Souvid Datta belongs to a new generation of ambitious young photographers who seem to have more hours in a day than the rest of us. He is self-taught, and has been working in photography for just three years, yet is already publishing his work globally through big media outlets like The New York Times, The Guardian, TIME, and Paris Match, and has received numerous grants for his projects. His journey as a photographer started as an accident, he says, when he was travelling alone for the first time. He found that taking photos was a prompt to begin talking to someone, to making a connection he wouldn’t normally make, to entering into a world not normally part of his day-to-day experience. Today he sees photography as a mode of interacting and communicating with the world. That goes as much for the subject matter as for the audience he wants to reach.
“I want to bring out as much humanity as I can in the nuances of daily struggles.”
“Photography is a means of getting stories before an audience who have never been exposed to that sort of story before, or whose opinions I can, if not change, then at least question in a constructive way,” he says. Ideally, Souvid wants to step away from prejudice and black-and-white ideas: “I want to bring out as much humanity as I can in the nuances of daily struggles.” He spends as much time as he can with his subjects. “On a deeper level than just photography or journalism, this gives me the chance to connect with people and broaden my own horizons,” he says.
Souvid works with photography, video and text, and is sensitive to the choices to be made in trying to find the balance between different media in his work. “Multimedia is a trend in the industry,” he says, “but to use it effectively you need to be very precise about what aspects of a story video can show that stills can’t, or that text can’t.” There’s an intimacy about hearing someone’s voice and seeing how they move that can add a lot to a story; whereas stills can be more iconic and better at provoking an emotion straight away.
Project: The Human Price of Pollution
‘The Human Price of Pollution’ looks at the effects of pollution in China from a fresh angle. The issue is often tackled in the media in terms of statistics, environmental obligations, or economic impact, but Souvid Dattta focuses instead on human stories, on the lives of people in ‘cancer villages’ suffering the effects of toxic waste from rare earth mineral production. He was inspired to take this approach when the younger brother of a school friend, who was from China, died from respiratory problems. Souvid believes that fostering empathy with individual situations helps people make connection with a world outside of their own experience. His distribution is mainly online, and he is fairly happy with his reach (primarily young people in the UK), though he now wants his stories to connect with decision makers and politicians who might effect change. He would also like to see the project reach a Chinese audience, to help people inform themselves and to empower communities to work for change.
Social media is a great way of testing the waters, and seeing if you have a following, Souvid believes. They make a good bouncing wall to try ideas on, a way of provoking questions about issues. “Your social-media presence is often the first impression people have of you,” he says. “It’s important to stay engaged and active, and to present yourself and your work in the way you want it to be portrayed.” Souvid finds he has to think about how to adapt to reach certain audiences – such as shooting in vertical, because of the prevalence of Snapchat. Yet, he says, he will always have a preference for ways that are more nuanced, and outside the constraints of social media attention spans. And that nuance matters if you want your work to be have an impact.
“Telling stories is more about you and your voice, and unless that voice is compelling it will get lost in the noise of the hundreds and thousands of others out there.”
“Older photographers talk of change, of a Golden Age of photography 50 years ago,” says Souvid. “There’s no denying that there are many more photographers than in the past, a crowd of voices trying to tell similar stories to you. It’s never been more important to have a very personal and fresh interpretation of a story.” That might be in style, in the type of access you achieve, in format or medium, or whether you chose a more poetic or documentary approach – whatever your decision, the crucial thing is to have your own way of telling a story. “I can’t shoot like Steve McCurry or James Nachtwey, that time is gone,” says Souvid. “Telling stories is more about you and your voice, and unless that voice is compelling it will get lost in the noise of the hundreds and thousands of others out there.”
Souvid's burning question
"I’m curious as to what the experts think is a viable way of pursuing photojournalism in the future. Is it just going to be a hobby, which you fund by doing something else, or is there a new way of doing in-depth long-term stories (which are no longer being funded by the very organizations that are capable of sharing them with the world in a meaningful way)?"
