I don’t even know where to start. It’s all so egregious.
What I do know about most people who get caught is that it’s not their first offense. It’s the one that went too far after being emboldened by a series of previously undetected but purposeful missteps.
What I’m trying to figure out is the “why.”
Google "Souvid Datta" now and it won’t be his many awards, grants and contest-worthy stories that come up first. It’s going to be how he went down in flames. The first few pages of search results will include accusations that he’s a liar, a thief and untrustworthy. All things his name should be synonymous with, given his admitted actions.
First, there was the child sex slave he photographed allegedly being raped, who he labeled a prostitute in the caption. Then there was LensCulture using that image as a call for entries for a photo contest. This was widely pointed out on social media as the "commodification of rape," but the outrage wasn’t there initially. LensCulture has since issued an apology for using the photo which they took down several hours after posting it on Facebook. In their statement, they said “We condemn the lack of ethical standards used to create the photograph in question.”
According to the NPPA Code of Ethics, visual journalists are supposed to treat subjects with dignity and respect and to give special consideration and compassion to vulnerable subjects. As human beings, we have a moral obligation to do no harm.
So here’s the deal; a child can’t make the decision to be a sex worker. It’s human trafficking. It’s rape. It’s wrong. By being there and observing it, you are a complicit bystander approving the act, unless you choose to do something about it. Report it. Help get her out of there. Do something. Don’t just be a passive observer. Or as my mentors instilled in me, be a human being first and a photographer second.
That incident was bad enough. The image turned my stomach, and it made me question Datta’s integrity and his morals.
It also, thankfully, made people question the rest of his work.
It’s no small irony that the person who exposed the plagiarism in Datta’s image of another “sex worker” is Shreya Bhat, a social worker who actually works with the sex workers that Datta photographed. She said she found his work exploitative. She also happens to be a big fan of photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who she respects because Mark spent a lot of time photographing India’s red light districts in the ‘70s. She noticed a person in the background of one of Datta’s images who had a strange similarity to a transvestite in one of Mark’s famous Falkland Road photos.
In the caption, Datta claimed that the woman’s name was Asma, a “veteran sex worker.” Upon further investigation, it turned out instead to be a bad Photoshop cut-and-paste job. Her image from the Mark photo was inserted into Datta’s scene.
In an interview with TIME, Datta claims that Asma is a real person who didn’t want to be photographed, and the cut and paste came from his desire to represent her in the photo.
That manipulation apparently was initially undetected by College Photographer of the Year judges. That image was in a photo story of his that won an award of excellence in the Documentary category in 2013. The directors of CPOY have announced that they are rescinding that award and have removed his name and that story from the winners list. The CPOY directors pointed to their ethics statement that reads “digital alteration or any similarly deceptive modification of entry materials is strictly prohibited.” They are also investigating three additional awards he won over the three years he entered the competition and are in communication with Datta.
Then, to make matters worse, another incident showed that there was really no limit to the depth of Datta’s deception.
Photographer Daniele Volpe wrote a Facebook post saying that he’d discovered several of his images had been lifted and reposted as Datta’s own work. One of Volpe's images of a genocide survivor posted as Datta’s photo had a different caption, calling the subject “Juan Carlos” and describing that he’s standing where the “lush green hills meet rising slums that collapse onto one another.”
In this time of “fake news” and fighting the seemingly constant erosion of the public’s trust in the media, I hope Datta never works in our profession again. I certainly don’t want people thinking that’s what a photojournalist does. I don’t want my name or my work ever called into question by the association of my profession with these acts.
Time magazine’s Olivier Laurent spoke to Datta who reflected on his “damning mistake” by admitting that it was the tip of the iceberg. Laurent writes:
“But that manipulation wasn't the only one. He now confesses that there are other images from that project that were also altered using post-production techniques, and he says he also "appropriated photos" from colleagues like Daniele Volpe, Hazel Thompson and Raul Irani, and lied in order to conceal those actions.”
Datta goes on to apologize, to say he lied. To admit to not understanding the weight of what photojournalists do.
“Validation and exposure are things I continue to struggle with today as a freelancer, but earlier I did seek after them more actively,” Datta said.
Words he uses to describe his own actions are abhorrent, short-sighted and irresponsible.
I, of course, have theories on why this happened: A foolish desire to get ahead, delusions of grandeur, blinded by awards and recognition, total ignorance, stupidity, greed, a lack of morals, no awareness or education about ethics and no sense of right from wrong. They all contribute to an ego with the desire to succeed.
Volpe, the photographer who discovered that Datta had misappropriated his photos, wrote on his Facebook page; “I underestimated the gravity of what he did. … In this industry, people want to be on the top quickly, and fragile people, like Datta, want to take a shortcuts to get it.” He added that he believes the entire photography profession has responsibility for creating a “necessity to trick.”
And Volpe is right. The honor system is not working.
Editors need to edit, look at whole takes, scrutinize work, ask questions and be gatekeepers. Contests are starting to demand raw files, but manipulation on the front end, like staging scenes, is still being awarded. People are applauding work that exploits without questioning the realities.
For Datta, I'm glad to see his awards being rescinded. The Alexia Foundation terminated its relationship with Datta and removed his work from their site after a review, stating “We demand that our grant recipients respect and adhere to the highest standards of photojournalistic ethics.” There will an asterisk next to Datta’s name as an Alexia grant recipient indicating his transgressions. I applaud this, and wish others would send a similar message.
I’d like to see him repay grant money he received. I wish I could go back in time and take his spot from last year’s Eddie Adams Workshop and give it to a photographer who was more deserving, harder working and who had honest intentions.
I’d like to see public apologies to his subjects and to the photographers whose work he misappropriated. I’d also like to see him and photographers like him not get work in the future. I’d like him to understand the gravity of the situation and the harm in presenting fiction as truth. I’d also like him to go away.
Moving forward, the stain he’s left on this profession and the depth of his journalistic transgressions should bar his work from any publication that claims to have integrity — and hopefully serve as a lesson to others as exactly what not to do.
Update 5/6/2017: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Datta’s disputed photo was part of his CPOY portfolio that had been named a runner up in 2014. The image was part of a photo story given an award of excellence in 2013 and that award has been rescinded. Directors are reviewing Datta’s other CPOY awards with his cooperation.