At the Photographers' Gallery in London, an exhibition of Sally Mann's photographs of her children is stirring controversy, and not for the first time. Taken over a ten year period, many of the photographs are of her children naked, or posed in ways to suggest they are older. Her intent was to remind her audience of how exploited children are, and how they have been sexualized. Though the reason for her work is honourable, it raises questions about what is child pornography and what isn't.
These are difficult topics to talk about. I wish it weren't so, but as a social worker who has worked with many abused children, I can say with certainty that the age of our innocence is past. What has changed is us. There is a notion today of art as co-constructed. What has been termed the 'post-modern turn' means that the audience participates in art. We are no longer passive consumers. By watching, we interpret and say what something means.
Unfortunately, that means a picture of a naked little girl or boy cannot be divorced from stories in the news of paedophiles who kidnap children and keep them in underground bunkers. Nor can we avoid the sad truth that those pieces of art will be exploited by an internet culture that will land them in the hands of people who will look at them in ways we don't want them to be looked at.
The innocent pictures we used to take of our children in the bathtub or dancing naked through the backyard sprinkler can no longer be developed at the local mall.
It saddens me when I see how corrupted our view of children's bodies has become. A few years ago, my niece was three and walking naked on the beach (with her parents and I at her side) when a cottager on the bluff above screamed down to us to "put clothes on that child." It made me wonder what kind of person sees a naked little kid in a way that could offend. And yet, that cottager is likely in the majority these days.
I hate to admit it, but I'm finding myself beginning to think it is no longer worth the risk to allow our children to be naked in public. At least not now. Maybe we have to remove these images from public display for a time. Maybe the paedophiles have won. Maybe we have lost our innocence, burdened with stories of the clergy, sex tourism that seeks child prostitutes, and the proliferation of child pornography on the web. I wish it weren't so, but I know I would feel strange taking a photo of my own children that is even remotely suggestive of their sexuality.
That's sad, isn't it? The other night my 14-year-old daughter had a sleep over with two of her friends. They slept outside under a starlit summer's sky. In the morning it was sweet to see them curled up together, under blankets, their heads poking out, their pyjama legs tossed carelessly in all directions. My wife suggested we take a picture. Though I'm usually the photographer in the family, I told her I thought she should take the picture, not me. She looked at me for a moment, wondering why.
"I'm not sure it feels right," I told her. "What will the girls say when they go home? 'Mr. Ungar was taking photos of us sleeping. In our pyjamas!'"
My wife took the picture. We won't be posting it on any website, Facebook page, or emailing it. We won't print it at the local box store either. We'll just look at it on our computer, as my daughter did, and smile. We'll shut out the noise around us, pretend it is all innocent, when we know that lurking beyond our backyard is a world that would look at that picture very differently.
Sad, how very sad.