Plagiarism or Privilege?

If you’ve not already read the story about Alec Soth being accused of plagiarism in a set of pictures he took for a New York Times commission to explore inequality in Chicago, then the Art Newspaper provides good coverage in a feature ‘Magnum photographer Alec Soth accused of plagiarism by Chicago artist Tonika Johnson’ by Tom Seymour.

Soth has denied that he knew of Tonika Lewis Johnson’s long-term series The Folded Map Project when he took his pictures and has issued an apology and is donating his income from his work for the NYT to her project.

While I had no knowledge of Johnson’s work, I feel terrible for the offense I’ve caused. I apologize to Tonika Lewis Johnson and very much regret accepting this assignment. ⁣

⁣That said, I’m glad to be made aware of her committed work and will be donating all of my income from the New York Times to The Folded Map Project. I encourage you to check out the work too: foldedmapproject.com

https://www.instagram.com/p/CEzRQc4FK2a/

You can also read a letter that Soth has written to Tom Seymour about the article in Art Newspaper (which has since been edited to include comment from Soth.)

Soth suggests that rather than plagiarism he was guilty of “shallowness” in his approach to the commission, and he points out some key differences to his work and that of Johnson.

It seems to me to not be a case of plagiarism but of privilege. In his article Seymour states Soth “also criticised the historic culture—almost a founding principle of documentary photography—of image-makers “parachuting” to different locales in order to dispassionately visualise communities distinct from their own experience.”

Certainly this was the founding inspiration of Magnum, who divided the world between their first members, and it is something many of us have criticised for many years, but now given new emphasis by the Black Lives Matter movement. But although Johnson black and female and Soth is white and male and in many ways more privileged, these particular personal distinctions are I think not the essential root of the matter. He certainly was offered the job because he was well-known and a Magnum member. She didn’t get it because the NYT was unaware of her existence, not because of any failing by Soth.

Soth didn’t perhaps do as much research as he should have done, but he points out the commission was inspired by a Chicago Tribune story and when he Googled  “Streeterville and Englewood” he also found stories from the Chicago Sun Times, The Guardian, Chicago Public Radio and every network news station, in none of which was Tonika Johnson’s work mentioned.

It isn’t just Soth, it is the whole industry – press and other media – that has failed and needs to change. Journalists need to become aware about the communities they write about, the attitudes and voices of the people in them and documentary projects such as ‘The Folded Map Project’.


My London Diary : London Photos : Hull : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage : Flickr

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