From the series “In the Shadows of Kolkata”. Photo: Souvid Datta.

Award-winning photographer Souvid Datta has been the topic of two controversies this week. On Sunday and Monday, chatter started to appear online about a Datta image of a young victim of sex trafficking being used to promote a Magnum Photos and LensCulture photography competition.

LensCulture was accused of commodifying of rape, and Datta quickly took to social media to address the use of his image, which, he said, appeared out of context and without his permission. LensCulture then redacted the image and went into damage control:

We believe the work of the photographer was carried out with great ethical care and in close collaboration with the subject portrayed; by contrast, our own posting was hasty and presented the situation without proper context. We apologize again for the careless nature in which this work was shared.

Now—only days later—Datta has been accused of plagiarizing and photoshopping the work of Mary Ellen Mark into one of his images. The evidence is irrefutable.

From the series “In the Shadows of Kolkata”. Photo: Souvid Datta.

“Transvestites getting dressed in a courtyard. Falkland Road, Bombay, India.” From the series, “Falkland Road”. Photo: Mary Ellen Mark. 1978.

In the offending image (pictured above next to the Mary Allen Mark photograph from which it originated), it is clear Datta lifted the figure in the Allen Mark photograph and superimposed it into his own work.

It becomes even more troubling. Datta constructs a name and narrative for the plagiarized Allen Mark figure. He writes:

Radhika, 17, in the room of a veteran sex worker, Asma, in Sonagachi (featured dressing in background). The two have grown close over Radhika’s period here; she respects and learns from Asma’s experience and matter of fact, survival attitude, while Asma feels a fondness for Radhika’s unfettered ‘kindness, curiosity’ and innocence. Strong bonds can often form within brothels as girls learn to support each other and find self-empowerment through group assertion and collective experience.

Datta violates one of the most fundamental and unambiguous ethical laws of photojournalism: the need for authenticity. 

What is perhaps most troubling, is the context of the subject matter. Datta is depicting child sex workers and victims of human trafficking—arguably, one of the most marginalized and vulnerable groups any photographer can portrait.

Datta has stated publicly that he advocates for his subjects, and that he believes in giving them control of their own narrative. In reality, he is the one in control — exploiting them to advance his own career.

This event casts doubt on the rest of his work, too. Even if this is the only instance of plagiarization — is unlikely to be the only instance of manipulation. If this image contains such a gross ethical breach, how can we know the rest of his work is not completely orchestrated, too?

Since this all blew up, Datta has vanished. He has deactivated his Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts. His website also appears to be offline.

To make matters even more confusing, it has now emerged that Datta appropriated photos from Daniele Volpe, Hazel Thompson, and Raul Irani. The swift disappearance of his work online may indicate there are other instances he is trying to hide.

 

The NPPA guidelines stipulate that photojournalists should never intentionally alter or stage events. The New York Times’ Guidelines on Integrity, dictate that images “must be genuine in every way” and “depict reality”… That “no people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene.” Reuters prescribe a need for “accuracy”, stating that “images and stories must reflect reality” be “free from bias”, and never mislead the viewer by “manipulation”.