I am oscillating between amusement, loathing and pity at the moment at the very mention of the name Souvid Datta. Photojournalist Datta, has just been publicly outted for one of the most outrageous flimflams known in photography in the last decade.
Amusement, mainly, because I know there must be a bunch of curatorial and editorial types and the people that they advise about who is going to be the next “IT” photographer that is worth awarding bundles of money to, must at this point be hanging their heads in shame for being so, well, I have no other word, ignorant. It seems an army of photo editors, art directors and photographers in VERY important photographic agencies and positions of power have missed the incredibly obvious photo-shopping of a ENTIRE person into a photograph by Souvid Datta.
The fauxtography scandal is compounded by the fact that the image of the person was lifted from the work of one of the MOST legendary photographers that has graced the world with their presence Mary Ellen Mark and every one of the people behind Getty Grants, The Pulitzer Grant and a whole lot more seems to have missed the fraud entirely. It makes me think of my favourite fairy tale “The Emperors New Clothes”. I just loved the small boy (in this case Shreya Bhat of Bangalore and PetaPixel) who pointed out the blindingly obvious to all the very important people, that the King indeed had no clothes on and it was all a big con.
I also feel loathing at the mention of Souvid Datta’s name because once again he has brought my beloved profession of photojournalism into disrepute, setting up a dangerous standard for the likes of Trump to use as an exempla for “fake-news” and to create yet another blight on the veracity of what I and my colleagues do and what I have always worked hard, very hard, to do right… honestly, ethically and to the best of my ability. My job as a photojournalist has always been a privilege, not a right or an entitlement.
I have won none of the grants or the prizes that Datta has. Not, I believe, because my work is not worthy, artistically relevant or important for the telling of important stories… but maybe because I believe more in the work and the people I photograph and less in sucking up to the “right” people. They would be the ones, at least I hope by now, hanging their heads in shame that they have allowed Datta to be unchecked in his fakery.
And yet, I also feel some pity. After all, Datta is young and in some ways this example of hubris should be noted by us all. Why have we in the profession of photojournalism allowed this to happen? Is it the rampant ego behind the lens of every single war, news, NGO photographer that has missed the point? This is not fashion, people, this is meant to be real life.
So where has it all gone so horribly wrong? Why has a photojournalist that is aged only 27, who has committed acts of mass deception and personal photographic theft, actually able to commandeer TIME Magazine, no less, to publish his somewhat stage managed “mea culpa”?
I knew nothing about Datta before I read the estimable Benjamin Chesterton’s (of Duckrabbit fame) criticism of Lensculture, the behemoth photography competition holder, that is now partnering with Magnum.
Lensculture used a controversial image that showed a child prostitute being raped to promote a photographic competition. That came from the same body of work in which Datta photo-shopped Mary Ellen Mark’s image into his own.
Concerned as I am with the truth behind these situations, (Was the photo staged or set-up in anyway? What happened to the girl? Why didn’t anyone intervene if the photographer was just right there? And why the f#@% if the child was being raped was someone photographing it?) I went to Datta’s website and had a look at his work. I just honestly didn’t see anything that I haven’t already seen a hundred times in Burn Magazine or in the newest crop of Magnum “It” photographers. I just found it boring.
So why has Datta been set-up as this doyen of photographic excellence and why will his fall be like so many other “celebrities” who get busted in a participatory sex-tape or drug and alcohol fuelled behaviour.
Reading Datta’s apology in TIME Magazine sounds like he has employed a seasoned PR flak to arrange the whole thing. And to me and others I know, much of what he says is disturbing.
His defence of youth and ignorance in terms of his “image doctoring” doesn’t wash. By his own admission when Datta made the photo-shopped image he was attending university (in London I believe). Everybody that attends university is regularly made aware of the evils of plagiarism from the get go and heavy penalties and expulsion are threatened if you are caught. So I can not believe that he was unaware of the severity and wrongness of what he was doing. He says he had no knowledge of ethical behaviour at the time, if so why was he working with vulnerable people in an NGO?
Perhaps this is more to do with the destruction of the “real” news media and the replacement of its credible photographers, editors, mentors and photographic platforms with people that are keen to make a buck out of every camera wielding wannabe out there. Its all about click bait today.
Let me explain. Everyday I am barraged with invitations to enter my work into competitions, awards and publications. I even remember one NGO that held a competition for photographers to see who they could get to shoot their brochures. But all these competitions come at a cost. There are entry fees for everything (and in the case of the NGO the lucky photographer who was chosen got to pay their way to work for those jokers) and while many have very credible foundations attached to them they are all generally profit making ventures funded occasionally with philanthropic money and sponsors who have a vested interest in selling product to yet another so-called photojournalist. But the most insidious of them claim credibility by attaching themselves to well known photographic bodies, groups or individuals.
