It’s been a tough week for photojournalism with rising star Souvid Datta on the ropes and the industry left reeling from what the British Journal of Photography described as the ‘scandal of the season.’
PetaPixel broke the original story on 03 May, alleging Datta had Photoshopped a character from a Mary Ellen Mark picture into his own work. Social media quickly melted into a frenzy and it wasn’t long before more allegations of plagiarism began to surface, including criticism of the industry. He has since admitted plagiarising the work of other photographers including Daniele Volpe, Hazel Thompson and Raul Irani.
But this isn’t a simple story of ‘foolish’ photoshopping as Time magazine would have you believe. Duckrabbit published another story raising a far more serious question about the ethics of his work and importantly, the use by LensCulture of a picture of a child being raped to promote a photography competition run by Magnum photos.
The issue of ethics is not only central to the Datta story, it is the very cornerstone of photojournalism or at least it should be. Get that right and you’re less likely to transgress in other areas such as plagiarism which begs the question exactly what sort of training was Datta receiving? Did his mentors not impress ethics upon him? To me, that would be the obvious place to start for anyone entering the profession.
For an industry that deals with every aspect of human life, photojournalism appears to be worryingly lacking in both ethics and compassion. Practitioners will inspire you with powerful words claiming to bear witness, tell the story, the truth, empower, offer dignity, hope, empathy, compassion, seek change, communicate, give a voice to and so the list goes on. Two words come to my mind, smoke and arse!
But what lies behind the photojournalists vocabulary? Who’s offering a coherent example of how to do things? Traditionally, it’s the people at the top who give talks, write articles, review portfolios, sit on jury’s, win awards, offer masterclasses and work for the big agencies and magazines that lead the way. They are the role models, the influencers who countless thousands look to for direction. They are the people who lead by example and help to shape the industry.
Sadly, the profession is littered with casualties. Only last year Steve McCurry came under the spotlight when evidence emerged of his work being subjected to excessive image manipulation. He claims that he’s no longer a photojournalist but describes himself as a ‘visual storyteller.’ Isn’t that the same thing as a photojournalist? Come on Steve, what am I missing here?
Like I said, many photojournalists appear to be better at spin than ethics. Anyway, it was the production assistant who did it, according to Steve, who no longer works for him, so that’s cleared that up.
One of the biggest inspirations in my life has been Sebastião Salgado but he too has had his ethics questioned. In 2012, his Genesis project came under fire when it became known the London exhibition at the Natural History Museum was being sponsored by Vale, a Brazilian mining company that has been voted the corporation with the most contempt for the environment and human rights in the world.
Despite this, the Natural History Museum defended Vale’s involvement, saying that Vale and the Genesis exhibition had a mutual concern with ‘the balance of human relationships with our planet.’ A spokesman said: ‘We believe the challenge is to work responsibly to find a balance between use and protection of natural resources, and that Vale is working in a reputable way.’
In 2015, Brazil suffered the worst environmental disaster in its history when the Fundao dam burst killing 15 people including children and causing 32 million cubic metres of mineral waste to flood the landscape and contaminate the River Doce. Who was responsible? Yep, the dam was owned by Vale and BHP Billiton. So much for the Natural History Museum’s statement about Vale working in a reputable way. Ethics are such a disposable commodity.
As far as I know, Salgado has never commented about Vale sponsoring his work. I’m all ears Sebastião if you want to have your say.
What I find increasingly disturbing about photojournalism is the print sale market particularly under the guise of fine art. There appears to be no filter to determine what is appropriate and what isn’t. Going back to Salgado, his work, Refugees at the Korem Camp, Ethiopia, 1984, is currently being offered for sale by Beetles and Huxley for $16,000 for a 24” x 35” print, add vat and you’re looking at a hefty price of $19.200 for one print.
I don’t want to discuss the epic beauty of his work or the tonal quality but I do want to bring the focus back to the content as that’s what appears to be missing in the majority of discussions. People have stopped seeing what the picture really shows. It is important to understand that the 1983-1985 Ethiopian famine was the worst in a century claiming the lives of some 1 million people and making countless others destitute. Those of you old enough to remember may recall the 1985 Live Aid concert, where the pop world came together to raise as much money as possible to help save the lives of millions of people on the brink of death.
The family featured in Salgado’s photo are real, they are not models but people facing the most brutal of circumstances living in a refugee camp with an uncertain future. The child at the front looks like he or she is ready to collapse, barely able to stand up and unable to look at the camera.
I asked Beetles and Huxley if they have an ethical policy in place or a programme of giving back. They said, ‘no, we do not have an official policy, we are a tiny business. I certainly don’t think that anything we sell is unethical, if that’s what you’re suggesting?’
So here we are in 2017 and guess what, Ethiopia is still facing a crisis from another famine. Did Salgado’s work make any difference and who really benefitted from it? I can’t help but wonder what happened to the family featured in his photograph and how would they feel knowing that a Western photographer has been selling ‘fine art’ prints of their suffering for $20k a print. Is there not something quite obscene about all of this?
Yes, I know Salgado can’t solve the Ethiopian famine on his own but I find it both ironic and vulgar that photographs of starving people can become objects of fine art. What kind of morals and terms of reference are at work here? Would any pictures of starving jews in concentration camps ever be appropriate as fine art? Can someone explain how human suffering can even become fine art?
