On Ethics of Photography.

Young British photographer Souvid Datta plagiarized (amongst others) Mary Ellen Mark’s photograph, fabricated images and showed a complete disregard to the ethics of photojournalism. Big deal. While for many Souvid’s practice is disgraceful I struggle the least with the fact that the images were stolen (I believe that some used this term). As a matter of fact the history of art presents us with a good bunch of classic examples of successful re-aproppriation, which although caused quite a turmoil have managed to stand their ground.

It is, however, the lengths people decide to take to have a „good” photograph that are utterly appaling, the grant culture in the world of photography that is even worse, and last, but not least — the Offender Extraordinaire lifespan of an image in mass media.

I still remember the photograph from that famous Marlboro ad. I still remember the image from the Spanish Civil War made by Robert Capa. I still remember the picture Sherry Levine took of Walker Evans’s picture. Images with a story live, while the rest dies in seconds. Most photographs and images are abundant. We need not see them — they only cloud our visual field making it harder and harder to destill any value from the photographers work. Don’t get me wrong — it is as hard as it used to be to take a good, meaningful photograph. However, the pressure to succeed and make a body of work that stands out is much bigger while at the same time tools that can potentially help us create (keyword — CREATE) a breakthrough story are readily available. But on the other hand — what does it change, post-truth is official — Marlboro Man isn’t real and his lifestyle decisions could cause cancer, celebrated by Magnum Robert Capa and his picture of the Spanish soldier being shot is most probably a hoax and Sherry Levine just took a picture of another picture and Santa does not exist. Does the process matter if you construct something meaningful that potentially can help bring some change ?

Let’s try a different perspective. Souvid Datta photographed a rape of and underage girl. Magnum Photo and LensCulture used this image to promote some kind of a grant or a photography award. (In fact the photograph comes from the same series as the one where Datta plagiarized Mary Ellen Mark). His image used by Magnum and LensCulture commoditised rape. It is truly shameful what happened, but it is also really hard to judge whether the image is ethical or not. The thing is — we weren’t there, second thing is, that according to the theory of photography, by taking a picture we automatically own and commoditise any subject we shoot, so it seems that we cannot avoid objectifying things as photographers, but still we can avoid using controversial photographs as covers for an award. The judgments were made swiftly and in the aftermath British photographer lost his funding from Pulitzer Centre, Visura suspended their grant (by the way nobody picked up the fact that he had copied a part of Mary Ellen Mark’s photograph) but Magnum and LensCulture kept their promises — thanks to the competition Datta got some serious international exposure (hate) — definitely enough to take down his website and facebook. What makes it worse is that, supposedly Datta himself was requesting that the image was never used as a part of any marketing. But who will believe the man who just fabricated a whole universe from stolen photographs? In fact, the captions to his photographs have not been very accurate either so you definitely can’t trust the man. In the most traditional sense Souvid Datta is a tragic character. Like many others before him who have been caught cheating he has been discredited as a photojournalist. Honestly, given that there is no real logical explanation why he took others work he has been discredited as a photographer too. He lost the battle in a struggle to tell the world a difficult and demanding story.

But maybe he can still be considered an artist? Souvid Datta appropriates, confabulates, creates worlds to bring change. Art should be meaningful this way. But, with all the respect to postmodern strategies, can we clearly establish the limits of storytelling in art? If Datta copy-pasted a transvestite from Mary Ellen Mark’s photograph to cover the sex worker’s „guardian”. Was this a right move to do to get the image? If Datta created a fictional caption to the rape photograph — was this right to expose the social probem? Can Datta, a young and prospective imagemaker win the battle against the photography giants who will do everything to put the blame on the Britton who, in using fabrication skillfully refers to the tradition of the photographic and pushes boundaries of what is documentary, at the same time securing his sources. (This is where the discussion about using someone else’s work ends)

The rape picture is a different story. At the same time one which is far more complex because it goes beyond the photographic. It really is difficult to assess now whether the photograph was made prioritizing well-being of the child. However, I fell that the online discussion has not contributed to solving the problem, which to be honest I am struggling to solve myself. What makes it worse is that, (thanks Internet) everyone is putting words in Datta’s mouth. There were suggestions that he is making a documentary about SE Asian sex workers only to get exposure and money. Come on — what kind of an argument is that. True — Datta was a recipient of multiple grants and won a bunch of prizes probably because some people actually considered his work important and saw nothing wrong about it. I doubt that he bribed the judges, the worst offence would probably be being too nice and clingy at gallery openings and photofestivals (All photographers know at least a dozen of these guys). But really grants are often the only chance to fund your project…



Returning to putting words in Datta’s mouth — Benjamin Chesterton is by far the worst offender:

Can someone explain the mentality at play here? Is it because photographers look at the picture and think: “Oh look there’s a child in a cage crying. Maybe if I enter a picture of a trafficked child being raped or caged up and crying I can also get myself exposure.” (…) no-one I know needs to see a photo of a child being raped to care. If that’s you. Sincerely. Seek help.”

Mr. Chesterton, who comments on the story for PetaPixel could be missing a point or two… _______________________________________________________________

If Datta is telling the truth, which given the history is… doubtful. Sorry. Anyway we can hypotethically go through some aspects of the whole thing here:

1)Datta cannot un-witness, the least he can do is to stand for his story. It is him who is working on this documentary and in his judgement we should trust.

2)I personally believe it has been a huge misjudgment to use the photograph in a competition submission, but apparently not everyone, judges included, did. If Datta’s work is all about the story, there must have been images which would have same magnitude, but a different form which would lead us into drastic imagery and would explain his decision making process.

3)And finally, we need to be noticing the changes visuality is undergoing (photographic and beyond). Abstract ideas are not enough, words are not enough because to many of us the language is dead. We use social media instead — social media which are predominantly visual. We need to see these shocking images, we need to be appaled, we need to cringe and be uncomfortable. If we didn’t see the picture this discussion would have never happened.

This reminds me of what Susan Sontag wrote. We, the photographers, tried this strategy many years ago. In 1924 Ernst Friedrich published a book Krieg dem Kriege where he used war photographs to shock. The book sold in thousands of copies, but still just a few years later WW2 broke out… We photographed through it — the camera witnessed the Holocaust. We were devastated but we photographed War in Vietnam, we photograph in Syria and will photograph any act of violence, because there is a demand for it. The demand which goes beyond mass media and is a part of the photography economy with its grants and awards.

Datta took a picture but it is all of us who are guilty. Photography may need some serious help.