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. 

٠ The problem with expectations in the context of documentary photography ٠

The short documentary above got me (re)thinking about the controversy regarding Edgar Martins commissioned work for the New York Times. To sum it up, back in 2008, the New York Times had commissioned him a work about the collapse of the real estate market and its subsequent effects in the landscape. Soon after publishing the essay, the NYT issued a note explaining the decision to take down the slide show with Edgar’s photos. in it they state that:

A reader, however, discovered on close examination that one of the pictures was digitally altered, apparently for aesthetic reasons. Editors later confronted the photographer and determined that most of the images did not wholly reflect the reality they purported to show. Had the editors known that the photographs had been digitally manipulated, they would not have published the picture essay, which has been removed from NYTimes.com.

At the time I was very interested and participating in the discussion it arose, but am now revisiting the issue with a new point of view: one that equates this all controversy with the paradox of authenticity in photography and its burden of representation. This post is a singular moment of such reflection.

Edgar Martins took some time to respond to the controversy but then he finally issued an essay where he said that The work, itself, points to photography’s inadequacies, its insufficiencies. Throughout the text he quotes Barthes, Sontag and other Authors as to legitimize his position. Not that his approach needed to be authenticated, it just needed to be objective.

Martins’ response is one from someone who has a very structured discourse about the issues at hand, namely, the indexical status of photography, its place as a document and the drama of representation. Though his response is strong on rhetorics it’s less successful in its believability, since the “disapprobation” came from his denial of having altered the photographs and not because of some naif assertion of an evidential status of photography or, for that matter, of an overall consensus about the level of reality, or so I thought.

It always surprises me that people still think of photography as being an objective reproduction of the real thing, after all the debate about the fallacies of the photography medium, but in the NYT’s blog, regarding this specific controversy, David Dunlap writes: There’s probably no more troubling issue facing photojournalism than the digital manipulation of images that are supposed to faithfully represent what’s in front of the camera. But even if this statement seems to me old fashioned and irrelevant, the NYT’s policy is straight forward:

Images in our pages, in the paper or on the Web, that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene (except for the recognized practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions).

Although the majority of the discussions that followed mainly focused on the hypothetical status of photography as document, the narrative vs the fictional, the photo-journalist vs the artist and so on, it is evident that the myth that was overrun here was not the one about photography being able to mirror a real moment in time, but, instead, the myth of authenticity (of the author that is). If there is no inherent authenticity to a medium, any medium itself (for authenticity is in the eye of the beholder), then the problem of authenticity here has to do with moral and ethical questions, namely with the implied veracity and sincerity expected from a professional worker (in most of the fields with the obvious exception of politics).

21-Phoenix-Arizona© Edgar Martins, Untitled, Phoenix (Arizona), from This is Not a House, 2008

As stated by Ruby Beesley, in Aesthetic Magazine: …in a strict reportage context, it is important that the deployment of this sort of methodology is contextualised so that the viewer is given as much information as possible about the photographer’s intentions and working methods.” Recognising this, he [meaning Edgar Martins] ultimately believes the New York Times commissioned his pieces «because the strength of the work resides precisely in the illusion of photographic transparency.»

All over the web, in different platforms, there are comments worth reading. For example, Stan B. questions the legitimacy of the author by posing the following questions: How can we trust what you show, when we can’t trust what you say? and Actually, you can also mirror that for symmetry – how can we trust what you say, when we can’t trust what you show? And it’s not easy to follow on this comment for Edgar himself, in 2008, in the context of an interview given to Ruben, from Art mostfierce, said:

When I photograph I don’t do any post production to the images, either in the darkroom or digitally, because it erodes the process. So I respect the essence of these spaces. / When you become a perfectionist, the perfection takes over, you know? And that really skews the overall meaning of the image. So that ‘s why I try to make the images as organically as possible…But I don’t have anything against digital photography.

I don’t have an empathic response to this  project because I dislike it in its two major components: its aesthetics and the social comment it implies. Regarding the former, I don’t find the pictures beautiful, they lack information precisely because their excessive symmetry makes them too clean, hyper-aestheticized, sterile and overall disconnected with reality. As for the latter, I actually don’t think there’s any comment, which is fine if that is his intention. I can see how a blank canvas may be the ideal place to suggest a critical point of view, only not in the context of photography that is supposed to illustrate (not document) a specific moment, event or context.

As for Edgar’s decision to approach this in a deceitful manner, I can’t make comments on his intentions or decisions, but I can make on who he presents himself to be. There is no objective truth or reality besides the one that is presented to us and there is evidently no medium that can objectively depict a reality for there isn’t one besides the subjective one, in this case the reality of the photographer. I see no problem whatsoever in manipulating photographs, chemically or digitally, my only question is about the author’s inherent inauthenticity, which is to say, his inherent duplicity. Photography is a simulacrum, an “industrial simulacrum”, as Baudrillard put it, and so are we. Coherence is very high valued in the modern world, as is integrity, honesty and sincerity, qualities that are in check in this controversy. I’d say none of them has to do with authenticity, for authenticity is a-moral and mainly dependent of feelings and emotions suggested. So if one is hired by a Journal with a traditional straight approach to documentary photography, one clearly knows what is expected from him and of him. The over mundane part here being the fact that he was never truthful to his viewers, claiming that the issue was a lack of understanding between employer and employee. As we all know, that is just a dumb excuse, and one that underestimates us all.

