Portrait of a Young Man as a Plagiarist
A stolen photo was worth a thousand dollars. It was an amount Mark Joseph Tajo Solis was happy to receive until the jig was up.
Solis was discovered to have plagiarized a photograph by social entrepreneur Gregory John Smith of a smiling boy with seaweeds hanging down from his head. Solis would have walked away with the top prize in the “Smiles For The World” photo essay competition sponsored by the Embassy of Chile and its project partner Calidad Humana.
Last Sept. 18 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Solis was applauded for his supposed photograph of “a smiling boy from Zamboanga” helping his father farm seaweeds. The photo was apparently taken by him in 2012 after a major storm that destroyed the boy’s house. He captioned it the “Mettle of Filipino spirit: resilience, guarded optimism, smarts”.
For that “winning shot”, Chilean Ambassador to Manila Roberto Mayorga awarded a dignified-looking Solis dressed in Barong Tagalog with $1,000, a smartphone from Smart Communications, and roundtrip tickets to Chile and Brazil with accommodations. Solis was supposed to use “his photo” as the backdrop when he talked to South Americans about the significance, intent and goals of the whole project behind the photo contest.
But that was not to be. On the night of September 21, Smith, the real owner of the photograph, claimed the photo as his and provided an internet address that links to an account in theimage-sharing site Flicker for the Children At Risk Foundation where he uploaded the contested photograph.
Smith said the smiling boy in the photo was not from Zamboanga but from a poor community in Morro de Macaco, Brazil. It was taken on January 8, 2006 and not six years later as Solis claimed. And the smiling boy has a name: Elias.
After Smith’s revelation, angry reactions online snowballed and forced Solis to issue a letter of apology to Smith on Sunday night. Then, on Monday the Embassy of Chile announced that it has revoked Solis’ prize and is mulling legal action against the 22-year-old plagiarist. The Embassy of Chile has also decided to reevaluate the entries of the other winners before naming a new set of winners.
By Tuesday, other parties with links to the controversial contestant have launched their own investigations.
Solis, who graduated from the University of the Philippines cum laude with a degree in political science, is now the subject of an investigation by the UP National College of Public Administration and Governance where he is currently taking up his master’s degree. The university has its own Code of Conduct for all its students and takes plagiarism as a ground for expulsion and revocation of one’s degree.
Even the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) has launched an investigation to look into another alleged plagiarism by Solis. The young man joined and won the OPAPP’s “Say Peace Photo Contest” in 2011 apparently using a photograph he also downloaded from another person’s Flicker account.
In a statement, Jomer Aquino, Head of OPAPP Legal and Security Unit, said OPAPP wants “to find out whether Mr. Solis has committed same infraction in the said contest,” adding that their office “will not hesitate to exercise legal options to rectify” the wrongdoing of Solis if proven guilty.
Solis has labeled himself as a prolific academic writer, but people now brand his as a serial plagiarist who won in several photography contests through fraud. Solis apparently also won in the First Papworth Trust International Photo Competition and in the Second Vinyl 2010 Sustainable Thinking Platform Multimedia Competition.
In owning his mistakes, Solis chose to use his youth and lack of experience to excuse his inability to see the repercussions of his actions.
In his letter to Smith, Solis said he is taking full responsibility for his “disgraceful action” and “grave moral lapse”.
“The sheer amount of the prize, the stiff competition, and the unique opportunity to be abroad blinded me from undertaking what is supposed to be an honest and a rightful conduct. It was a regrettable lapse on my judgment, and no words can express how sorry I am for taking your photo as mine.”
With this, he said he has learned his lesson to “become humble, to have foresight, to be sensitive for the works of others, and ultimately, to take responsibility for my action.”
Solis, who worked for three-months as a probationary staff at the Office of Senator Pia Cayetano, until a week ago was heading towards a promising academic and public affairs career here or abroad. He is a young achiever who have obtained scholarships and presented academic papers overseas. His curriculum vitae is long and admirable. Sadly, all that people now see is the anatomy of a plagiarist. A Facebook account named “Mark Joseph Solis a serial plagiarist” has been created to chronicle his misdeeds.
Solis gave new meaning to the term “stolen shot” and, this time, there is nothing candid about it. (with Ron B. Lopez, MB Online)