I asked Beetles and Huxley if any of the profits from Salgado’s work go back to the people in the photograph or towards any food programmes in Ethiopia. I was told, ‘there is no official distribution of funds from Salgado to the people in his photographs as that would obviously be impossible to manage across all of his work. He and his wife are incredibly charitable and while I can’t tell you the exact programmes they support, I am sure that they have considered such ideas in the past. Very famously, for example, he has ploughed a lot of money into rebuilding the rainforest around where he lives in Brazil.’
Well I’m thrilled to know Salgado has a lovely
garden rainforest around his family home again and of course, that justifies selling pictures of people on the brink of death as fine art. Suddenly, I’m feeling so much better about this.
I came across Ami Vitale on a webinar sometime back which led me to research her work. She’s a well respected photojournalist who’s won a ton of awards, she’s also a Nikon ambassador and regularly works for National Geographic. I found a black and white picture of a young girl on her website, Adema Balde from Guinea Bissua in West Africa. It struck me how sad she looked, her eyes starring back at me, full of sorrow. I read the caption and was upset to read that she died later that year trying to escape an arranged marriage.
Adema Balde lived a short life burdened with poverty and abuse and died escaping from the wretched circumstances she was born into. I was surprised to find Ami offering the image for sale as a fine art print with the option of having it signed for added kudos.
The picture is also for sale on Alamy with an incomplete caption and without any restrictions and no mention of the fact that the child died. Other images include a girl crying from the brutality of female genital mutilation and a close-up of the knife used to commit the atrocity. The same pictures are also for sale on Vitale’s website as fine art prints.
Ami has written an interesting article, Safeguarding Truth in Photojournalism, it’s about what she did when she discovered ‘misappropriated’ use of some of her pictures for the #BringBackOurGirls campaign when Boko Haram kidnapped 250 girls in Nigeria in 2014. She offers some useful advice about how photographers can monitor and gain control of their work in the digital age when pictures posted online can be stolen so easily and expresses outrage about how her subjects had been misused in a way that Westerners would not tolerate.
She says, it’s not about race, but about changing the rules where the developing world is concerned. “It’s not a black or white issue,” it’s about applying the same standards across the planet.”
I wonder if Ami had told Adema Balde that she was going to be selling her image as fine art prints for hundreds of dollars? Is this not reducing the life of a human being to a commodity to be sold for profit without any moral or ethical considerations. A commodity for rich Western art buyers to trade or mount on a wall like a hunting trophy from some perverse safari.
How is it even tasteful or appropriate to offer for sale a photograph of a dead child. Adema Balde deserves the same dignity and respect we would expect had she been our own daughter. Have I got this wrong?
And then there’s Ron Haviv, co-founder of VII photo agency, a big name in the industry who doesn’t see anything wrong with working with Lockheed Martin and BAE systems, two of the biggest weapons manufacturers in the world. Duckrabbit have produced several detailed posts about this which you can read here.
A picture sold to Lockheed Martin used as an advert features what looks like tracks with fire and smoke in the distance illustrating a direct hit on a moving target. The advert is for a weapons system known as a small diameter bomb used by aircraft. Yep, you read that right, Ron Haviv supplied his work to be used for an ad for a bomb. This is the man who travels the world documenting victims of war and suffering. What is going on in your head Ron?
Replying to Duckrabbit, Ron said, his commercial agent had sold the picture to Lockheed Martin and they exercised their right to add smoke and text. I can see what Ron’s doing here, he’s distancing himself from the transaction and passing the buck to his agent, similar to what Steve did, who blamed his production assistant. But wait, you can exercise control over how your work is used. You have every right to refuse a sale for whatever reason. Ron knows this already so I’d be interested to know what code of ethics he subscribes to.
Call For Change
So are the people at the top providing strong leadership in the area of ethics? Are they suitable role models to follow? What can they teach us about ethics?
Interestingly, Steve McCurry is still working in the industry. I’m not sure if Salgado has retired to his garden, Ami is National Geographic’s darling and appears to have found a new direction focussing on wildlife and travel while Ron Haviv continues to shoot stories for big name clients. These are all experienced people. Surely, they should know better. Perhaps we just have low expectations or aren’t really bothered about ethics.
Returning to Souvid Datta who sparked this whole debate. He’s owned up and admitted to plagiarism. As for photographing ‘Beauty,’ well he’s taken a line from leading photojournalists and said she asked him to photograph her that way.
I think it’s time to call to account the practices we all employ as photographers including the professional, ethical, moral and commercial frameworks we work within. I want to encourage a wider discussion about how we curate and use pictures in the photography industry and challenge current practices and terms of reference which I feel are exploitative of the very people we claim to support.
Change has to be industry wide and global if we are to have any hope of offering real dignity, hope and respect to the weakest and most vulnerable people in the world, often powerless and without a voice.
Finally, if it’s acceptable for established photojournalists to make poor judgements and demonstrate questionable ethics and still be embraced by the industry then why is it right for Souvid Datta who is young and relatively inexperienced to be thrown out? Is he a scapegoat to pacify the public, to pretend everything is ok in the photojournalism industry. It smells like hypocrisy to me?
15 May 2017 – Update: Response from Ami Vitale
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