For a young photographer on the rise (and I have this from a piece of feedback I received myself after unsuccessfully applying for a funded studio) awards look very good on your CV when you are applying for funding to complete photographic projects. So the more awards you win, according to my feedback, the better you look. Especially if someone famous is involved in the award system.
The people who run photographic contests are generally not as ethically responsible as a grumpy old veteran of the news or picture desk. They are people, who for the most part, have built businesses out of charging people $30-$60 per entry to throw their photos into a pot of other photos and see if they win the lucky-dip lottery.
They aren’t necessarily concerned with veracity, rather with profit… or pushing their own business agenda’s within the construction of their competitions. The more people who enter photos into these things the more money they make. It is that simple. Staffed by a seemingly endless parade of interns and volunteers, often times pretty and polite young women who have an interest in art and perhaps even some training in photography, but are often clueless about the history, value and dimensions of what they are doing as sheep being led to slaughter.
Many times the decisions for who wins or is awarded photographic prizes is based on who knows who, what the curatorial direction of the judges is like and importantly the tastes of the sponsors, benefactors or philanthropists who put a deal of money into these things. Tick off the wrong people and you will NEVER get a look in.
Now combine this heady mix for the young “IT” photojournalist that represents a new “diverse” face and burgeoning economy with a lot of publicity on the internet and hero worshipping on social media and its easy to see why no-one is actually paying attention to the photography.
The grumpy veteran photo editor who would have sliced and diced and shredded anyone who did what Datta did no longer exists. The newspaper and magazine industry, with its code of ethics has been put out to pasture and in its place has arisen the photographic competition or self paid publication.
Eight or nine years ago I wrote an essay (on that very same Duckrabbit blog) about the lack of diversity in the judges of photographic competitions. I strongly voiced my opinion there were not enough women and people of colour that were represented in those judging panels and therefore there would not be enough people from those groups represented in the results.
I find it interesting that Datta, who though being of Indian background was educated at Harrow, which charges £37,350 a year in fees and is one of the four most expensive and exclusive schools in the British Isles and the world. Its past alumni includes numerous aristocrats and more than a few monarchs. Obviously it is British Establishment through and through. That sort of background is very acceptable to people, who while looking for a brown face that can represent “diversity” know that the person can also eat with a knife and fork.
So while Datta has absolutely done the wrong thing and should not be allowed to forget his perfidy I do not completely lay the blame at his feet for what has transpired. Even though his privileged and ego driven actions have fundamentally cast a pall over photojournalism as a whole I have some sympathy that he was set up. Much like the King in the “Emperors New Clothes” it was the job of the people that put him in the place that he was in, which was respected for its integrity, to be honest and vet his work for these kind of fatal flaws.
But undoubtedly to the chagrin of the rest of us snappers, Datta will be insulated from the consequences of his actions in much the same way that Paris Hilton was after the release of her sex-tape. Money and connections certainly play a part, his apology running in TIME magazine says a lot, and even if he never works in the industry again he will at least be able to set up a very expensive used car sales yard.
Sad that he has almost single handedly destroyed the credibility of my industry.
But in an industry that has largely ignored the work of my friend and colleague Katharina Hesse on the subject of prostitution (please go look up “Human Negotiations” to see how a story like this has been handled by a woman photographer and Lara Day a woman journalist) and is losing pretty much every single trained and trustworthy source of “real” news photography I don’t expect much for the future. Perhaps those of us that are left with even a skerrick of moral compass will do as Katharina has done and quietly publish books and have exhibitions that will garner real praise and engender real insight into the issues that Datta was exploring.
And as for young photographers, they need to learn that there is no-one checking their ethics, veracity or sources when they enter these photo competitions. Datta won his camera he says and so the first thing he did was to try and make a name for himself shooting sex-workers. Perhaps he should have more constructively done a years worth of work in an aged persons hostel. Wiping a few bums might have taught him a lot more about the human condition than pointing a camera at it.
We in the photographic industry need to acknowledge our place in Souvid Datta’s downfall. Stricter conditions need to be applied to the publication of imagery in photo competitions and awards. Qualified people who have actual understanding of the “Code Of Ethics” need to have more say about who are real or faux photojournalists. As professionals we need to pass on our knowledge to the next generation and not let them make mistakes like this because we are driven by greed or ego or business pressures. Because the minute Souvid stepped on that first dais to accept his prize he started on the slippery slope towards what will always be remembered as “Datta” photo.
Lisa is an award winning photojournalist whose work has been published and exhibited worldwide for clients such as TIME and the New York Times.