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.