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Souvid Datta: ‘I Foolishly Doctored Images’

12 minute read
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Souvid Datta, an award-winning photojournalist, admits it: he doctored images and infringed on the work of other photographers.

Until this week, Datta was an example of stand-out early success in his field. He had won a Getty Images Editorial Grant, an Alexia Foundation award, the Visura Photojournalism Grant as well as a LensCulture/Magnum Photos award among many others, highlights in a career that began about three years ago, when Datta was in Kolkata, India, producing a photographic project on violence in the city’s sex industry. Now, however, he finds himself at the center of the latest photo-manipulation scandal to have ensnared the photojournalism community — a sorry trend that has also touched Steve McCurry, Narciso Contreras and Giovanni Troilo, among others.

As was first revealed by PetaPixel on Wednesday, it was during the course of that project, as he followed a girl in one of the town’s brothels, that Datta turned to Photoshop. When the girl’s mentor asked not to be photographed, he cloned out a subject from a photograph by the legendary Mary Ellen Mark and pasted it in his own photograph. When he uploaded the image to his blog, there was no indication that the work was not entirely his own. That moment was, he now reflects, “the damning mistake.”

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.

Visura, which awarded a grant to Datta, has launched an investigation into the photographer’s practices. “Although the altered images in question were not part of his Grant proposal, which has always been set to private to protect the integrity of the project and its subjects involved—Visura does not support lies, deceit, and unethical acts. Period,” says Visura’s founder Adriana Teresa Letorney. “The Visura team works to respect the integrity and ethics of the international community as well as its own mission.”

Datta granted TIME his first interview since the scandal broke.

TIME: What happened?

Souvid Datta: 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. Now these images are resurfacing, they threaten to undermine any work I have legitimately pursued since and, crucially, all the trust that the people in my photos, my collaborators and supporting institutions placed in me. I am so profusely sorry for this. I hope to begin making amends.

But how exactly did an image by Mary Ellen Mark from 1978 end up in one of your photographs from 2014?

In late 2013, I was 22 and still at University; I used to volunteer at a few NGOs that had a presence in the red-light district of Sonagachi in Kolkata. Around this time I also won my first digital camera and began exploring photography as a hobby. I didn’t know anything of photographic ethics, about the existence of a serious photojournalism industry or how best to investigate topics as a journalist. But I did come from a background of visual arts and I felt compelled to make images of my experiences in Kolkata, having been especially moved by the stories of the girls I met in Sonagachi.

One girl in particular, Radhika, 17, was working in a brothel where the NGO helped young mothers. We spoke for some time over the course of the few days I spent there. She told me of her past, of her current problems, and also of her mentor: an older woman named Asma, who I met in passing. I photographed Radhika going about her daily activities, but Asma did not want her own photo taken. There was an instance in her room one afternoon, where the two were getting ready together, along with a friend. This moment spoke to their relationship as Radhika had described, but I did not take the image. I waited till after Asma left and shot a few frames of Radhika and her friend alone.

Transvestites getting dressed in a courtyard.
Transvestites getting dressed in a courtyard. 1978.Mary Ellen Mark

Weeks later, back in London and at University, while trying to learn post-production techniques on YouTube and starting my first photo blog, I came across the work of Mary Ellen Mark. Spotting the similarities in subject but without much further thought, I considered combining one of her images with my own as an experiment. I spotted a character in her work that particularly resembled Asma and for my own curiosity, in trying to recreate the picture I couldn’t make in reality, I tried placing her into the image next to Radhika. The damning mistake came in uploading that image onto my blog. I did this without accreditation or acknowledgment that it had been tampered with and that it included elements of [Mark’s] image. I wrote the caption as if Asma herself was in this image, not a woman from someone else’s work. In effect, I lied.

Why did you do it?

My intention was not to profit from the inclusion of Mary Ellen Mark’s work, but rather to see what it might have looked like had I somehow managed to persuade Asma to participate. I was frustrated that I hadn’t. In part, I was also discovering the technology of Photoshop for the first time (as is clear in the result) and the creation of something new excited me. It felt like a very basic artistic achievement. There are other images from my initial shoots in Kolkata, not intended as journalistic work, which have also been altered using post-production techniques.

Crucially, this was all done without the consideration of factual accuracy, ethical representation and journalistic responsibility that I came to learn of properly in the years to come. I didn’t understand what a photojournalist was for a long time, let alone the weight of trying to assume that title.

Why did you then go on to publish that photograph?

Validation and exposure are things I continue to struggle with today as a freelancer, but earlier I did seek after them more actively. I loved photography but initially the images on my blog had no coherent theme or narrative and were shot with little deliberate use in mind. So when a publication contacted me interested in using them, I felt overwhelmed and it seemed a tempting surprise. I rashly accepted the opportunity. I did not grasp immediately that this level of thoughtlessness was grossly selfish and deeply disrespectful to Ellen Mark’s imagery and, above all, to the people I had photographed.

