Retouching the Schoolkids
Issue #41, December 1998
Anne Geddes' photographs have started to pop up all over creation, adorning calendars and coffee tables across the land. In case you've luckily missed her work, she makes photos of excruciatingly cute babies in various costumes and environments, metamorphing them into bees and flowers and other generic natural wonders. Geddes' cutesy and otherwise nondescript little baby pictures are particularly curious because Geddes actively, scrupulously composes the images to exclude the genitalia of her subjects. In fact, to me her work is remarkable only because she accomplishes this so completely. Never, in all of the flower petals and faux fur in any of the published images in her books do we glimpse the sex of her subjects. Maybe a few little baby bottoms peek out on occasion, but the conspicuous absence of the children's sex organs in and of itself calls attention to their absence. The only reasonable explanation I can interpret is that they are too taboo to be photographed, and might somehow distract us into the remembrance that babies are gendered and therefore sexual humans. I don't think that infants are usually considered the stuff of child pornography, as the notions of babies being sexual is so repressed from social consciousness as to be almost unimaginable. Yet, by its active exclusion, this editing highlights the very thing that it excludes. I wonder how many images of babies with their genitals intact ended up on her cutting room floor, so as not to provoke moral sensibilities.
In provoking moral sensibilities, the Clinton affair and the social discourse on human sexuality has reached some new, lurid depths. Yet efforts to purify the irrevocably sullied moral consciousness continue unabated. Curiously, through the now-defunct Communications Decency Act and the newer Child Online Protection Act, politically conservative interest groups continue their efforts to stanch the flow of communication of imagery and information on the Internet which might be considered "harmful to minors," a phrase that is pointedly vague and slippery. Essentially this amounts to an effort to remove from the public sphere some of the influences which form an individual's sexual identity. Although efforts to regulate Internet traffic have been more vigorous that those targeted at traditional media (which presumably have already been tamed), so far these tactics have remained fortunately impotent in spite of some heartfelt and concerted efforts.
In and of themselves, images of naked young people aren't particularly interesting to me, regardless of whether they are couched in the safety of "art photography" or are bone fide "kiddie porn" hot off the net. What is intriguing, however, is their power. Power created by the social taboo attached to such images. We can think about minors in sexual situations, even make blockbuster feature films about the potential for the illegal, sexual union of underage people, as in Titanic, but to fix such images verges on the unthinkable. It is a topic best left to the imagination or sublimated completely.
This rich source of perverse, extreme stigmatization is a hearty psychosexual foundation for fetishization and is the source of my own deeply rooted fetish, which I can recall since even I, myself, was underage. It is not so much a fetish of the images themselves, nor the subjects in them, as much as it is a fetish of their danger and power. In them lies power to reveal the prohibited, to open discourse on the unthinkable, and more ominously, the power to ruin lives if they are discovered in your possession. Not suprisingly, such potent fetishes form early.
I was a pornographer child. At the age of 12, my best friend and I were actively engaged in mutual, consensual sexual relations, and had been for years. We had started fooling around way back around age 7, discovering our bodies and their potential for pleasure. Taking breaks from playing with hot wheels or watching cartoons, or perhaps waiting until the covers were pulled up at night, we would explore each other and enjoy it in utter delight and fascination. When I was 12, we had the idea to take pictures of each other during our explorative escapades. This was not an episode of coercion or manipulation, but of fun and games. I had grabbed my mom's polaroid and we thought it would be cool to take pictures ourselves. These are images of me and my childhood best friend laughing, touching, playing it cool, naked and together. By any measure, they are decidedly sexual. Naturally, I kept them and over the years my best friend and I grew apart. I believe he still has his polaroids. I have mine. They are locked in a metal box and buried deep in my basement, as they are contraband of the most inflammatory nature. If, as a child, I were found with these images, this child pornography, it might be easily explained away. But as an adult my possession of these images, even though I am the subject, is so morally repugnant in the public consciousness, that I probably should have burned them a long time ago.
Recently, there have been two cases involving minors that illustrate the problematic nature of such imagery. In one instance in Illinois, a fourteen year old boy and his thirteen year old girlfriend decided to make a video of their consensual sexual escapades, which he proceeded to proudly distribute to friends. It did not take long before he was arrested on charges of manufacture and distribution of child pornography, not to mention statutory rape. Interestingly, the young girl was not charged; she apparently cannot be held responsible for her actions, which reveals a curious double-standard in cases of statutory rape that I have always found troublesome. In another case, an underage boy was arrested for possession of child pornography that was on his hard drive. The porn was discovered by repair technicians, who then called the police. The boy told police he had downloaded it from the Internet.
For adults, it seems that the potential for abuse is so great that the moral climate forbids images of naked children in a sexual or even non-sexual situation. For example, photographer Jock Sturges, who is known for his sensual and sometimes provocative photos of children and young adults on nude beaches in France, has been targeted by authorities and has had his studio raided, in spite of the fact that he has several published books of this work. These are the so-called "art photography" books which have been more or less tentatively accepted by the mainstream, but still inspire discomfort.
As an artist and a photographer, my reaction to this dilemma has been to focus on exploring exactly what it is that makes these images so dangerous. Is it the thoughts they provoke? Is it that they are de facto representations of coercion? Is it simply the nakedness of the subjects? What, then, is that status of my nudie polaroids? As the cases I have described show, the representation of nakedness or even sexual encounters is not the sole determiner of what informs the contemporary moral outrage about such images. The party line that such images inherently constitute coercion doesn't hold water on its own either.
In an effort to come to grips with these problems I attempted to locate the root of the evil. Recently, I began a series of photo-images of de-sexed nudes of all ages, which ultimately culminated in a series of young adults and adolescents. Taking my source material from art photo books magazines, nudist newsletters, and elsewhere, I have carefully removed the genitalia from otherwise normal, but naked individuals, in both sexual and non-sexual situations. The results are bizarre. To me, they recall the peculiar Japanese comic book erotica, a genre that frequently contains characters that appear to be underage. What's strange about them is that in these comics, the illustrations always have a void where the genitalia should be. It's as if the situation itself is not too taboo to portray, but the organs are. What then is the position of my images, in the moral consciousness? Are they kiddie porn? Are they taboo? In an effort to eradicate the root of the evil, the evil persists. The erasure of the organs has almost no impact on the sexuality, the provocativeness of the human form. Even as they appear without the offending genitals, they remain taboo in my own mind. Yet, if clothed, the same persons, the same situations might appear in a Gap ad.
Though naked, these people remain problematic and subversive. It may be that nakedness is so intertwined with sexuality and vulnerability as to be irrevocably linked, such that any depictions of it, particularly naked children, are necessarily sexual, necessarily taboo. The nascent and unpotentiated sexuality of children is thus exaggerated by its very suppression, a subversive theme that is associated with such misfits as Wilhelm Reich, who argued this point strenuously. And so we walk the line in Anne Geddes Country. The moral consciousness remains conflicted by these images and by the notion that anyone under the magical and absurdly arbitrary age of consent might be a sexual person. It is this conflict that results in the duplicity of thinking that can grudgingly sanction nude beaches, so-called "art photography," and narratives about teenage lust, even as it stigmatizes overtly sexual themes and representations.
So I'll keep those graphic polaroids in a lockbox for now. And I'll make sure my hard drive is unsullied by Internet detritus in case the thought police show up at my door. But my fetish will remain in my work and in my mind — powerful, provocative, and naked.
John Smith is a pseudonym.