Souvid Datta plagiarism row: We need to introspect over more than the doctored images

On 3 May 2017, a clutter of tweets assembled under the Twitter handle of a young British photographer of Indian origin. From curiosity to outrage, photographer Souvid Datta’s Twitter page felt — for a handful of hours — as though a queue of exasperated moviegoers were asking for their money back in the event of the terrible film they had been made to watch.

An event of that sort is rare. Rarer still is the extent to which Souvid Datta, as a documenting photographer has gone, to acquire for himself the reputation of a boy wonder. In cutting a person from one of Mary Ellen Mark’s photos, and pasting it in one of his own photos of sex workers from Sonagachi in Kolkata, Datta, quite stunningly went where no photographer, in a post-Steve McCurry expose world would go (or so one assumes).

Photojournalist Souvid Datta admits to plagiarising Mary Ellen Mark's work for Sonagachi series

There are a number of things to consider here: Firstly, the discovery of a botched job, that in retrospect looks so shoddy, one wonders if Datta might have been better off without it.

“I first came across his work in 2014 when I was trying to look up news pieces on Sonagachi, to be able to orient myself on the happenings in the red light district — because I was working there as an aftercare worker at that point. I did not think his work was phenomenal; it was ordinary, to be very honest. Unfortunately, I discovered the photograph in question in under five minutes of coming across his work. That left me with no time to judge his work without questioning his credibility,” says Shreya Bhat, who was behind the expose of Datta’s plagiarised photo. Shreya’s first impressions of Datta’s work, marked by the rush-to-next enthusiasm of engaging with the visual, is a testament to the times we live in. Just how much do we care to look into the contexts of images we are inundated with, right from waking up, to the time we go to bed?

Photographs by Souvid Datta and Mary Ellen Mark. Images from Scribbler and Mark's website

Photographs by Souvid Datta and Mary Ellen Mark. Images from Scribbler and Mark's website

Curiosity still, perhaps, is the only flame we carry, and it led Shreya to a discovery that says more about us than it does about Datta.

“I did start to read about his reasons for documenting sex work in Sonagachi and his experience photographing the women in the red light district, trying to understand how he might have gone about it. It is almost difficult to find someone with a camera walking around, clicking photographs in Sonagachi. Women there are extremely wary of being photographed," Shreya says.

Among the photos Datta shot here, there is another that has raised a row, apart from the plagiarised image. It depicts a minor sex worker being raped by an inebriated man, that has been photographed as if from the perspective of a low ceiling.

We need to point a finger at those who are merely observers here. The magazines, editors and writers (including myself) who consider the aesthetic as paramount, but often fail, or refuse to grasp the social context in which the aesthetic  is shaped, are all culpable to some extent. In India the scenario is worse, with art critics and writers at a premium and with genuine criticism being regarded as an oddity; it is automatic that the publication of a book, of a photo, the recording of a song, the filming of a film or a documentary, almost everything is considered to exist as if only for adulation — Bollywood being the exception due to its abundance.

The genuine lack of constructive criticism around art practices or products gives rise to the post-outrage introspection that we are now engaging in.“You don't need to capture an underage girl in the act of sex with a client to be able to tell her story. Because this has repercussions that might do more harm to the girl in the future than her 'story' from the past,” Shreya points out.

Souvid Datta's plagiarised image

Souvid Datta's plagiarised image

The original image by Mary Ellen Mark

The original image by Mary Ellen Mark

Second, and perhaps more important here, is Datta’s own understanding of his profession. In standing ‘over’ a minor girl being raped, even if the photo in question here is ‘staged’, it would be a minor encumbrance on part of the third party viewer, to consider the subject as an object. Rape is rape from all angles, but in instituting a certain geometry, a certain gaze, Datta rises, at least within the promise of virtual authority, to absolute power over his subject. The woman in his photo is not the woman he is shooting, in that he appropriates her to within an inch of her feeble reality. It is a dangerously provocative way of looking at people, contextualising lives through moments. “Is he not aware that most women who have been trafficked/have entered India willingly for the purpose of sex work continue sending money earned from the profession to family members, but are not open about the current nature of their work to folks back home?" wonders Shreya, who herself works as an activist with trans and sex workers in Bengaluru.

Through the peephole-view of society that photography almost always presents, there are immense dangers of assuming and therefore normalising a particular state or situation. Shreya believes there has to be nuance in the way these issues are told to an audience that simply does not understand the economy of sex trafficking and what helps it sustain. “It is essential to ensure that your viewer , or NGOs or the government who is consuming your work, understands the 'why' part of the problem of sex trafficking as it might explain the lack of resources in these regions that results in underage girls being tricked into entering metropolitan cities in India. An underage girl's face can be easily forgotten. Besides, what use is it for me to be looking at the distressed image of an underage girl when there is nothing I know about the context?” she says.

Finally, there is the whole aspect of competition that probably pushed Datta’s hand. Photography’s existential crisis comes from its accessibility, the ease with which you can now shoot, the challenges that video now poses and the shear ubiquity of perspective. In such a world, where ‘making it’ is paramount, deception doesn’t come as much a surprise as does its openly poor execution. The viewer has been taken for granted. And in all honesty he or she should. Because we simply don’t spend time to understand the contexts from where these photos emerge, or whether the lens cast is colonial, racial, classist, violent and so on. That Datta has discredited himself in the process, and whatever of his work is known to the world, is a given. But whether we understand or have the means to check someone as empowered as Datta-with-a-lens, I wonder. At which point one must take refuge in the most seminal voice on photography to date, Susan Sontag:

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.

Images sourced from Mary Ellen Mark's website and Scribbler

Updated Date: May 14, 2017 10:22 AM

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