How Souvid Datta’s unethical behavior is exposing photojournalism’s lack of ethics

For me, it all started last Monday, when I came across a post, by BENJAMIN CHESTERTON, entitled LENSCULTURE AND THE COMMODIFICATION OF RAPE, in which the author addressed a photo-contest created by Magnum Photos and LensCulture. The core of the problem was, as the title put forward, the photograph chosen to promote that competition. After shit hit the fan (we’ll get there in a moment), LensCulture published an apology in which they state that 1) Magnum Photos had nothing to do with the choice of that image (although they promoted the author in their page and had previously awarded him); 2) They claim it was clearly inappropriate and thoughtless on [their] part

The photograph in question was taken by Souvid Datta (b. India 1990) and depicts a “trafficked child sex slave being raped”, as Chesterton puts it. Chesterton chose not to publish the photograph and I’ll follow his steps, for I think that’s the only ethical take on this. To sum it up, the photograph shows a view above a bed, where we see the back of the rapist on top of the child, who is looking away. So not only is the girl being exploited in real life, now she’s also exploited through the photographer’s gaze and, as a consequence, through everyone else’s gaze. It’s Chesterton’s opinion that if it weren’t for “human rights activist (formerly of Amnesty) Rob Godden [who] pointed out how indecent the use of the image was, it would still be being shared on Facebook”. And then again, Chesterton resumes:

This is a horrific case where one abuse, one exploitation has been heaped on another. Where a real human, with a real story, real children and real feelings is reduced to clickbait for a shitty competition in which you can trade your soul for exposure.All for $60.

Although, initially, LensCulture issued an apology in which they were still justifying the photographer’s approach, stating they believed the work of the photographer to have been carried out with great ethical care and in close collaboration with the subject portrayed, they then reviewed their position (under a lot of pressure, of course) and editor-in-chief Jim Casper wrote the following:

LensCulture staff are reviewing international guidelines for ethical reporting and photojournalism, and we will be applying a much more rigorous editorial review process before publishing material of this nature in the future.
We are sorry for our several errors in this matter, and we apologize.

But then, what looked like a common ethical problemhow often do we see victims being objectified by photojournalists? – turned into an even bigger scandal. In the National Press Photographers Association‘s website, Melissa Lyttle wrote about the following events regarding Souvid Datta’s work. Let me try and sum it up:

1. Following the LensCulture/Magnum Photos usage of Datta’s image, Shreya Bhat, a social worker who once worked with the same sex workers Datta claims to have photographed, exposed his plagiarism of a Mary Ellen Mark photograph, sharing her story with Chesterton and PetaPixel, by email. Now, when I look at this particular image, I can’t help but wonder about the attention it got, when it first started to circulate and enter competitions in the context of a series entitled “In the Shadows of Kolkata”. Wasn’t it obvious? Doesn’t the figure on the back look like a spectrum?

2. Because that photograph was part of a series that had earned Datta an award of excellence in the College Photographer of the Year (CPOY) Documentary category in 2013, it triggered a bigger wave of indignation and consequently the CPOY published a statement justifying the rescission of that award. There, the CPOY calls for younger generations to be more responsible, stating that: Now, more than ever, the integrity of our profession demands adherence to journalistic ethics. CPOY calls on you, as student photographers, to put ethics at the core of your being and your work. What CPOY does not explain is how they failed to notice this very poor manipulation and this raises subsequent questions, namely: How carefully do these judges look at photographs? As MICHAEL ZHANG, from PetaPixel, concludes: “Over the past several years, Datta has collected a number of prestigious awards and grants in photography. They include the PDN 30 in 2017, the Pulitzer Centre Grant in 2016, the Getty Grant for Editorial Photography in 2015, PDN Annual in 2015, and Magnum Photos 30 Under 30 Award in 2015. He’s also one of the 12 contestants on this year’s “Masters of Photography” reality TV show, by Sky Arts.” 

And this is where things get really complicated, because can the same industry that promotes a certain kind of photographic approach now behave like this is a scandal, only because manipulation and appropriation are clearly recognized as ethical transgressions? Besides all that, why were his works worth awarding and promoting in the first place? What is his originality? What is it that we need to see about the violent abuses of sex workers in Kolkata that Datta had managed to expose? Take, as another example, Datta’s project China: The Human Price of Pollution, which was chosen by Magnum Photos for their 30 under 30 award: what is it about this project that is truthful, original and worth seeing?

3. Daniele Volpe, a photographer based in Guatemala, wrote a Facebook post exposing Datta’s appropriation of some of his photographs. Nothing is simple in this story, for Daniele, himself, acknowledged he had known about this since last November and had failed to act accordingly. How can this be? Why did the photographer hesitated to expose this appropriation? Would it be an error to assume that this relativism, this individualism, is also part of the problem. Why do people forget that when it comes to human rights (and labor related issues, for that matter), one person’s action is always consequent?

4. Datta agreed to talk to Olivier Laurent, from Time, and there he confessed:

The first thing I want to do is take responsibility. In 2013-15, [when I was] aged 22-24, I foolishly doctored images, inexcusably lied about others’ work being my own and then buried these wrongdoings in the years that followed. Now these images are resurfacing, they threaten to undermine any work I have legitimately pursued since and, crucially, all the trust that the people in my photos, my collaborators and supporting institutions placed in me. I am so profusely sorry for this. I hope to begin making amends…

But what I find most surprising about this interview is why Olivier Laurent chooses to pose the following question: “Can we still trust that work?” Is it really something the author should answer? Doesn’t this question expose something else that is corrupting the idea of truth in photojournalism? Let me try and explain. In answering that questions, Datta says the following:

From here on, I do not know what will happen to me or the stories I have followed. I fear above all that they may remain untold. My credibility has been fundamentally challenged, and I understand the serious implications of that in an industry where credibility counts for everything.

I want to suggest that maybe Laurent and Datta are missing one point, that is: 1) we don’t need to see the face of the victims exploited in a photograph to know about sex-trafficking; if a photographer goes on to do that, then he better level with the victims and show us the place he occupies in that framing. If there is truth, I have little doubts it is “in” the author’s approach and no ethics is more important than his. The credibility will derive from there, from that truth. Unfortunately, the photojournalism industry has allowed the nominal value to become a bigger value than it should be. If photojournalism wants to be ruled by ethics and truth, it can’t really abide by the art market’s rules at the same time. They are not compatible, as everyone in either field knows. 

And we’ll go back to the beginning and to Chesterton’s words. In a conversation with Diane Smyth, from British Journal of Photography, Chesterton argues against “the need” to see the sort of imagery Datta was first and foremost, doing and, secondly, being awarded for:

There’s this idea you should be able to photograph anything, but this photography doesn’t threaten people who work in [and control] this industry, there’s no argument for people who want to make a difference… These pictures don’t do anything, how can I do anything for this child to make her better off? There are people work in these slums, wonderful people [who try to help victims of sex trafficking]. Give agency to them.

On a final note, I should say that, again following Chesterton’s note, I hope this doesn’t turn out to be another tragic story, like that of Kevin Carter’s (both were awarded Pultizer’s, Carter in 1994 and Datta in 2016). Datta needs to change profession, I think that is pretty clear, and then forgive himself, maybe go on to do some therapy and carry on a different and better life.

On another note, this should be enough to open the industry’s eyes to the need to follow their own code of ethics. But, then again, it’s never enough. The problem seams to be an overall lack of seriousness. They set a code of ethics and some guidelines to help them highlight some authors and photographs, in detriment of others, but they end up just glimpsing at the images, not taking into account their own rules. 

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