Report: Why Souvid Datta's image theft is the least of the problem

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It’s the scandal of the season – a young Anglo-Indian photographer Souvid Datta has been caught stealing other photographers’ images and claiming them, or elements of them, as his own.
The story broke on 03 May, when PetaPixel published a story alleging Datta had taken a figure included in an image shot by Mary Ellen Mark on Falkland Road, Bombay 1978, and copy-pasted it to one of his own shots. Datta then renamed the person Asma and claimed Asma was a veteran sex worker friends with a 17 year old fellow sex worker, who he also named and who is also clearly identifiable in the photograph.
The article included damning and pretty inarguable compare-and-contrast shots of the two images, and by 04 May, Time LightBox editor Olivier Laurent had managed to get an interview with Datta in which he confessed to this and other misdemeanours – such as taking images by Daniele Volpe, Hazel Thompson and Raul Irani and passing them off as his own, and cloning and restitching multiple components of his own images together.
“I foolishly doctored images,” stated the photographer, who until this scandal was a rising star in photojournalism, awarded a Pulitzer Centre Grant and the Visura Photojournalism Grant in 2016, and the Getty Grant for Editorial Photography in 2015, and nominated for Magnum’s Graduate Photographer Award this year (a nomination which has now been revoked).
“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,” Datta added. “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 case and Datta’s interview have caused a furore on photography and photojournalism sites and social media, with many commentators expressing outrage at the photographer’s basic lack of integrity, and what they interpret as his self-seeking attitude in the interview.
But for two of the people instrumental in breaking the story – Benjamin Chesterton and Shreya Bhat – the real problem is not Datta’s light-fingered approach, or the problems inherent in writing false captions. It’s his portrayal of women involved in the sex industry, who by his own account are under 18, and a photo industry which apparently didn’t register a problem with it.
Datta has worked on this topic for years, but Chesterton and Bhat’s concerns were sparked by one image in particular. It’s a shot that shows a 16 year old under a drunken client – her face clearly visible, her name stated in the accompanying text, and her history of being trafficked, at the age of 12, at the time recounted on Datta’s site (his site is now password protected).
“When I read his [Datta’s] caption and realised that the girl is 16 years old, I was amazed, amused and repelled, all at the same time,” says Bhat, who works with those involved in the sex industry in India, and who responded to BJP’s questions via email. “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’ anymore, but ‘rape’ that he is documenting?” she continues. “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?”
“For me it’s a reflection on the photo industry,” Chesterton, co-founder of the DuckRabbit film production company and site, tells BJP by phone. “People are losing their shit about cloning a bit of an image with a photograph – which is not a crime, though it’s a stupid and ridiculous thing to do – but they’re not losing it over a rape.”
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Chesterton first raised questions about this image in a post on the DuckRabbit site on 30 April titled LensCulture and the Commodification of Rape [republished on PetaPixel on 01 May) which expressed outrage about a particular use of this shot – the fact that LensCulture used it in a Facebook post promoting the competition it runs with Magnum Photos, stripped of nearly all of its original context, and with added calls to action re entering the award.
“Where to begin?” wrotes Chesterton. “Magnum Photos and LensCulture are running a photo competition. One of those where you give them lots of money and in return if you’re one of  the lucky ones they give you ‘exposure’. Let’s just cut to the chase. There’s no way of dressing this up.  In order to promote the competition LensCulture used a photo of a trafficked child sex slave being raped.”
LensCulture had published the post on 28 May and, its editor Jim Casper tells BJP, “as soon as understood problems we removed it, not before a lot of justified concerns were pointed out”. “We made a bad mistake by selecting that image on a facbook post and we regret that deeply,” Casper continues. “It’s an image we never should have published, and it was a double mistake to use in connection with a photo competition. We feel very bad.”
The organisation has also released a statement taking responsibility for the post, apologising for it, and exonerating Magnum from any responsibility. Magnum Photos was unwilling to comment to BJP, instead referring us to the LensCulture statement; for Chesterton, that’s not enough. “It’s like there’s no one there with lights on,” he tells BJP. “It’s your competition – you have to say ‘We’re outraged and putting new systems in place’.”
And, he adds, this use of Datta’s work is not even the primary problem. For him, the issue is the fact that Datta has made work in which young, trafficked sex workers are clearly identifiable, and named in the accompanying captions – and that these images have been widely seen and even published, for example by the Huffington Post in 2014, with no apparent concerns. “It’s like they [the picture editors] have all seen it, but they haven’t seen it,” he tells BJP. “They’re not seeing the people in the picture.”
“These are important stories and images of them are important,” he continues. “I’m not saying these stories should never be shot. But it in our country [the UK] it is a crime to identify any one who has been sexually abused. They can only be named if they waive the right to anonymity. In this image [used by LensCulture] we see someone who is still legally a minor, who was kidnapped and sold [into sex work] at the age of 12, servicing 10-14 men per day. She is not in a position to say ‘do that for me’ [and waive her anonymity].