I am rather an optimist on this subject. Why? Because now more than ever, the means of access to an audience is within your control. Photojournalism is all about reaching an audience. The traditional way we could do this was through magazines, newspapers and other print media. We were prevented from accessing large audiences not because we didn’t want to, but simply because the economics prevented us. Essentially, it’s a numbers game—in the sense of audience numbers, but also in the financial numbers, which dictate how a photojournalist's work can reach an intended audience. With a simple Instagram account you already have a few hundred followers, beyond that, many photographers are able to reach thousands, hundreds of thousands, and a few even reach into the millions. All for free. Once your audience-engagement numbers climb, residual economic benefits can reach you. It is not just Instagram. Many other social media platforms allow you to bypass all gatekeepers and go direct to your target; there’s no need for a middle man. And it is not just social media; there are more ways of inserting ourselves directly into a conversation.
I am a firm believer in the philosophy of Kevin Costner’s character in the movie Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come. In other words, it is not just in the making and creating of the work, but the distribution of it. Do you have something to say? Do you care about your subject? Can you communicate relevance? If so, an audience awaits.
We can now distribute, to anybody at any time. That is not to say there is a very real and very difficult question to solve: economics. If there is this audience, how can I afford to reach them? After all, photography is all about the arduous task of actually going out into the field and making work, sometimes taking weeks, months or years. It is not a cheap profession, even by the standards of corporate media. Finances are an integral component in our lives as photographers. But again: If you build it, they will come. I believe this mantra needs to be repeated over and over.
A recent story of just going out there and making it happen: Dysturb. A collective of a couple of photographers from France who use the idea of street art to reach their audience. Initially, it cost them less than a few hundred euros to make their work: simple black and white images printed as large posters, tiled together to form a billboard, using wheat paste to hang the pictures. All they need is a location: a random wall, side of a building, or any surface in an urban environment. After a few months, an audience was beginning to form, using archival images of their and others’ work. Soon, Dysturb were being commissioned and paid by organizations across the globe to continue their work. Eventually they expanded into education, creating curriculum modules on photojournalism and the issues the team highlighted. It involved patience, but eventually, they built an audience, that audience responded, and now financial returns are accruing.
Furthermore, why do we need to only rely upon legacy and the hegemony of the corporate media? That is what they want. But the corporate media needs images and we become willing participants. Yet there’s an enormous number of outlets for you to distribute your work. Look elsewhere, beyond the classic example of a magazine, and you’ll see opportunity. Museums, local galleries, institutions, foundations, educational partnerships, corporations large and small, DIY on the streets, social media, community organizations, healthcare and cultural departments, governmental organizations, NGO’s, crowd funding and the list goes on.
It seems to me the ‘Golden Age’ of photojournalism is now, not in past decades. All they had were a few magazines and newspapers. What about now? Imagine the future as an infinite possibility. I see our future in sponsorships, partnerships, collaborations and commissions. The world is based on a visual society, and who is going to provide that? You are. SO get out there, make work with care, compassion, empathy and a desire to say something. It’s easy.
I am not a photographer nor have ever attempted to be one, so I always speak from my experience on the other side of the “desk”: from a photo agency, a magazine, a photo editor, a curator’s stand; and mainly from my interaction with hundreds of photographers and photojournalists while doing my job and seeing them do theirs.
Photojournalism is not and cannot be a hobby. The level of commitment and personal implication in each story just does not fit with something you do for simple pleasure and entertainment in your free time.
However, this does not imply you cannot be a photojournalist and also bring forth other photo projects, maybe even more profitable ones like commercial photography and advertising, even wedding photography, why not? You would be surprised by how many photojournalists actually do so. And it is not a shame.
There are plenty of current examples of long-term projects and in-depth stories which are funded and brought forth with a variety of means, often interlaced: grants, book selling, workshops, institutional support, crowdfunding, teaching, plus the abovementioned options. There are many “new” ways of pursuing photojournalism, and believe me, beyond the myths, the majority are not even that new, but have always been part of the photographer’s “survival kit”. Like most communication and creative activities, photojournalism is not immune to the human necessities of everyday life. That’s a fact.
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By Rebecca Simons & Rodney Bolt