Exploitation


In photographing Edie and June I find myself being very aware of a strong protective instinct in regard to how I choose to show their bodies. While I do have images that are more explicit (for lack of a better term) I feel the need to keep them to myself, to not publish them for the world to see. It's not because I personally am modest--when it comes to myself I'm quite open, and spent the better part of my college photo years taking nude self-portraits that featured me and my two female roommates, as did they. I'm comfortable with my body, and want my girls to feel the same freedom in their skin that I do. But when it comes to my work with the kids, I shy away from a certain rawness, as I've mentioned before. Often I find that even when I'm not conscious of it, the pictures I've taken of Edie or June naked have them posed in just the right way so that not too much is revealed.

I find that much of my unease is due to open nature of the web--I have no control over who views my work, and as much as I'd like to think that anyone who looks at my photographs is artistically minded and will see the images for their conceptual value, well, you never know. Is this a hindrance? These thoughts of shadowy figures in front of their computers? Is it because I was brought up with a hyped-up sense of "appropriate" and "inappropriate," which through photographing my own body I was trying to break away from, but now that I have children am more sensitive to, for better or worse?

It's something I grapple with. I think about Sally Mann, who made her work pre-internet age, and I wonder if she would have felt as free to create the work she did if her images had been all over the web. Was there a mantle of safety because her photographs had to be more sought out? Or was it something she was also aware of, consciously deciding to break away from her fears in order to represent the beauty of her children as she saw fit? And certainly there are artists today who are making work that pushes these boundaries, most notably Tierney Gearon and Elinor Carucci.

A few months ago James and I watched the documentary on Gearon called The Mother Project; in the film she expresses frustration with a friend who claims that she is exploiting her mother, who is mentally ill. Gearon denies the accusation of exploitation, and in watching the movie it's a tricky question. Her mother has a fragile touch with reality, and is quite childlike, but I also felt that Gearon really understood her, and was amazingly able to relate to her on her own terms, while also processing the recognition that as a child she had suffered because of her mother's illness. As far as her children are concerned, in the images they are often visual stand-ins for Gearon herself, and I felt she was working through her own abandonment issues through the act of photographing and creating with her children in the mix.

Is this "exploitative"? I don't know. But I wonder if it matters. No parent raises their children perfectly, and in some ways I think that her kids will grow up with a richer sense of experience. Maybe watching the interaction between their grandmother and mother, and being so firmly part of the artistic process, will be something that allows them to see the world not as black and white but as the strangely beautiful place that it is.

It seems trendy in the media these days to talk about helicopter parents and overprotection, and not as a good thing, which in general I find welcome. And I don't consider myself to be one of the overprotective mothers--I subscribe to the philosophy that children need a ton of affection and love, but that they're also quite resilient and can figure some things out for themselves. When it comes to my pictures however there is a certain mother-bear instinct that is being triggered, and while I can embrace the work of Gearon and Carucci and find it brilliant and stunning, I don't know if I'm personally capable of going as far as they have.

In many respects I suppose it's because my work in general is about something different than theirs--less about the blatant rawness and physicality of children's bodies and the turmoil of parenthood, and more about the subtle tumult--a sense of it being fleeting, or coursing beneath the surface. I suppose in some ways it's a good exercise to compare my work to that of others who push different sorts of boundaries, to see whether it would be relevant or not to explore the same concepts in my own image-making.

Comments

Alisha said…
beautifully said.
kate said…
I struggle with this stuff too. To me the issue isn't just showing your kids naked, although that seems to bring the question to the foreground. It's about using your kids in your art. To me, the same issues come up in writing about our kids - how much is it fair to reveal? And the web also complicates the issue, because as you say, we don't have control of it. And even if we take stuff down, it's still archived elsewhere and could still be found and used maliciously when your kid is in high school or something. But still, is it right for parents to assume their children are free to use as subject matter and/or muses? I don't know. But motherhood has been such a profound and changing experience for me, and I have a lot I want to express about that, and my kid is kind of the central focus of that...

The other day, Heather Morton Art Buyer linked to Barbara Crane http://barbaracrane.desordre.net/, who paid her children to model nude for her, with the agreement that they wouldn't be recognizable. That idea has really intrigued me.

I'm starting to think that maybe as long as the photographer or writer or whatever is a little bit troubled by the question of exploitation, then it's ok?
Anonymous said…
wonderfully, thoughtful post. thanks

Popular Posts