Iconic Controversies of XXI Century Photography

Stan Kujawa / Alamy Stock Photo

Visual Cult Magazine is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photography and Controversy [1] have coped together since the nineteenth century. And as a creative offspring of modernism, the medium was both hated and loved in equal shares. Given the lack of artistic merit associated with traditional art forms like painting and sculpture, many dismissed the mechanical process we all now know. Nevertheless, some praised its potential and ability to capture the world in new and unique ways; from realistic to surreal, from direct to abstract.

This capability of reproducing the observable world with high levels of detail and realism has placed photography in a complex position ever since. And as you might’ve guessed by now, this situation hasn’t cooled down. Back to our contemporary world of the twenty-first century, we find that photography has raised several controversies. These are all very much capable of generating loud and heated debates among – not just photographers – but society as a whole.

  • Photo manipulation: The use of software to manipulate photographs is a hotly debated topic. Some believe it’s acceptable to digitally retouch photos to create art or improve the overall quality of an image; while others argue that it is unethical and can be misleading. For me, this last argument only applies to genres like photojournalism and documentary works.
  • Street photography: Street photography involves taking pictures of people in public places without their permission. While some photographers argue that it is an important art form that captures the essence of everyday life, others believe that it is an invasion of privacy and can be exploitative.
  • Nudity: Images featuring nudity are often controversial, some people defend that they are art while others find them offensive or inappropriate. The subject matter can influence even more the already controversial nature of nudity if the subjects are minors.
  • Photojournalism & Documentary Work: Photojournalists often capture images of tragic or sensitive events, such as war, natural disasters, and crime scenes. Some people argue that these images are essential for informing the public and raising awareness, while others believe that they can be graphic and traumatizing. On the other hand, documentary photographers usually seek less-conjunctural stories from a specific quotidian scene. Therefore, society expects right and true images that fulfil informational needs from photojournalism rather than documentary work.
  • Copyright: The use of copyrighted images without permission or attribution is a controversial topic as well. Some believe images should be free to use, while others argue that photographers have a right to protect their work and benefit from their licensed use.

So today, I bring you the results of a quest into iconic examples of these.

Photo manipulation

In a nutshell, the scandal came alive in 2016 after Paolo Viglione spotted a glitch in one of McCurry’s printed photographs at an exhibition. While the original photo was removed from McCurry’s website, people quickly began digging to see if they could find other images of his images that had been seriously altered. The story somewhat concluded after he said the issue in the Cuba image was a change that he would have never authorized and that the lab technician who made the mistake was dispatched right away.

In various sites, we can read that McCurry makes an effort to be involved in reviewing and supervising the printing of his work. However, there are instances where the prints are processed and shipped when he wasn’t around. He acknowledged the mistake and took responsibility for it. After that, he implemented some changes in his studio’s procedures to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future as well.

This is one of those cases in which taking a side is not as easy as it might seem. The one-man army figure applies to us the mortal figure of photography. But for characters like McCurry, delivering high-quality images is the result of a large team working towards specific goals. I think the controversy escalated for the following reason. In our minds, McCurry’s work has been associated more with photojournalism rather than documentary work. And this collective thinking isn’t unfounded of course.

Sure, there is a clear overlap between documentary work and photojournalism, of course. The former often involves a more in-depth exploration of a particular subject or theme over a longer period, while the latter is typically oriented towards capturing newsworthy events and current affairs. Back to McCurry, he is generally seen as a storyteller focused on the everyday lives of people around the globe, which isn’t an exclusive theme of either of these two genres.

A quick glimpse into his website gives us a clear indication of how to categorize his work. His photographs often depict the human condition and capture the emotions and experiences of his subjects, which is a hallmark of documentary photography. However, many of his images have also appeared in newspapers and magazines, where they have served as powerful visual representations of current events and important issues around the world.

That being said, the controversy takes an interesting turn. Given his background, we have no solid reason to think that he was lying about the events surrounding the doctored photographs. And even if he wasn’t being honest about that, his work was more documentary than photojournalistic, so there was no serious harm resulting from it.

Nevertheless, we can all agree that this only applies to Visual Storytelling and not photojournalism of course. Here you can read more about how the late McCurry identifies himself nowadays.

Street photography

One of the most controversial moments in street photography from the last decade is the case of photographer Bruce Gilden. In 2015, he published a series of close-up, flash-lit portraits of unsuspecting people on the streets of New York City. The project was titled “Face” and sparked debates on privacy, consent, and ethics in street photography.

Gilden’s style results from an aggressive approach to candid, close-up photographs of unsuspecting subjects while using a mounted flash gun. The technique captures the subjects’ raw, unfiltered reactions. The major arguments related to his aggressive form of street photography can be split into the following way:

  • Critics: A lot of people found Gilden’s approach invasive and disrespectful, arguing that it violated the subjects’ privacy and dignity. They felt that taking close-up, flash-lit photos without consent was unethical and exploitative, especially when capturing vulnerable individuals or those in embarrassing situations.
  • Supporters: Others appreciated Gilden’s raw, unfiltered portrayal of humanity and considered it a legitimate form of artistic expression. They argued that street photography has always been about capturing candid moments and that his confrontational style was simply a more direct way of revealing the true essence of his subjects. They also believe that public spaces are open to photography and that Gilden’s work is a valid representation of urban life.

I have a deep respect for his style and I enjoy it overall. But what pleases me the most, is hearing him talk about how subjects had made an impression on his life. The controversy surrounding Gilden’s work highlights the ongoing debate about the balance between artistic freedom and personal privacy in street photography.


