Dark days for photojournalism

British-Indian photographer, Souvid Datta, has confessed to doctoring images and stealing work, after he was caught Photoshopping material captured by legendary photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, into his own photo.

A screenshot from Petapixel showing the two cropped images side-by-side.

But the people who broke the story say photojournalism faces a bigger issue, as Datta’s light-fingered approach has garnered more outcry than a much uglier matter –  another controversial and widely-published image by Datta ‘shows the rape of a minor’.

Datta picked up a camera and labelled himself a photojournalist in 2013. Since then he’s been a rising star, earning a large number of prestigious grants including a Getty Images Editorial Grant, a Magnum Photos/LensCulture award, an Alexia Foundation award, a Pulitzer Centre Grant and the Visura Photojournalism Grant.

Time estimates he’s received over US$30,000 in grants over three years.

On May 3 Petapixel exposed the young photojournalist for unethical conduct after a tip from Shreya Bhat, a social worker involved in the Indian sex industry.

Bhat noticed an Indian transvestite in a photo taken by Mark in 1978 had miraculously appeared in one of Datta’s photos from 2014, holding the same pose – but captioned with a different name.

Datta’s controversial photo series, In the Shadows of Kolkata, documented violence among sex workers in Sonagachi, India. It was his first project, and many after followed a similar theme of sex work and human trafficking.

‘Something was strange and it honestly did not take me long to figure that a part of the image had been Photoshopped out of Mary Ellen Mark’s work,’ Bhat told PetaPixel. ‘I just rubbished it off thinking it’s a juvenile photographer nicking the work of someone legendary.’

Datta admitted to Time Lightbox he doctored a number of images in the photos series from 2013, and also came clean about stealing work from other photographers.

Strangely, Time didn’t ask him about the photograph showing an under-age prostitute with a client, despite publicity for the image being the precursor to Bhat reporting the manipulation.

Datta blamed his doctoring and stealing on a lack of ethics as an uneducated photojournalist.

‘I didn’t know anything of photographic ethics (back then), about the existence of a serious photojournalism industry or how best to investigate topics as a journalist,’ he said. ‘But I did come from a background of visual arts and I felt compelled to make images of my experiences in Kolkata, having been especially moved by the stories of the girls I met in Sonagachi.’

He explained that in the doctored photo, the original subject did not want to be photographed. He captured the image anyway. Fortunately for him, Mark’s subject looked similar to the woman, so he copy and pasted it as an ‘experiment’ – he was just learning Photoshop.

‘The damning mistake came in uploading that image onto my blog,’ he said. ‘I did this without accreditation or acknowledgment that it had been tampered with and that it included elements of [Mark’s] image. I wrote the caption as if Asma (the woman who didn’t want to be photographed) herself was in this image, not a woman from someone else’s work. In effect, I lied.’

Datta claims to have later learnt about journalism ethics and responsibility, and felt ashamed for his action, but instead of confessing he tried to bury his lies.

It worked for a while, although until he was caught the doctored images continued to be published. Perhaps he’s more sorry he was busted, and there are crocodile tears in this confession. He paints himself as victim:

‘Being a freelance photojournalist today is to live in an uncertain world of fierce competition — not only regarding photographic skill, but also of networking, self-promotion, business acumen, sincerity and flair,’ he said. ‘I certainly won’t speak for others, but I have been affected by these industry pressures more than I would have ever liked to admit; resorting to extreme, foolhardy measures in the insecure hope of standing out.’

The photographer has, quite deservedly, been slammed for his actions.

The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), a representative body for visual journalists, issued a statement saying what Datta did is ‘inexcusable and not only betrays the trust that others placed in him but in an age of “fake news” undermines the public trust in our profession’.

NPPA president, Melissa Lyttle, reminds photojournalists to read its code of ethics.

The Alexia Foundation, an organisation which promotes photojournalism projects through grants and scholarships, awarded Datta US$500 in 2013 and has now launched an investigation to determine its course of action against him.

It has taken over four years for the photographer to be caught out, in which time he built a career primarily on long-term projects documenting human trafficking. He fears his legitimate work will lose credibility and the ‘real’ stories will not be trusted.

‘I do not know what will happen to me or the stories I have followed. My credibility has been fundamentally challenged, and I understand the serious implications of that in an industry where credibility counts for everything,’ he said. ‘I will say that for the work I have done as a serious photojournalist, and most of all for this (other, later) project investigating women trafficking in India, I have given my utmost to uphold principles of respect, journalistic insight, compassion, perspective and perseverance.’

Photojournalism faces ‘bigger problems’
It’s alarming Datta enjoyed a rising career that was founded on dishonesty. But for Bhat, and Benjamin Chesterton – another individual instrumental in breaking the scandal – there’s a bigger issue.

An edited version of LensCulture’s promotion. The original featured the entire photo. Source: Duckrabbit.

Datta’s career unravelled after LensCulture, a US photo magazine, promoted a competition it was running alongside Magnum Photos with a photo taken by the photojournalist.

The photo shows a teenage sex worker ‘visibly distressed’ looking straight at the camera with a naked man on top of her. The caption for the photo said the 16-year old girl was forced to have sexual interactions with a ‘client’ in the red-light district of Kolkata.

Essentially, the duo says LensCulture and Magnum used a photo of a rape to promote the photo contest.

‘I’ve seen some moral bankruptcy in photojournalism, but this is the most extreme,’ wrote Chesterton, co-founder of Duckrabbit, a film production and training company. ‘This is a photo of a child sex slave being used to promote a for-profit competition by Magnum — the most prestigious photo agency in the world.’

The girl’s face was clearly visible, her name stated, and her history of being trafficked at the age of 12 recounted, reports British Journal of Photography (BJP). This is a violation of practically every journalistic code of ethics, and is a crime in many countries.

‘Here’s a photographer who is making public a photograph of a 16-year-old (minor) sex worker with a client on top of her, looking visibly distressed. Does he not realise that it isn’t “sex work” any more, but “rape” that he is documenting?’ Bhat told BJP. ‘Him being in the room, photographing the client with the minor sex worker makes him party to the rape. Does he not realise these commonplace things?’

Chesterton says the controversy surrounding Datta is a poor reflection of the photo industry. The fact that ‘people are losing their shit’ over the doctored image, yet showing less concern over a widely-circulated rape photo says it all, he says.

The rape photo has been published and awarded multiple times – a gross oversight by picture editors and other notable figures in the industry, Chesterton says.

The photo was part of a series which won a Getty Images Grants for Editorial Photography, and a 2016 Visura Photojournalism Grant. How it didn’t ring any alarm bells for those selecting the grantee, and from those viewing the image, concerns Chesterton.

LensCulture editor, Jim Casper, said publishing the photo was a ‘big mistake’ that he ‘regrets deeply’, and has publicly apologised for it.

Magnum has remained silent.

Most other organisations have rescinded awards given to Datta.

Datta is the latest photojournalist to be caught doctoring images. Photojournalist story-teller extraordinaire Steve McCurry was caught manipulating photos, World Press Photo Contest sparks controversy each year, and even Australian photojournalists ‘retouch too much‘.

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