In an image by Portugal-based photographer Anka Zhuravleva, a breathless woman in a green dress floats, grasping a red sphere, in a gently lit hallway. She’s surrounded by other hovering red spheres, drifting like balloons. “Distorted Gravity” (2011) is a dreamy, whimsical shot, part of a larger project that, explained Zhuravleva to Hyperallergic, “is about those feelings every person has when dreaming, sleeping, falling in love. It’s when one loses their normal feeling of gravity.”
In late February, a shockingly similar photograph was shortlisted for the 2017 Sony World Photography Awards. The (similarly titled) image, “Far from Gravity,” by France-based, Romanian artist Alex Andriesi, features a young girl, also clad in green, suspended in air and holding a yellow sphere in a softly lit hallway, with other yellow spheres surrounding her.
When Zhuravleva’s photo community and friends alerted her, she ignored the first 10 or so messages, “but after another several dozens,” she said, “I felt like this is not only about me anymore. This is something important for the creative photographic community.” Zhuravleva explained that this image, along with many others, have been plagiarized before: “I have already seen at least five or six copies. Normally I just smile and let it pass. It’s okay to copy to learn, to experiment. But I suppose it is unacceptable to enter a copy to the contest. Contests are about creativity and originality, aren’t they? What if all the plagiarizers of the world will feel free to do the same?”
On March 19, Zhuravleva took to Facebook to publicly accuse Andriesi of plagiarism. She told Hyperallergic she’d also reached out to the World Photography Organisation (WPO), which hosts the competition, over e-mail, notifying them that the image was a nearly identical copy of her own, but “they did not answer me at all during two weeks.”
The WPO finally responded to her Facebook post, stating that it takes “any accusation of plagiarism extremely seriously,” adding, “Alex Andriesi has provided documents that support his statement that he has not plagiarized the work of any other artist and his influence was taken from elsewhere.”
The source of his influence, however, remains clandestine. After Zhuravleva’s complaint went public, Andriesi shared a document and a video with the WPO and PetaPixel displaying the photograph’s inspiration, under the condition it not be shared with the public. According to a statement by PetaPixel, the documents include a film scene featuring a young girl holding balloons. “I do not want to publish this video there, for fear that it creates a big debate that’s not nice,” Andriesi told PetaPixel.
In the comment chain on her initial Facebook post, Andriesi also responded to Zhuravleva directly, explaining he’d e-mailed her an explanation. According to the artist, who preferred not to disclose the contents of the e-mail, his explanation was not all that different from what he said to PetaPixel.
“If I was in Andriesi’s place, I would publish the video immediately to prove my point,” Zhuravleva told Hyperallergic. Indeed, Andriesi’s photograph was removed from the contest’s promotional banner. “Why did they do that if they think they’re right?” Zhuravleva asked.
Though Andriesi’s photograph didn’t win, Zhuravleva still has concerns going forward. “The situation is not pleasant at all,” she said. “I do not want this kind of case to be common. Creativity itself is a very fragile thing and I feel if I do not do all I can to defend it, I’ll regret it.”