Magnum photographer Alec Soth accused of plagiarism by Chicago artist Tonika Johnson
The American Magnum photographer Alec Soth has been accused by Tonika Lewis Johnson, a Chicago-based documentary photographer, of copying her trademarked photography series for a New York Times commission.
Johnson, a 40-year-old black, female photographer and a life-long resident of Chicago's Englewood district, claims that Soth “clearly stole” from her long-term series The Folded Map Project—which she describes as “the embodiment of my entire life in Chicago”—for a photo essay he created for a New York Times article exploring inequality in the American city, published by the newspaper on 5 September.
Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Johnson says: “I was in shock, because I knew that the concept was mine. Beyond the concept, the digital publication of it looked similar to my website for Folded Map as well.”
The Folded Map Project is a "multimedia visual exploration of what Chicago's historic segregation looks like,” Johnson says, which "visually connects residents who live at corresponding addresses on the North and South Sides of Chicago”. Soths work also sought to juxtapose Chicagos most affluent and impoverished districts via street portraiture taken on the roads that span the length of the city. Johnson notes he used many of the same locations as she did in Folded Map.
Maurice "Phatal" Perkins was raised 6500 South on Hermitage Street. His mother and family still lives there. From The Folded Map Project © Tonika Lewis Johnson, courtesy of the artist John and Paula are Maurice's 'Map Twins' From The Folded Map Project © Tonika Lewis Johnson, courtesy of the artist
On Instagram, Soth responded by saying he was unaware of Johnson's project, but recognised the similarity between the two bodies of work.
While she “appreciated his public acknowledgement”, Johnson is keen for this to be a “teachable moment for us.”
“He said he didnt know about my work,” Johnson says. “Thats just problematic. But at least he said it, so we can identify the issue that needs to be solved. Since he didnt know about my work, the next question is – why didnt you know? Lets talk about why you didnt do proper, relevant research. Because, as a documentary photographer, I know youve done some research. You accept an assignment about a very serious topic for the New York Times, how did you not research? Thats what Im going to hold him accountable for. Why did he minimise the research? Did you think you didnt have to? Do you think it doesnt matter? Since he wants to have an open discourse, which I appreciate, thats what I want to know.”
I would like to acknowledge the work of Tonika Lewis Johnson and her Folded Map Project. @tonikaj Her work is an example of long-term committed work that is precisely what the world needs right now. What it doesnt need is photographers parachuting into complex situations for quick hits of content. On May 4th, I was contacted by the editors of the opinion section of the New York Times. As part of their ongoing 3-part series on inequity in the US, they wanted me to shoot a photo essay in Chicago from May 7-10 with the photos being published on May 17th. I was told an online photo essay would also be run shortly after that. This was early in the pandemic, and my personal project had to be canceled, so I took the job. Four months later, and totally out of the blue, I found out from a friend that this online essay had been published. Shortly after that, I started receiving messages about the similarity to The Folded Map Project. While I had no knowledge of Johnsons work, I feel terrible for the offense Ive caused. I apologize to Tonika Lewis Johnson and very much regret accepting this assignment. That said, Im 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 (link in bio).
A post shared by Alec Soth (@littlebrownmushroom) on
Johnson notes that multiple articles written about her project are the top Google hits for any search including the words Chicago, segregation and photography.
“You clearly typed in addresses to find the locations in Englewood,” Johnson says. “You did enough research to find the locations you wanted to photograph. I know my name comes up if you Google those locations. I live a few blocks down the street, and my project had a trajectory, so I know something came up. This is the conversation I want to have with him.”
“The article was about inequity in America," Johnson says. “Well, this is what inequity really looks like,” she says. “Its nuanced, and its mostly psychological.”
As a young photographer, “a wish and a goal is to have my work featured in the New York Times,” she adds. “And its just taken a real twist.”
When Johnson pointed to the similarities between the projects on social media, she quickly gained traction and support from photographers across the world, who called on the New York Times and Soth to recognise, cite and reimburse her.
Brighid lives 6500 North on Winchester Street From The Folded Map Project © Tonika Lewis Johnson, courtesy of the artist Carmen is Brighids Map Twin From The Folded Map Project © Tonika Lewis Johnson, courtesy of the artist
On 7 September, Soth emailed Johnson directly to apologise, before writing on his Instagram: "I would like to acknowledge the work of Tonika Lewis Johnson and her The Folded Map Project.”
Soth further explained that on 4 May he was contacted by the editors of the opinion section of the New York Times. As part of the newspapers ongoing series exploring inequity in America, it commissioned Soth to shoot a photo essay in Chicago. Soth photographed in the city between 7 and 10 May, for which he receiveRead More – Source