As Foucault could agree, it’s not true that we are more advanced nowadays and therefore more comfortable with sexuality. Even in Christian folklore, we can see Adam and Eve experiencing shame after suddenly becoming aware of their nakedness and covering themselves with fig leaves. This leads us to our next controversial photographic event in recent years, Spencer Tunick’s “Return of the Nude”.

Tunick is a photographer known for developing large-scale installations featuring groups of naked people in public spaces. These have taken place at iconic locations around the world and involve hundreds to even thousands of volunteers posing nude in a carefully choreographed way. His work is controversial because it challenges societal norms and taboos around nudity and public displays of the body while emphasizing the beauty and diversity of the human form. His work has been both heavily praised and criticized; nevertheless, his installations remain some of the most iconic and memorable works of contemporary photography, commenting on the human relationship with the environment and the use of public spaces as a canvas.

Some of the reasons why some people have been scandalized by Tunick’s work are:

  • Many people find the idea of being publicly nude to be offensive or inappropriate. Tunick’s installations often take place in highly visible locations, such as Times Square, the Sydney Opera House in Australia, and the Dead Sea in Israel, among others.
  • Nudity is often associated with sexuality and can be seen as a taboo subject in many cultures. Tunick’s installations challenge these taboos and can be perceived as a form of exhibitionism or voyeurism by some.
  • Additionally, some people see these installations as indecent or pornographic, as they feature groups of naked people near each other. This can be seen as a violation of social norms around modesty and decency.

Beyond that, some critics argue that participants may not fully understand the implications of being photographed in the nude or may feel pressured to participate due to social or cultural norms, which, to be honest, feels paternalistic in my opinion.

Despite all these concerns, Spencer Tunick’s work has also been celebrated by many as a powerful and thought-provoking exploration of the human form and our relationship to the environment. The controversy surrounding his work has also sparked important conversations around the role of nudity in art, the boundaries of public decency, and the ethics of using human subjects in art installations.


Picking just one example of this category was quite hard, so I decided to share an instance that shocked me since it became public some years ago. Amidst the 2015 World Press Photo contest, the image of “Jon and Alex” by Mads Nissen stirred debate on ethics and privacy. The photograph depicted an intimate moment between a gay couple in Russia, raising questions about the subjects’ consent and the potential consequences for them in a country with anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

This photograph was seen as a powerful symbol of the struggle for LGBTQ rights and the human cost of discriminatory legislation; it was widely praised for its emotional impact and for the way it captured the vulnerability and tenderness of the couple’s relationship. As expected, it also sparked controversy after getting denounced by politicians and religious leaders as “pornography” and called for it to be banned. Up to this day, this shot remains a powerful and moving image that has come to symbolize the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ rights around the world.

As LGBTQ people in Russia have faced persecution and discrimination in recent years, such actions quickly raised concerns for the safety and well-being of the couple. Back in the day, I remember reading that this particular photograph was intended to shed light on the human cost of discrimination and give a voice to marginalized communities, and eventually encourage greater acceptance and understanding of LGBTQ rights in Russia and around the world. In 2019, Mads Nissen shared on his Instagram that Alex Semyonov died of heart failure at the age of just 30 years old…

“I left my camera at home and dedicated that year to spreading the message through interviews, artist talks, answering letters… and the opening of countless exhibitions in countless countries around the entire world… Wherever I was, I always tried to spread the message that was important to you – that the image wasn’t really about gay or straight, East vs. West, religion or politics – But about LOVE and the most basic human rights.”


One of the most iconic moments involving photographic copyright infringement from the last decade is the “Monkey Selfie” case. In 2011, a smiling macaque monkey named Naruto took a selfie with David Slater’s camera and opened a new dimension into the realm of copyright issues. The photographer was looking to capture some close-up photos of a monkey’s face in a North Sulawesi national park in Indonesia. He placed his camera on a tripod and the monkeys didn’t allow him to get too close; nevertheless, one particular monkey took several photos, including a popular one that went viral.

The drama came about in 2014 when a dispute between Mr Slater and Wikimedia Commons arose over the legal status of the image from the perspective of copyright law. Wikimedia Commons labelled the image as public domain, arguing that monkeys cannot hold copyrights. Mr Slater requested that the image be removed, but Wikipedia refused to do so, and the so-called monkey selfie still appears on the site as public domain material. In 2018, the U.S. court ruled that animals can’t hold copyrights, and Slater agreed to donate a portion of the photo’s revenue to charities protecting the macaque’s habitat.

Beyond the memes around the case involving Naruto and David Slater, we learned that:

  1. Animals cannot hold copyrights under US law, as determined by the federal judge and upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
  2. The Copyright Act does not grant animals the right to own intellectual property.
  3. Legal disputes can arise over the ownership of creative works, even in unconventional situations involving non-human entities.

Wrapping-it Up

Several cases were filtered out while picking just one from each category, and it was a difficult task as you can already imagine. Amidst the era of deep fakes and AI, the aforementioned controversies could be seen as meaningless and naive. In the following weeks, we’ll keep you posted about how these new technologies are forcing us to reflect upon reality and trustworthy images around the web.

  1. Even its invention involved some drama between Nicéphore NiépceLouis DaguerreHenry Fox Talbot and others. For example, Niépce is often credited with creating the first permanent photograph, Daguerre is usually credited with the invention of the daguerreotype, the first practical photographic process that made photography widely accessible to the public. ↩︎