More Than I Bargained For

Sally Mann’s memoir Hold Still is taking me down some densely overgrown paths. Knowing just a smitch about the controversy that swelled over the nude images of Mann’s young children when her book Immediate Family was published in 1992, I was a bit hesitant to start in on Hold Still. Would I learn more than I wanted to know? Was I going to find that Mann was an artist who put her work before her children’s well-being/safety? Was I somehow participating in the alleged exploitation of Mann’s children by buying and reading the book?

Well, in short: no, no, and no.

Chapter Eight, which I finished last night, is titled, “Ubi Amor, Ibi Oculus Est,” a beautiful and appropriate choice that means “where there is love, there is the power to see.” In chapter eight, Mann faces the controversy head on. She writes about the weirdos and stalkers who put her and her family through hell, the strangers who judged her as a mother, the politicians and pundits who used her book to push their own agendas—and she admits that some of them were right.

Mann’s family spent as much time as possible at the secluded, 365-acre farm near Lexington, VA, that her father bought when she was a child, and there at the farm, for the kids, clothing seldom seemed necessary. After all, the better part of most days was spent in or around the river. When choosing images for Immediate Family, Mann explains, she and her husband showed the possible inclusions to their three children, Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia, and asked them to take out anything they did not want the general public to see. It turned out that the nudity in the photos did not bother them, but some embarrassing situations caught on film did. Mann respected their wishes, writing, “Maintaining the dignity of my subjects has grown to be, over the years, an imperative in my work, both in the taking of the pictures and in the presentation of them.”

Mann’s plight is just one example of the way in which our culture of death has twisted and contorted the beauty and innocence of a child’s naked body and turned it into an object to exploit and eroticize. Mann specifically calls out a February 6, 1991, article in The Wall Street Journal written by Raymond Sokolov, who used a beautiful shot of four-year-old Virginia Mann as a jumping-off point for a tirade against government funding of the arts. Now, whether or not taxpayers’ money should be funding the arts is immaterial. The point is that Sokolov exploited Virginia and Mann’s image of her for his own gain, and this is especially egregious since, according to Mann, the government had not funded her work. She writes:

But Sokolov’s piece, a tissue of banality and non sequitur that otherwise would have gone unnoticed, acquired an undeniably arresting force on the page, thanks to the accompanying illustration (for which no permission had been sought by the Wall Street Journal). The nation’s largest-circulation newspaper cropped and mutilated my image …

When we saw it, it indeed felt like a mutilation, not only of the image but also of Virginia herself and of her innocence. It made her feel, for the first time, that there was something wrong not only with the pictures but with her body. Heartbreakingly, she wore shorts and shirt into the bathtub the night after she had seen the picture with the black bars.

Of course, this begs the question: are children capable of understanding what they are agreeing to when they tell an adult, “Yes, you can put me on display”? It is one that seems more pertinent now than at any other point in history. While I have always carefully chosen which images of my children I’ve shared online, I’ve become more and more reluctant to put any of them out there. (I also changed the title of at least one image on Flickr when I realized that the name of the picture—taken from the poem that goes with it—and not the image itself, was responsible for all its views—882, and yes, it gives me the willies.) Further, just as the government funding question was a non-issue, so too, it seems to me, is the nudity question. After all, how can one label nudity in art “exploitation/objectification” and not raise the same red flags when photos and videos of children wearing sponsored clothing and playing with sponsored toys are used by parents to get more hits on their social media pages and bring more customers to their own online shops?

There’s a lot more to discuss and I hope to get to it soon.

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