Magnum photographer Alec Soth defends similarities with work by Chicago artist Tonika Johnson

The American Magnum photographer Alec Soth has been accused by Tonika Lewis Johnson, a Chicago-based mostly documentary photographer, of copying her trademarked pictures sequence for a New York Occasions commission.

Johnson, a 40-yr-old black, feminine photographer and a lifetime-very long resident of Chicago’s Englewood district, statements that Soth “clearly stole” from her very long-time period sequence The Folded Map Challenge—which she describes as “the embodiment of my total everyday living in Chicago”—for a photograph essay he established for a New York Situations short article discovering inequality in the American town, revealed by the newspaper on 5 September.

When Johnson pointed to the similarities in between the assignments on social media, she speedily attained traction and help from photographers throughout the world, who termed on the New York Occasions and Soth to recognise, cite and reimburse her.

Because publication, the New York Moments’s posting has been re-edited to contain an editor’s note contacting on visitors to recognise Tonika’s undertaking. It reads: “After publication of the photograph essay, Periods Impression image editors were alerted to Tonika Lewis Johnson’s operate, which also addresses segregation and inequality in Chicago. We inspire readers to find out extra about Ms. Johnson’s Folded Map Challenge.” The New York Occasions did not react to our requests for even more comment.

On Instagram, Soth responded by declaring he was unaware of Johnson’s challenge, but recognised the similarity amongst the two bodies of perform.

On 7 September, Soth emailed Johnson immediately to apologise, just before producing on his Instagram: “I would like to accept the function of Tonika Lewis Johnson and her The Folded Map Job.”

Soth additional stated that on 4 Might he was contacted by the editors of the impression area of the New York Instances. As element of the newspaper’s ongoing series discovering inequity in America, it commissioned Soth to shoot a photo essay in Chicago. Soth photographed in the metropolis concerning 7 and 10 May well, for which he been given payment of $1,500. He was instructed his photos would be posted in the newspaper on 17 May well, with an on line photograph essay to comply with soon after. “This was early in the pandemic, and my individual project had to be cancelled,” Soth wrote. “So I took the work.”

Soth’s photographs of Chicago were not posted in the newspaper till 5 September. “Shortly after that, I started out obtaining messages about the similarity to The Folded Map Task,” Soth writes. “While I had no know-how of Johnson’s work, I come to feel terrible for the offence I have brought about. I apologise to Tonika Lewis Johnson and incredibly substantially regret accepting this assignment.”

Soth pledged to donate his cost from the New York Moments to The Folded Map Task, and also criticised the historic culture—almost a founding basic principle of documentary photography—of image-makers “parachuting” to diverse locales in purchase to dispassionately visualise communities distinctive from their personal experience.

“[Tonika Lewis Johnson’s] function is an example of extended-term, committed function that is exactly what the world requires right now,” Soth wrote. “What it doesn’t will need is photographers parachuting into complicated scenarios for rapid hits of material.”


Maurice “Phatal” Perkins was elevated 6500 South on Hermitage Road. His mother and household however life there.
From The Folded Map Task © Tonika Lewis Johnson, courtesy of the artist


John and Paula are Maurice’s ‘Map Twins’
From The Folded Map Challenge © Tonika Lewis Johnson, courtesy of the artist

Talking to The Artwork Newspaper, Johnson claims: “I was in shock, because I realized that the notion was mine. Further than the thought, the digital publication of it seemed related to my web page for Folded Map as effectively.” As a younger photographer, “a want and a purpose is to have my get the job done highlighted in the New York Periods,” she provides. “And it is just taken a actual twist.”

The Folded Map Challenge is a “multimedia visual exploration of what Chicago’s historic segregation appears to be like,” Johnson claims, which “visually connects residents who stay at corresponding addresses on the North and South Sides of Chicago”. Soth’s do the job also sought to juxtapose Chicago’s most affluent and impoverished districts through street portraiture taken on the roadways that span the length of the metropolis. Johnson notes he made use of many of the same spots as she did in Folded Map.

In a general public statement released just after publication of this posting, Soth claims that he was questioned to assess two neighbourhoods for the assignment: Streeterville and Englewood. “From what I can convey to, Tonika Johnson’s get the job done has practically nothing to do with Streeterville. Her work is about evaluating two addresses, one on the North Side of Chicago and just one on the South. Streeterville is downtown. In addition, I was not making aspect-by-facet comparisons. My images were being only organized as pairs by the photograph editors, but they are not linked as addresses.”

Johnson views the story “as a modern version of what our nation is essentially struggling with.” She states she is searching for tips from her attorney on whether any more case can be pursued. Right after The Folded Map Undertaking was first exhibited in 2017, she was mindful to generate a internet site for the operate and find to trademark it.

“This scenario is a pleasant snowball of all of these concerns,” she says. “It reveals how our place has extracted sources, wealth and livelihoods, constantly and over time, from black folks in America. It appears to be like at journalistic integrity and structural racism in the media sector. It appears to be at infringements of ownership and race bias. I can’t support but see it as necessary for us all to discuss about it.”While she “appreciated his public acknowledgement”, Johnson is keen for this to be a “teachable minute for us.”

Soth claims in his assertion that his pictures had been meant to accompany a 3-part sequence on American cities entitled The America We Need. He details out that the sequence features the perform of four other photographers—”the the greater part of the photographers, if not all, are white”, he claims. “That is uncomfortable and inexcusable. All I can say is that this was 17 May well months prior to George Floyd and the wake-up call so numerous of us have felt.”