“There’s this idea you should be able to photograph anything,” he adds. “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.”
“You don’t need to capture an underaged girl in the act of sex with a client to be able to tell her story,” agrees Bhat. “Because this has repercussions that might do more harm to the girl in the future than her ‘story’ from the past.”
A social worker now based in Bangalore, Bhat has worked with those involved in the Indian sex industry for years in Kolkata, Bombay and Bangalore. She has no background or interest in photography, she says (“Zero”), and yet she was the one to realise Datta had lifted Mary Ellen Mark’s work. Bhat came across that image three years ago in the article published by Huffington Post, which she was reading because she was working with women in the same district.
“When I came across the picture in question, I started to look more closely, not because I thought it was doctored, but because the woman in the background looked familiar,” she tells BJP. “Like I had seen her somewhere else, either for real, or in another photograph. On an impulse, I switched over to Mary Ellen Mark’s gallery. I had checked her work a while ago, cause she covered the Falkland Road red light area of Bombay in India in the 70s…
“I had looked through every bit of her work in the past and started doing that again, image by image. Until I came to the photograph Souvid had nicked the woman from. It was totally coincidental that I would spot it out of a 100 pictures she has on her gallery! Can you imagine? I couldn’t!!!”
Shocked enough to mail two colleagues about it, she didn’t take her revelation further at the time – there was no point in contacting Huffington Post, she thought, as she was reading the article three months after its January publication; it would have been “a pointless exercise” to contact Datta, she thought, later adding that “for me, he was just another juvenile person my age doing unethical things”.
But when a friend recommended she read Chesterton’s post on LensCulture and the Commodification of Rape on PetaPixel this week, she realised it was the same photographer and, “quite angered by him using an underaged girl’s image with a client on top of her, without even bothering to cover her identity”, contacted both PetaPixel and Chesterton on the same mail.
“I was a little too sure the email would either go into their spam folder or would go unnoticed,” she tells BJP. “But I received responses from both of them immediately and all of us were discussing the possibilities of the Photoshopped part being a cutout or a painting together on the same email. In about two hours’ time or so, the story had been published on PetaPixel.”
For Chesterton, Bhat is “the picture editor of the year”; for her it’s less about her, or this particular case, and more about a whole culture in documentary photography. In a Facebook post on 05 May she stated that “Photojournalists are NOT allowed to mess with women in sex work by building false sob stories about their dreary helpless lives and earn awards. Not a Magnum Photography Award for certain. Not photojournalists based in UK coming to India on an annual visit to capture the dirt and poverty here.”
Writing to BJP, she expands: “I, personally, am done with such work. It’s empty. It’s hollow. It’s just an attempt to scratch the surface”. “What I do wish for though, is that people stop treating certain countries as playgrounds to experiment with/improve their skills (photography, in this case),” she adds.
“It’s so easy to walk into India and build emotionally gutting stories around the images you capture, wherein [the] limited attention of the viewer is actually directed towards the quality of your work. We have a lot of poverty and naked kids and colour, to make an image look beautiful.”
Chesterton agrees. What Datta has done is “awful” he says – but then there are also the picture editors who have “have all seen it, but they haven’t seen it”, and the people who are “losing their shit about cloning a bit of an image with a photograph…but they’re not losing it over a rape”.
He wonders how it can happen, speculating that seeing hundreds of images per day deadens picture editors’ sensitivity, giving them an “image fatigue” that drives them to “ticking boxes – access, misery, girls, bad guys” rather than really looking. Bhat says there may be something in it, noting that: “After this work of Souvid [including the Mary Ellen Mark figure] was pointed out to people, there were tons of people (via comments) stating that it’s obviously Photoshopped, in a very shoddy way.
“But that’s because your attention was directed to that ONE picture. People fail to realise that. If you’re skimming through 12 pictures in a series, you’ll probably not notice something strange about that one woman in the corner. Because you’re looking at all the other pictures that seem just usual and processing the stories behind these pictures.”
For both, though, it’s not the Photoshopped woman that’s the problem in that particular image – it’s the clearly identifiable 17-year-old, who Datta and many of those other commentators knew was a minor, and yet failed to protect. “The system has to co operate on this,” says Chesterton. “How do we deal with the pictures we show? It’s an argument about being responsible, a world where we’re kind to one another.”
And true to his word, he even spares some pity for Datta. “It’s sad,” he says. “He has a Pulitzer [Grant], that will have to go back, he said he was working for National Geographic – all of that has now gone, down the drain. I would have a pint with him, he needs help. He needs to take some time to find out what kind of person he wants to be.”
NB this text was updated at 10.27 on 06 May to remove gender-specific references to Asma, the person originally shot by Mary Ellen Mark, and also correct a typo in Asma’s name. Thanks to Hester Keijser for pointing out the need to do so…and again at 10.44am, to update another gender-specific reference at Keijser’s advice

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy