Magnum Photographer Alec Soth Apologizes for 'Parachuting in' on Project by Photographer Tonika Johnson

Magnum Photographer Alec Soth Apologizes for 'Parachuting in' on Project by Photographer Tonika Johnson

Magnum photographer Alec Soth has issued an apology after the New York Times commissioned and published a series of images that closely resembled a long-term research project by photographer Tonika Johnson.

Writing on Instagram, Soth explained how the work came about having been asked to spend four days photographing in Englewood, a neighborhood of Chicago, and comparing it to wealthier parts of the city. The body of work — The Great Divide — resembles the ongoing work by Johnson, an Englewood resident, entitled The Folded Map 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,” Soth writes.

The New York Times has since added a note at the beginning of its article recognizing the similarity and asking readers to go and view Johnson’s work. It has not offered an apology.

Soth has stated that he will donate all of his income from the New York Times to The Folded Map Project. “What it doesn’t need is photographers parachuting into complex situations for quick hits of content,” he added. 

Johnson accepted Soth’s apology, though noted in a comment on Instagram that it is the responsibility of both the publication and the photographer to research existing projects before undertaking such work.

[The] specific lesson for Alex is that he SHOULD have and could have easily found out about my work if he had simply googled “Chicago segregation” before photographing the assignment.

Johnson, a 2017 Chicagoan of the year, describes the Folded Map as "a visual investigation of disparity and inequity in Chicago using its mapping system." The project looks at north/south pairs of contrasting locations created by folding a map of the city. You can read more about the project here.

Industry figures were quick to criticize the New York Times article when it was first published. Kim Bellware, a news reporter for the Washington Post, offered her thoughts:

The New York Times has a close relationship with Magnum Photos and seems to have chosen not to report on recent allegations of potential child abuse imagery in the agency’s archive, nor the suspension of David Alan Harvey following accusations of sexual harassment.

Agencies such as Magnum have long been criticized for parachuting into underprivileged regions of the world despite the existence of photographers from such regions that are already producing award-winning work.

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Les Sucettes's picture

Andy you prove again that you are on some kind of crusade.

The apology is completely unnecessary. NYT was nice to suggest to also see Johnson work but had no obligation to do so. Not legally not morally.

Ideas are cheap, they’re everywhere. A project idea cannot be copyrighted and it should never be the case. If we were to do that it would stop any work to be done because someone somewhere already had an idea. It’s bollocks.

What counts is the publication and not just that: also how recognised it was.

In this case, it so happens a pro Magnum shooter came along and left the Amateur reeling. Well, that just demonstrates that the Pro knew what he was doing and Johnson wasn’t capable to sell his story in time. I feel sorry for Johnson and that’s about it

Alex Reiff's picture

This article doesn't seem to reflect negatively on Magnum or Soth, in my opinion. The Magnum organization seemed largely uninvolved, Soth seemed like he made a genuine mistake and addressed it very graciously, that doesn't really fit the "crusade" narrative.

Dan Marchant's picture

I can't see that Soth or the NYT made ANY mistake, genuine or otherwise.

The idea that Johnson has some kind of ownership of this idea is nonsense. It's not as if it was original to her to juxtapose different socio-economic groups.

Nor does Soth or the NYT have any need to search for prior art before deciding to do a project. If they feel that they can do something that contributes to the discussion (whatever that may be) then they are free to do so regardless of what anyone else is doing.

Alex Reiff's picture

I guess I should clarify that by "genuine mistake" I was more trying to convey that the likeness was truly unintentional, as opposed to purposefully copying then making excuses for getting caught. Whether he should have searched for prior work, or for that matter whether he was obligated to apologize, are matters of opinion.

Michael Grauerholz's picture

Agreed. I’ve been imagining how I could do projects similar to these in the cities I’ve lived in for 20 years as a “maybe I’ll do it one day” idea. Now I’m not saying I deserve a full apology from the NYT, but an IG mention would have been nice. And a reminder to never ever read the comments.

Mike Ditz's picture

When I used to shoot "editorial" many times the magazines or papers would have done some background research about the topic. Sometimes they would include xerox (see how long ago it was?) showing how this person or topic has been covered in the past so we don't accidentally do the same visuals.
I don't know if they still do that kind of pre-planning or if the other project would coe up in the serch.

Les Sucettes's picture

True but even if, the images are different... and let’s be honest, how many ways can you photograph that sort of subject anyway... at some point it’s just commodity

Mike Ditz's picture

If you put a little effort into it, there are a lot of different ways, but knowing how it's been done in the past is good info. Maybe do the "commodity" shot then do what my old photo teacher would call a "what else" shot.
For example I shot a lot of restaurants for magazines, the cliche shot was confident chef with his (98% of the chefs I shot were men) arms crossed standing by the sign or in the kitchen, I would do that shot then find something more creative, 9/10 times that would be the lead shot.
If you think commodity you will shoot commodity

Les Sucettes's picture

I do see a lot of differences in the work tbh. For it to be considered plagiarism they’d have to very similar.

Frankly, Johnson may be the one mimicking Magnum style photography at the end of the day.

I know I am influenced by many of the people represented by Magnun

Where do you draw the line?

Les Sucettes's picture

It clearly does criticise Magnum (once again - every week there’s at least one from Andy):

“Agencies such as Magnum have long been criticized for parachuting into underprivileged regions of the world despite the existence of photographers from such regions that are already producing award-winning work.”

Carl Murray's picture

Andy is OBSESSED with this subject. Its honestly a bit creepy, I reckon.

Les Sucettes's picture

At this point it just look mass produced..

I reckon he’s jumping on a bandwagon somewhere. Did a google search on every critical piece there is on Magnum, and then re-writes whatever he finds “in his own words”...

Nigel Voak's picture

I do not see much connection between the two photographers style, even if this set has the same basic idea.

The pictures by Soth are far more stylish, striking and commercial, whilst those of Johnson look a bit amateurish, which may have been deliberate for artistic reasons. But her pictures are probably not what the picture editor wanted.

I would bet that a commissioner at the NYT saw the Johnston project and sent Soth with a brief to do something similar.

I cannot really see the problem. They borrowed an idea and executed it in a way that suited the editorial requirements of the paper.

Michael Comeau's picture

I actually invented Humans of New York. The only problem was Brandon Stanton invented it a few years before I did.

Parallel thinking is remarkably common.

Steven Barall's picture

This is about the First Amendment. What exactly did Soth and The NY Times do wrong? So from now on if someone wants to take a picture in Chicago they have to ask permission first? This is absurd. We're supposed to have a free press, we desperately need a free press.

Alex Reiff's picture

No, this isn't a first amendment issue. The first amendment prevents the government from punishing you for what you say or stifling your ability to say it. This was a case of individuals claiming it was disrespectful for the work to be published - no government, censorship, or punishment involved. While this specific scenario doesn't seem to run afoul of any intellectual property laws, you would legally need to obtain permission to make derivatives of someone else's work in many cases.

jim hughes's picture

If I took on a project like this, the last thing I'd ever do is start out by Googling to see what other photographers had already done with the subject.

Noah Stephens's picture

That’s the difference between you and a top-shelf photographer/photo editor. The latter should always researches prior work.

jim hughes's picture

I'm sure there are many differences between me and a "top-shelf photographer" like yourself. But it seems to me that if I'm doing photography for sale as art or journalism, and deliberately seeking out and studying other photographers' treatment of a subjects beforehand, I'm not only limiting my own creative imagination - I'm setting myself up for possible accusations of plagiarism later.

If the goal is to be sure I don't produce a project that's in any way similar to what someone else has done... I'd better be sign up for that Mars expedition.

