Two Scorpions Crossing a Stream

Photographers are constantly squeezed to play the photo-game. We shouldn’t be surprised by Souvid Datta’s cheating, shortcuts or poor ethics.


A screenshot of an online promotion by LensCulture for the Magnum 2017 photo competition, which used photographs by Souvid Datta taken of girls in the red light district of Kolkata. The photo that was used has been blacked out. Captured by DuckRabbit.

Brace yourself, there’s been another scandal in photojournalism. Have you heard that one before?

Here’s the nutshell…

Photographer Souvid Datta, a rising star in the photojournalism world wins a bunch of awards and grants. LensCulture, one of the organizations he has ties to, used one of his photographs to promote the LensCulture/Magnum Photo Awards. The photograph they chose to promote their contest is of a sixteen year old girl being raped.

No, you read that right… rising star, photojournalism, awards, grants, contest, Magnum… rape.

But wait, it gets worse.

Before this incident, as well as being published in some of the most prestigious magazines and newspapers, Datta had received the seal of approval from pretty much all of the industry giants, including, Photo District News, The Pulitzer Center, Getty Images, The International Center of Photography, World Press Photo, The Eddie Adams Workshop, The Alexia Foundation, Visura Photojournalism Grant, and the aforementioned LensCulture/Magnum Photo Awards. (My apologies to any organizations I may have omitted.)

There’s a lot of cross pollination happening here. The same people who decide who wins awards or receives grants are also the same people who decide what images get printed and what photographers are hired. In short, to have the organizations listed above on one’s resume is to be the darling of the entire international photojournalism industry.

Datta was riding a gravy train on biscuit wheels, courtesy of EVERYONE.

To make matters worse, the act of photographing the rape of a sixteen (or seventeen, stories vary) year old girl wasn’t what originally fueled the photo community’s outrage. Datta was derailed by the fact that he cut and pasted a shot made by Mary Ellen Mark into one of his own photos. That’s what got the ball rolling. Olivier Laurent of Time Magazine was the only one to land an interview with Datta after the scandal broke and didn’t even bring up the rape issue (at least in the published version of his Q&A). The initial scandal focused on photoshop manipulation and photographic plagiarism.

Talk about burying the lead.

As far as photojournalism goes, the sad thing here is that Datta (being the clever fellow he is) was just reacting to market pressures. The powers that be in the photojournalism world have created a system that rewards photographers that do a couple of simple things. Which includes, signing their miserable contracts, accepting extremely low fees, be willing (and have the means) to travel around the world on one’s own dime, buy one’s own gear, pay for one’s own insurance, and gladly “make things happen” (a code phrase for setting up sensational pictures that illustrate whatever the publication needs illustrated).

Do these things, and you’ll be rewarded (see the list above). You’ll be rewarded because lacking the means to assign exceptional journalists forces the editors of these publications, the same ones who decide who wins contests and grants, to create a new generation of “exceptional” photographers to replace the ones who refuse (or are unable) to work under the usury terms established by the beancounters of their respective publications.

Why are these photographers exceptional and deserving of awards? Because we say so. Now move along and stop making waves with your silly questions. You know, we can break you as well as make you. It’s your choice.

To their credit, LensCulture removed the rape photo and issued an apology. Why they thought a rape photo would be good to promote their contest is another question. Another good question is why any photographer would pay a fee to enter their contest, when the only reward (I can see) is that of “exposure”. Exposure, that mysterious thing that won’t even get you a coffee at Starbucks. The same sparkly lure that photo editors dangle in front of photographers to try and snag their work for free.

Let’s think about that for a second. Part of what’s happening here is the new influencer economy. An influencer is someone who has a lot of followers on social media. Those followers feel they have a relationship with the influencer. Advertisers want to capitalize on that relationship and have that influential “friend” endorse their product to all their other “friends”.

A good example of this is when Burberry hired the sixteen year old Brooklyn Beckham to shoot an advertising campaign. The quality of the photography wasn’t an issue (whether good or bad), the goal was to connect directly to Beckham’s six million (or so) Instagram followers. It makes good advertising sense. You can’t really fault Burberry’s logic here.

Publications think the same way. In the nineties, the Hadid girls wouldn’t have sniffed the supermodel echelon. Today, you can’t pick up a magazine without seeing their faces. Same can be said for a Kardashian and/or a Jenner. Like it or not, these women are no Naomi, Cindy, Christie or Linda Evangelista. They don’t have the chops and they’re uninteresting. What they do have is millions upon millions of “friends”.

Photographers need friends too. That’s why they’ve jumped on the exposure bandwagon. Along with the willingness to subsidize a publication’s budget, it’s another ingredient in the recipe for success that is followed by photographers today.

An influencer is a person who has turned themselves into a brand, just like any other commercial product. Don’t expect a brand to tell you the truth. Expect them to do whatever is necessary to increase their market share.

Publications that desire to be honest should hire photographers who desire the same thing. Instead, we have two brands, a photographer and a publication, that are attempting to piggyback across the stream on each other’s back. More often than not we’re dealing not with a frog and a scorpion, but two scorpions.

Speaking of brands, I’m not sure what to say about Magnum. As far as I can tell, they’ve not apologized for any bad behavior or their association with this whole debacle. Like always, they stay quiet, but if they do manage to speak up, no doubt it will be the intern’s fault.

Shame on you Magnum. For an organization that claims to pride itself on the authorship of the individual, it’s telling that (for what I can see) not a single Magnum member has expressed outrage over this latest sorry episode of journalistic malfeasance.

Here, go buy a print today, but whatever you do, don’t follow me on Instagram.