Why award-winning photographer Souvid Datta’s plagiarism row is a wake-up call for everyone [Opinion]

Souvid Datta's confession to plagiarism compels photographers to turn the lens towards themselves.

Souvid Datta’s photo essay “In the shadows of Kolkata” had received much praise around the globe for capturing the sexual violence among sex workers in the red light area of Kolkata’s Sonagachi. Enter Shreya Bhatt, a human rights activist from Bengaluru, who was the first to notice the uncanny resemblance of one of his image with that of Mary Ellen Mark’s iconic photo essay of Falkland Road in the 70’s. Bhatt approached PetaPixel which went on to publish her allegations.

Since allegations made news, Datta has confessed that he was merely trying to recreate certain images and he only “happened” to manufacture frames that were similar to those of legendary photojournalists like Mark.

In an interview with Time, Datta went on record to admit his foul-play, “The first thing I want to do is take responsibility. In 2013-15, [when I was] aged 22-24, I foolishly doctored images, inexcusably lied about others’ work being my own and then buried these wrongdoings in the years that followed.”

Photographers have often been known for modifying the content of their frames in post-production in a quest of getting the most aesthetic version to their audience.

The infamous Steve McCurry found himself in a soup when it was discovered that his photographs had been altered by Photoshop. While McCurry issued a public apology, he also admitted to altering the text he had used to accompany the photographs. The fact that photographers tampered the reality of a frame began to cause unease within their community.

Adnan Hajj, a photojournalist with Reuters, altered an image that he had taken of a bomb blast during the Israel-Lebanon conflict in 2006. Hajj played with the density of the smoke caused by the blast. Even though the enhanced image appeared intense, hitting the public with the reality of the conflict, it raised doubts about the authenticity of the photograph. Reuters pulled out all of Hajj’s photographs from circulation.

Separating the good apples from the bad ones; separating the ones that showed reality from the ones who altered the contents to prove a point. To see this objectively is difficult.

The jury of the World Press Photo practices the norm of comparing the raw photo files with the submitted versions and trash any content that they feel has been massively changed. In 2014 World Press issued new guidelines for the entrants stating the extent to which they could manipulate the photos. Nearly 40% of the entries were disqualified for manipulation of lighting and colors that in turn had altered the meaning of the photo’s contents.

Perhaps this is a wake-up call for the community of photojournalists in this age where the online audience is not only hungry for content but also hyper-aware of the tricks that they possess. In this rat race of shining brighter than the rest of the amateur crowd, the line of ethics is constantly being blurred.

Datta also admitted to image theft by stitching the contents of his frames with those of Daniele Volpe, Hazel Thompson and Raul Irani and passing them off as his own. In his interview with Time he admitted, “Being a freelance photojournalist today is to live in an uncertain world of fierce competition … I certainly won’t speak for others, but I have been affected by these industry pressures more than I would have ever liked to admit; resorting to extreme, foolhardy measures in the insecure hope of standing out.”

Datta has bagged many awards like the Getty Images Editorial Grant, the Alexia Foundation Award, the Visura Photojournalism Award and the LensCulture / Magnum Photos Award and has been a recipient of several photography grants.

We reached out to the photographer for comment on email, but the mail bounced back. Datta has disabled all his social media accounts.