A snapshot of our confused attitudes

There are worries over how far even parents should be allowed to exploit the privacy of their own children
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Betsy Schneider seems awfully naïve. She claims to be amazed that her photographs of her naked daughter displayed in a London gallery have been reported to the police by members of the public. She is concerned, too, that someone is reported to have photographed her work in the gallery, even though it is all on her website, and therefore accessible to anybody, anyway.

She understands though, that, "I cannot chase any pictures that might have been taken and I cannot chase what people might read into them. When you decide to exhibit your work you're deciding to put it out there ... once you show them you have to let go."

Well, she's shown them now, and after one day they're already covered up in a locked gallery while experts decide whether or not they are obscene. And Ms Schneider claims not to have thought for a second that something like this might happen.

Can it be true, this suggestion that a photographic artist, a graduate and teacher of photography, and a woman using her own children as the raw material for her work, is entirely unaware of the controversy that has surrounded photographs of children since cameras were invented, and Lewis Carroll started snapping Alice Liddell?

Surely not. It is possible that Ms Schneider has missed some of the recent outings of this hoary old "controversy". Three years ago Tierney Gearon's amateur photographs of her children displayed at the Saatchi Gallery in London, received similar treatment. A few years before that, Julia Somerville's entirely private pictures of her children in the bath, were reported to the police by an overly vigilant film processor.

But even so, she must surely be aware of the territory since she claims to have worked for a time as an assistant to Sally Mann. Ms Mann is the photographer who is always mentioned when the debate about images of children arises. She took many very beautiful pictures of her daughters, some of them naked, and has become a celebrated American artist for doing so.

But right down the line Ms Mann has also been accused of being exploitative in using her daughters as her subject matter, and of portraying them inappropriately as she explored their development as they hovered on the edge of puberty. The latter, inevitably, are Ms Mann's most compelling pictures, because they capture the essence of our discomfort about the sexuality of females. If Ms Schneider is unaware of this then she was surely a notably incurious, as well as a derivative, assistant.

Perhaps, on the other hand, Ms Schneider felt she would not be wandering in to an arena as controversial as the one Ms Mann found herself in, because the pictures Ms Schneider has exhibited of her daughter show her at no less tender an age than five. There is no exploration of incipient adult sexuality in these shots, even if they make some adults uncomfortable.

Her exhibition shows samples from a project Ms Schneider has been working on since the birth of her daughter. Every day she takes a photograph of her daughter naked, or nearly naked, sometimes holding a toy, usually face-on with her hands by her side or clasped behind her. She also does this with her son, although his pictures do not feature in the show.

The images, amateur-looking snaps taken in whatever corner of the family home is favoured for a few days, are then arranged in nine-week blocks. "I wanted to show how the body changes over time, I also wanted to record the incidental changes which happen day to day: their cuts and bruises, dirt, drawings on themselves, temporary tattoos, tans and sunburns," Ms Schneider says. "With clothes on, the work would have been more about what they wore each day, I am more interested in what their bodies look like each day."

To my eyes, it's a nice record. It reminds me of the endless Polaroid shots I took of my first son in the first weeks. He became most animated when his nappy was off, so there are endless pictures of him on the changing mat, half naked. They all went up on the playroom wall at the time, which continued to be added to for a few years, until it was time to paint the room.

People liked looking at the pictures, and seeing the changes in the children. Essentially, that's why we all take photographs of our children - to keep a record for ourselves and our friends and relatives lest we forget, and a record for our children, so that they can identify their former selves.

Ms Schneider clearly sees her photographs in this way too. "My husband, friends, parents and family believe in it [her project] and I really believe I am not damaging them by doing this."

Maybe not. Sally Mann's daughters claim to be glad to have discovered they "were living with a genius" when asked as adults how they felt about being their mother's inspiration.

Yet there are still worries about how far even parents should be allowed to exploit the privacy of their own children. Perhaps the people who complained about these photographs are merely prurients who believe that a little girl is too old for nakedness at five. Or maybe they are troubled more by the invasion of the child's privacy that the exhibition of her image without her informed consent entails.

Either way, the sharp and quick reaction to Ms Schneider's photographs is a reminder, if one were needed, of just how confused we are over our responsibilities towards our children.

Obviously, the reaction to Ms Schneider's work is partly prompted by the fear of paedophilia, a fear that has been pumped up by the availability of pornographic images of children on the internet, that any scannable image of a child can now, technically, be argued to be "pornographic" if it is used for that purpose.

Ms Schneider though, again appears to have little or no knowledge of such developments. She claims in another project, also featuring her daughter, that she is "interested in finding the intersection between the construct of childhood and the reality of it. Children are at once idealised and marginalised by our culture ... In this work I am primarily interested in the drive for knowledge and experience, the force which at once defines childhood and propels us out of it."

Yet this artist seems really quite remarkably ill-equipped to undertake such an exploration. She has kept a compelling record of her daughter's life so far. I do not believe it is any more harmful than the pencil marks in a million kitchens, showing family heights through the years.

Many people would not want to invade their children's privacy to the extent that Ms Schneider feels comfortable with. Many others would not like the idea of their children's pictures becoming commodified even in galleries, let alone on paedophilic websites.

For Ms Schneider though, the conflict seems mainly to be about combining work and motherhood. Ever since she had her children, all of her photography has been connected to her children in one way or another. In a society in which we often despair of being able to combine the two, Ms Schneider's approach is challenging and legitimate. The issue is not the content of Ms Schneider's art, but whether the intimacies of parenthood need and deserve public exploration.