And I’ll finish in much lighter tone with another comment found in the NYT’s blog. User Todd Morman firstly quotes from Edgar Martins’ statement: Moreover, I have always resorted to digital technology to restore or repair images. Those who have truly looked at my photographs, especially the larger, darker, 3m works, will know that they are dust or scratch free, a condition, which is unattainable in analogue Photography. This implies some kind of mediation. Then adds what he calls a translation of such statement: I know I’ve clearly asserted over and over again that I don’t use digital manipulation on my photos but come on! What kind of moron are you? Just look at them; it’s totally obvious I’m always digitally manipulating my photos. You can’t get that kind of effect in real life! You’re so stupid!

12-Phoenix-Arizona© Edgar Martins, Untitled, Phoenix (Arizona), from This is Not a House, 2008

 

٠ ‘Never have we had access to so much information about each other, and never has the information been so unreliable.’ ٠

In this project I have downloaded pictures of ‘friends’ that I only know through the Internet, and given them a new context. The persons are only visible through a digital representation, while the surroundings are as analog as possible. The sceneries are photographed places that invited to interaction – places that missed the company of human beings. The milieu adds a new meaning to the way the digital personas act, and gives their simplified characteristics meaning and personality again, by adding a setting to their digital components.” excerpt from Johan Ronsenmunthe‘s statement about his project Off II

8_814offiismall14-copy8_8814offiismall16-copy8_814offiismall20-copy© Johan Rosenmunthe, from the project Off II, 2010

Although it obviously is another sort of technology, there seems to be a certain reluctance to actually treat photography (and its products) as simply that. Are the various interventions you have made in photographic images, such as the pixellation in Off II, an attempt to expose the (technological) processes behind the photograph itself?

Well, that particular project (Off II) deals quite explicitly with two different kinds of processes, but perhaps more as a comment on the subject matter (digital vs physical encounters) than in its own respect. So, no, I don’t think you could say that this was my goal, but I am definitely interested in photographic processes. Not as isolated technologies, but the different visual outcomes they have. In the same way that the sculptor part of me is interested in different materials, I find these technological phenomena interesting because they make some choices for me. They are kind of the most basic choices you have regarding surface and materials when you are working with photography and are interested in the sculptural aspect of it.

Not to over-emphasise this issue of the technology, because of course there are other themes here, but what do you see as the relation of this work to the discourse of surveillance and control that photography is now so thoroughly implicated in?

I have been interested in this field for a long time and it is something I keep coming back to. In the pixellated friends project I was discussing the digital presence of real people online. As I write in the project statement: ‘Never have we had access to so much information about each other, and never has the information been so unreliable.’ And in Enlargements I crop and zoom into one cityscape image resulting in a number of images that resemble surveillance footage. Or rather, it’s my own surveillance footage. What I find interesting here is the convention that if you show a certain kind of low quality (technologically speaking) image it automatically adds an aura of credibility. We learned this from the use of media – if a very low quality image is worthy of our time, it must be because there is some important truths hidden in there.”

excerpt from an interview by Darren Campion, published in Paper Journal

8_87offii05-copy8_814offiismall17-copy8_8814offiismall13-copy© Johan Rosenmunthe, from the project Off II, 2010

┐ PS, a love affair └

In another place, in another life, I mentioned North Koreans’ love for Photoshop. While reading about North Korea’s recent declaration of war I come across several other examples of this love affair, which will follow below.

Alan Taylor, at “The Atlantic”: While researching a photo entry about North Korea’s recent threats of war, I discovered an image released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) that appears to have been digitally manipulated — at least two, possibly three hovercraft appear to have been pasted into the scene of a military exercise, reportedly taking place on North Korea’s east coast on March 25, 2013. Two hovercraft crashing through the surf, nearest to the photographer, appear to be just a single hovercraft, with a digital twin copied and pasted nearby. Two of the more distant craft appear to be digital twins as well. A third vehicle in the scene has some of the hallmarks of digital pasting, including color mismatch, a slight halo, and soft edges. We contacted AFP, which distributed this image from KCNA, and they have since removed the image due to evidence of tampering.

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And here is Brian Ashcraft’s, from “Kotaku”, look back at some of the high points (low points?) of possible North Korean Photoshops over the years, whether that’s adding food, livestock, or a then sickly Kim Jong-il to photos.

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┐ Cooper & Gorfer └

© Cooper & Gorfer, from My Quiet of Gold

© Cooper & Gorfer, from My Quiet of Gold

© Cooper & Gorfer, from My Quiet of Gold

© Cooper & Gorfer, from My Quiet of Gold

“The artist duo Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer work at the intersection of contemporary photography with painting of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Their photographic installations move fluidly between reality and imagination, technical and artistic interpretation, and collective myth and personal narrative.(…)


For their book My Quiet of Gold, Cooper and Gorfer traveled to the rural areas of Kyrgyzstan to collect sagas and stories in conversations and interviews with local inhabitants. Out of these tales, the duo created striking photographic portraits that go far beyond mere documentation to tell and visually interpret romantic-melancholy stories of love, sorrow, and betrayal in a completely new and non-linear ways.


Because their carefully staged motifs are then reworked digitally, another layer of fiction mixes with fact and pictorial choreography with photography. This unique blend creates a powerful new whole from the visual and narrative threads so organically and intuitively woven together by the artists.”

in Gestalten

their work can be seen here