AJ L's picture

I tried googling Chicago segregation. The folded map site wasn’t in the first three pages. But really - you get an assignment, you’re supposed to go find anybody who had done something similar and ask their permission? That doesn’t make sense. Did Johnson get permission from the heirs of Jacob Riis (How the Other Half Lives)?

Sridhar Chilimuri's picture

I am hobbyist. I always say to myself that I should take photographs they way I like them. I come home and I see what others have done and often kick myself for not having thought of those compositions. We live and we learn. Frankly the whole informational age is about ready access to information and use it the best way possible. I do not think it is a copyright violation if I take a picture of an object the same way someone else has done. It would be a violation if I cut and copy their image.

Jeremiah Fulbright's picture

Ah joy.. a typical Andy click-bait story...

No real need to mention right out of the gate that this was a Magnum photographer, especially since it really holds no bearing here.. and second off, I guess all photographers need to stop shooting, because somebody else is probably shooting the same photo or the same look or the same building, and we can't have that.

I see no issues with both shooting a similar story, because as it should be, every photographer is different and tends to get different "views" of the same thing....

Kat Jack's picture

This type of article is virtue-signaling click bait, plain and simple.

Helicopter photojournalism? How about helicopter outrage?!

If you want to support non-white-male photographers, then feature their work.

It is disturbing to see so many articles by you demanding the cancellation of fellow photographers for their "crimes" or celebrating their punishment or demise. Do you yourself perhaps suffer from imposter syndrome? Is that the reason you are so driven to seek out and destroy so many photographers?

And if you truly think someone like Soth is so wrong, then perhaps start with yourself? Instead of going on the attack against everyone else, give up YOUR income and influence as a privileged white male who gained his position via the inherently patriarchial and racist system and hand over the editor position at fstoppers to someone who has a fresh multicultural perspective.

Kat Jack's picture

Breaking: Fstoppers issues apology and monetary retribution for having 1/27 stories on its homepage written by a woman and 1/27 written by a black man.

Timothy Linn's picture

Congratulations to Andy Day for being able to shoehorn his personal vendetta against Magnum and David Alan Harvey into a completely unrelated story.

Joe Snell's picture

"Agencies such as Magnum have long been criticized for parachuting into underprivileged regions of the world despite the existence of photographers from such regions that are already producing award-winning work."

Wow. Does anyone at Fstoppers actually vet what is being published by Andy Day? Is it an ongoing in-house joke? Or are the benefits of click-bait like this actually worth it? Do they outweigh reputation and integrity?

Jan Holler's picture

This far it has already gone? Checked both works and all I see of "Folded Map" is kind of a pompous appearance with very little content which looks a bit too ordinary and pictures of Alec Soth which are very different.
How can somebody claim "the opposition of rich and poor" as his or her idea? What a pretension! - So nowadays you better say sorry early regardless of the situation. You don't want to get shit-stormed, do you?

Noah Stephens's picture

A similar idea isn’t the same as similar execution. Soth’s work is a lot different from Johnson’s.

Miha Me's picture

He already sent her $1500 lest his house burn down.

Andy Day still can't sleep though.
This guy's got a lot of problems! A lot!
Lee Morris Patrick Hall , do you ever check on your writers?
These are the kinds of articles they find from a person who shoots up a Magnum office.

Gregory Drew's picture

I can understand her frustration. After having looked at her Folded Map project it is clear that she has dedicated a lot of time and effort to it. I think she is right to feel slighted. She’s been doing this for years, so why couldn’t the NYT have contacted her about it?

There’s also another Magnum photographer, Matt Black, whose ongoing project the Geography of Poverty is similar, though on a much broader scale. Wouldn’t he also have a right to feel slighted, especially since a colleague, whose practice does not typically focus on disparities of income, was asked to do something instead of him?

With all of that said, the underlying political tone to all of this of racism, oppression, gender bias, [insert grievances here], is just plain exhausting. Art has been hijacked by politics to advance political agendas and punish wrong thoughts. It’s sad and infuriating. It’s time to get back to live and let live instead of this never ending victimhood olympics.

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