During this same period, there were other lapses of judgment where I used imagery without acknowledgment, including that of Hazel Thompson and Raul Irani’s work. Two of their images, along with those which I altered, were also included in my submissions for early photography competitions in 2014, though not published commercially anywhere.

I cannot begin to say how much I regret having acted in this abhorrent, short-sighted and irresponsible manner. A few months after those images were published, I began to realize how reckless I had been, but by this point it felt too late to turn back. To think that mistakes like these would ever go unnoticed is a harsh lesson I am learning the dire truth of now.

When you realized what you had done, why didn’t you try to own up to that action before today?

As I learned more about being a photojournalist, I grew ashamed of what I had done during more desperate moments of my life. And as my embarrassment deepened, I suppressed it in the foolish hope that those mistakes would fade away from memory – deleting appropriated photos [from photographer Daniele Volpe] from early trips to Guatemala for instance, but not coming clean publicly. I will be the first to admit that it is terribly sad that it has taken this kind of exposure for me to step forward.

Are there any other instances where you’ve manipulated a scene, either during a shoot or in post-production?

Several of my earliest photos from India between 2013-14 include elements of stitching and cloning, sometimes rehashing components from multiple frames.

In my very first journalistic endeavor in China, my editors warned me of going too far with certain post-production techniques, of over-saturating and vignetting; they eventually guided me through organizing my archives and proper captioning practices. Through 2014-15 onward, I learned to shoot in line with technical and ethical guidelines of my publisher and I am now diligent and up-front in case I ever decide to deviate by using non-traditional techniques such as double exposures or participatory photography. There is a world of difference in the projects I shoot now compared to those of a few years ago – both in conceptual approach, journalist rigor and style. I stay clear of manipulation, unless the client requests it for commercial intent.

In the last two years, you’ve spent a lot of time producing deeply researched documentary work on human trafficking. Can we still trust that work?

Taking the seed of an idea I had interacting with girls in Sonagachi as a student, I spent a large part of the following three years developing an investigation into child sex trafficking across West Bengal; I covered human interest stories in the U.K. and in post-conflict zones across Afghanistan and Iraq; I followed the refugee influx across Europe in 2015 as sentiments around migration rose. From here on, I do not know what will happen to me or the stories I have followed. I fear above all that they may remain untold. My credibility has been fundamentally challenged, and I understand the serious implications of that in an industry where credibility counts for everything.

I will say that for the work I have done as a serious photojournalist, and most of all for this project investigating women trafficking in India, I have given my utmost to uphold principles of respect, journalistic insight, compassion, perspective and perseverance. On top of this, multiple editorial teams have now vetted the project — from research to fact checking, to examining unedited files (images and video) to involving legal counsel and using a dedicated writer.

Do you understand why your colleagues might be angry at you?

The anger I face is entirely deserved. This incident has broken at a time when faith in committed reporters and accurate news is challenged more than ever. I truly dread contributing to any distrust that people have toward genuinely important news and imagery, and I deeply regret having compromised the faith, support and time that my friends, editors, institutions and publishers have offered me. Second chances aren’t always deserved and I know it’s up to me to earn mine and fight to regain any credibility, within or outside of this field. I let a lot of people down by hiding these past mistakes, and parts of me betrayed the trust of those closest and most supportive of me. I am sorry for this, truly.

As a freelance photographer, do you feel pressure from media organizations to attain a certain perfection that might tempt some to find shortcuts?

Being a freelance photojournalist today is to live in an uncertain world of fierce competition — not only regarding photographic skill, but also of networking, self-promotion, business acumen, sincerity and flair. 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. Perhaps one feels the need to cover a dangerous conflict zone, perhaps one succumbs to cloning out a distracting element in an image: these are unfortunately more common concerns than our industry wants to openly admit. On some level I hope this can be a prime lesson for others in exactly what not to do.

At the end of the day, no one has forced me to act in a certain way. The burden of responsibility for all these mistakes lies with no one other than myself. I failed terribly and only I can make things right.

Have you spoken to the subjects of your reportage since this came to light? Are you planning to?

Yes, I am currently in the process of reaching out to the people involved in my stories. Many are friends and I owe each person I have ever shot a debt for having shared their time, their testimonies and parts of their lives with me. I must now be clear about my wrongdoings and the potential damage to their testimonies that these mistakes will cause. For those whose stories remain to be published, I stand deeply committed to getting these seen as promised – however that may be possible in the future – and I will be working hard to ensure that they receive the attention they deserve.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

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