Souvid Datta’s work independent of the current controversy of plagiarism and the absolute disregard for ethics is deeply orientalist and euro-centric. You might ask how a brown man photographing, brown-bodies can be orientalist? Eurocentrism has “become naturalised common sense”. It is not just a culmination of education for erasure, it is also a point of view from a place of immense privilege. Here Datta follows the same tropes of, “representing the other”, “bearing witness” and creating a body of work meant for the West, it’s grants and privilege of being accepted by its gatekeepers.
Now coming to the gatekeepers. Many of whom, who have supported his work, opened doors for him and have been instrumental in his success are complicit.
Dutta is no exception. He is the rule.
For every thoughtful editor, who continues to support work and talent, there are hundreds who are ignorant. I have heard some of the most ignorant, racist and prejudicial comments from some of the most revered editors and photographer in the “business”. The most talented photographers I know have not been lucky with the grants game, only because they refuse to pander to the templates that win awards. They would also not know how to. Some of the best work I have seen on brothels is “Ceilings” by Ritesh Uttamchandani. I still remember how he thought about space and how he wanted to photograph it. He is undeniably one of India’s best. But his work is yet to travel like Datta’s work did.
Datta’s work has always been problematic, that is independent of the recent plagiarism charges or the ethics of photographing a trafficked minor being raped. The fact that his work got to travel tells you all you need to know about the nature of what constitutes the photographic industry today. Datta sold snake oil to those who wanted snake oil. Also, note that the editors or the various grant committees’ did not find his plagiarism.It was Shreya Bhat who had previously worked with survivors of sexual abuse in Sonagachi and who was a fan of Mary Ellen Mark who brought this to PetaPixel’s attention.Bhat is perhaps the kind of editor we need, but do not have. Someone with ethics, who has worked on contentious and difficult issues on the ground, brought this to light, and actually knew Ellen Marks body of work.Between these are all the organisation that have funded and supported Datta’s work: “They include the PDN 30 in 2017, the Pulitzer Centre Grant in 2016, the Getty Grant for Editorial Photography in 2015, PDN Annual in 2015, and Magnum Photos 30 Under 30 Award in 2015.”
Complicity works in many ways. For a group that consistently claims to bear witness and tell the truth, many photographers tend to toe the official line. While they complain, bitch and moan in private, very few are openly critical of acts that are often unethical. A year ago, Manick Katyal, another photo editor was outed for sexual abuse and harassment. Yet many kept their silence for years in fear of “rocking the boat”. Even if they knew nothing about his abuse, they still went along with this arbitrary patronage. How did Katyal a third-rate photographer and second-rate editor manage to garner so much clout so soon? How did he go from shooting substandard images in 2008 to curating and working with some the ‘best in the business”? Who enabled him? Everyone complained in private but continued to support his work in public. Very few spoke out against him.
Others have commented how this one image would be the end of Datta. But it’s not just one image. Datta has a long history of posting others work as his. He stole from Daniele Volpe. In Volpe’s own words:
“Last november, a close friend of mine just warn me about a couple of my pics (below) posted on Souvid Datta’s Facebook feed. I asked to several photographer if someone knew him, if they thought that the correct way was to do it public. I took my time and my intention was write him directly, a private message, to ask about that. Weeks passed without writing to him and I underestimated the gravity of what he did. Not for me or for my pictures but for the people who believes in our work, that believes in us and open their home doors for us.”
Datta is simply an outcome of a very rotten system. The greatest and the most revered war photographer of all time – Capa’s work is also mired in lies and misattribution. His most famous work is now considered an absolute fabrication. But Magnum continues to milk Capa, and a generation of photographers continues to quote this rubbish, “if your photo is not good enough, you are not close enough” or something along these lines. Visual literacy is scant among photographers today. Far too many of them produce beautiful images without understanding history.
But lies can also take other forms, Kouledka’s work on Israel and Palestine is nothing short of removing Palestinians from their land visually. It did not photoshop Palestinians out, but how do you reconcile this erasure? In 2010Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, who have funded Datta, also funded Marco Vernaschi and published pictures of exhumed dead Ugandan child. Similarly, Lynsey Adario’s Afghanistan work is very problematic, to say the least. All these works have garnered widespread acclaim and praise with very little critical analysis. Asim Rafiqui has written extensively about it, but Asim is also an exception.
A recent The New York Times – Lens – Photography piece titled, In Nepal, a Monthly Exile for Women. Towards the end the editor’s note says the following:
” Editors’ Note (April 17, 2017) After publication of this article, questions were raised about the circumstances under which several photographs were taken. Because of incorrect information provided by the photographer, a portrait of Saraswati, a 16-year-old mother of a newborn, was accompanied by an inaccurate caption. The caption asserted that Saraswati was “forced to stay in a closed dark room” with her child, that “she was not allowed to clean herself” and that she “was forced to cook” in the room while her newborn “coughed from the smoke.” Actually, mother and child left the room — where the door was often open — when her husband cooked meals, and waited outside until the smoke cleared. Moreover, Saraswati also went outside twice a day, including in the morning to wash herself. Another image, of Saraswati being taken to a hospital on a stretcher, did not mention that the photographer and an associate paid for the stretcher. Had editors known this, the image would not have been used. Both images have been removed from the slide show.”
Where do we draw the line between “inaccurate caption” and fabrication? Should the editors at New York Times have allowed this piece to run even after they found out about the serious ethical breach in the way the story was presented and photographed? Who holds whom responsible? Rather what is the redressal mechanism for people whose stories have been “inaccurately captioned”?.
Again Datta is not an exception.
Also, let’s not forget how platforms like LensCulture, and PDN have profited and made money from slush pile entries and charging photographers fees even to have their work looked at.
In 2012 when I was at the Eddie Adams Workshop I asked one of the guest speakers, “Who he thought was the Susan Sontag of our generation? Who was theorising or rather trying to understand the visual culture of our time?”. The gentlemen quickly said “Photographer photograph. Their work is on the field. Why do you need anyone writing about it.” Second, how very white the whole workshop was. Here mostly white photographers, almost all of them who wanted to bear witness couldn’t tell apart the only two black photographers in the workshop.One was South African other African American and both looked nothing like each other.