Johnson states it is “problematic” that Soth did not know about her do the job. “But at the very least he mentioned it, so we can identify the problem that wants to be solved. Due to the fact he didn’t know about my function, the subsequent issue is—why did not you know? Let us discuss about why you didn’t do proper, related research. Since, as a documentary photographer, I know you’ve done some study. You settle for an assignment about a really critical matter for the New York Occasions, how did you not study? That’s what I’m going to keep him accountable for. Why did he minimise the investigate? Did you feel you didn’t have to? Do you believe it does not issue? Because he needs to have an open discourse, which I take pleasure in, that is what I want to know.”

Johnson notes that several content articles published about her undertaking are the top Google hits for any lookup like the words and phrases ‘Chicago’, ‘segregation’ and ‘photography’.

“You evidently typed in addresses to come across the areas in Englewood,” Johnson claims. “You did more than enough analysis to obtain the places you needed to photograph. I know my title will come up if you Google all those areas. I reside a several blocks down the avenue, and my task experienced a trajectory, so I know something came up. This is the dialogue I want to have with him.”

“The write-up was about inequity in The usa,” Johnson claims. “Well, this is what inequity seriously seems to be like,” she states. “It’s nuanced, and it’s mainly psychological.”

In reaction, Soth suggests in the general public statement that the “only informational website link [the commissioning editors] despatched was a Chicago Tribune tale that inspired this job. If you Google ‘Streeterville and Englewood’ you will also see tales from the Chicago Sunlight Instances, The Guardian, Chicago Public Radio and each network news station. Tonika Johnson’s name does not seem.”

Soth adds that “yet another significant element of this tale is Covid. Not only was it basic to the premise, it vastly impacted my photographic approach. Preserve in head this was early May. There were extremely couple people today outside. I drove to Chicago and was instructed not to photograph indoors and to continue to keep my distance from any person I met. This was not a job about knocking on doorways and performing thoughtful interviews. I was becoming hired to make visually persuasive photos about two neighbourhoods with vastly diverse existence expectancies in the time of Covid. This is not what Tonika Johnson’s undertaking is about.”

View this submit on Instagram

I would like to acknowledge the work of Tonika Lewis Johnson and her Folded Map Job. @tonikaj⁣ ⁣ Her function is an example of extended-phrase fully commited perform that is exactly what the planet demands correct now. What it doesn’t want is photographers parachuting into sophisticated circumstances for quick hits of information.⁣ ⁣ On Could 4th, I was contacted by the editors of the view area of the New York Times. As part of their ongoing 3-part series on inequity in the US, they required me to shoot a image essay in Chicago from May perhaps 7-10 with the images staying revealed on May well 17th. I was explained to an on the net photograph essay would also be run soon following that. This was early in the pandemic, and my private job experienced to be canceled, so I took the task.⁣ ⁣ 4 months later, and thoroughly out of the blue, I uncovered out from a friend that this on-line essay experienced been released. Soon right after that, I commenced receiving messages about the similarity to The Folded Map Challenge. Whilst I experienced no know-how of Johnson’s operate, I experience awful for the offense I have prompted. I apologize to Tonika Lewis Johnson and quite substantially regret accepting this assignment. ⁣ ⁣ That reported, I’m glad to be produced informed of her fully commited perform and will be donating all of my earnings from the New York Occasions to The Folded Map Venture. I encourage you to test out the do the job way too: foldedmapproject.com (url in bio).⁣

A submit shared by Alec Soth (@littlebrownmushroom) on


Brighid lives 6500 North on Winchester Avenue
From The Folded Map Challenge © Tonika Lewis Johnson, courtesy of the artist


Carmen is Brighid’s ‘Map Twin’
From The Folded Map Venture © Tonika Lewis Johnson, courtesy of the artist

The Art Newspaper was able to speak with Soth following our write-up was revealed. “I was unquestionably not conscious of [Johnson’s] function, I really don’t know how I could be more very clear about that,” the photographer claimed in a cellphone job interview. “I really should have been. In a perfect planet, it would have been good if I figured it out, or if The New York Occasions alerted me to it. Were they aware of it? I have no notion. I have never ever worked with The New York Times’ op-ed webpage just before. I have no marriage with them. I have no clue. So of course, in a perfect world, I would have been aware of it, and I’m sorry that I was not. And I know how terrible it feels. I set myself in her sneakers. I assumed: ‘Here I am. I’m committed to this get the job done, I have labored on it endlessly. Boom—there’s a large profile tale, New York Instances, and it is in the location I stay and function.’ Feeling upset about that, feeling like somebody has walked on my turf and becoming upset—I realize that feeling and I comprehend that anger. And remaining a white person, at this moment, in heritage specially, immediately after every little thing which is transpired, I fully grasp how she felt. And I’m not criticising her for that at all. I have excellent empathy for her and terrific regard for her function. I truly would like I experienced recognized about it. If I have been requested by The New York Moments to do the occupation now, I would have reported no. And, frankly, I do not consider the New York Instances would inquire me now. For all the things I just talked about. Issues have adjusted. The regrettable issue is it was published way soon after. I have to bear the brunt of that. And I will accept that.”

This article was current on 10 September to include things like remark from Alec Soth from a mobile phone interview. It was current once more on 14 September to consist of info from a general public statement posted by Soth.

Melissa M. Taylor

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