a one-way street, tinged with an uncomfortable power dynamic as glamorously styled white models take to the front, while local villagers appear candidly in the background."

Valentino Spring Summer 2016 campaign

I asked McCurry if he's heard of the controversy the campaign has courted.

"Like what, for instance?" he replied, perplexed.

"The use of white models, with Kenyans at the backdrop — that's what the articles covered. What's your take on it?"

"I think it's ridiculous," he responded. "The only thing I can speak to is the relationship I had and what the crew had with the local people. If somebody wants to make an issue out of something, that's fine. But I think it's nonsense. I don't buy it."

"Okay," I nodded. "I was just curious as to what you thought of it. So anyway, what's next on your bucket list?"

"I'm continuing to travel," McCurry replied, before pressing on about the comments. "Where did you see that? On a blog or something?"

Yes, I said — I explained that I had Googled the campaign in preparation for our interview, only to find those comments.

"There's a lot of people with too much time on their hands," he shot back. "People who have too much time on their hands should get up off their ass and do something with their life. Rather than sit there, and spew evil venom about stuff they have no clue about. They should get up off their ass and do something with their f**cking lives. There's so much s**t on the internet, and I don't read any of it. I don't listen to it. It's just negativity. There's always somebody who's going to find the dark side."

After that momentary lapse of composition, McCurry answered my initial question. He shared that he'll be working on shooting subcultures around the world, including motorcycle gangs. Sensing that he's somewhat loosened up, I mustered some courage to show him my 'Afghan Girl' costume I wore for a Halloween party five years ago — you know, now that he's warmed up to me.

Steve McCurry with his portraits of the 'Afghan Girl', Sharbat Gula

"I was young and stupid," I said sheepishly as I showed him the photo on my mobile. The costume had the full works: Green contact lenses, a cinnamon-coloured shawl and the yellow borders of a National Geographic cover. McCurry took my mobile, gave what could only be described as a polite snort, and remarked, "I'm going to send this to myself."

Noticing the showers were not letting up, he stepped outside and captured some scenes on his mobile in child-like wonder. Returning to the studio, he politely granted me with a selfie opportunity in front of the 'Afghan Girl' portrait hanging above the reception. Just as I settled down into a cab, I scrolled through my sent messages and saw that he had sent three images to an email which didn't bear an official address.

I might just have McCurry's personal email on my mobile after all.

'Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs is now showing from now till 21 February at Sundaram Tagore Gallery, 5 Lock Road, Gillman Barracks. For more information, click here.