Utter Journal, Issue 4. Spring 2020.
There Is No Childhood came about because there was Childhood.
There Is No Childhood deals with moments beginning twenty-eight years ago when I began photographing my own children growing up. It ended with the original printers of Utter Journal refusing to print Childhood, them calling in the police and my images cited as traumatic, disturbing and naive. The police went as far as to say that, “Childhood is potentially a danger to children”. I believe the irony was unintentional.
It transpired that the child’s naked body and even worse the child’s penis was somehow disturbing, perverted and for the printers to go ahead, all photographs where the child’s penis could be seen, however oblique and however small, had to be removed. I declined their censorship. There was one exception to their censorial demands. In the afterword of Childhood, I had included a photograph taken in 1896 by Francesco Paulo Michetti, ‘The Offering’. This photograph of a mother and her naked son with his penis in full view would be allowed, as it was, “historical”. The contemporary child’s penis, however, was to remain hysterical, both tragically and comically.
While I recognise that each of us sees what we choose to see, my belief in what childhood represents was casually bundled into the same category as child pornography, paedophilia and child abuse and, after a litany of predatory innuendos and cautionary intimidation by the police, I felt that everything I stood for within an ideal of childhood, had been irretrievably debased. The morally righteous had fluttered their wings and the feeling was that, although the police had, in their own words, “no case” and had found nothing wrong with my photographs, in their eyes I had done wrong. It was as if they had to reassure themselves, that they were right, that their actions were justified, that they were simply dealing with a misguided and naive artist.
I’ve never thought naivety to be the preserve of the artist. The artist has nowhere to hide and therefore tends to be thorough, neither superficial nor partial unless otherwise intended. Had the police read the text to my work, their naivety might not have been so profound. They told me there was far too much to read, they didn’t have the time. They had all the time in the world, it was a matter of what they wished to see, and all things taken out of context can be meaninglessly altered to fit the message and at worst, recklessly misunderstood.
In the end, I chose not to publish the original work. I wanted Childhood to be seen as I saw it, not how they saw it with all their adult fear and anxiety. For me, their interpretations were destructive and unhealthy. I could have gone ahead, found another printer and published, but the truth is I had no appetite for controversy and I felt there were elements at work who were going to make this controversial.
When I look back on all this, I’m just happy I don’t see what they see.
Childhood is a body of work taken over a 20-year period between 1991 and 2011. The images concentrate on my own children as they grow up and my response to, and fears of, that process and the process of recording their change, both physical and emotional. In many ways, the subject is too big, the time frame too long, and I’m left to pour over a vast archive of photographs, making editing decisions which force the dynamic of childhood into a smaller and smaller paradigm. Meaning and essence boomerang. I see what I imagine. An ideal of growing up, a semblance of childhood that exists beyond the anxieties of the grown up.
Along the way, I’ve found it hard to fix the certainty of intent. The subject is full of contradictions and maybe childhood will always be this photograph to which we bring our own unique convictions, an extension of our own sensibilities across generations. I watch the mannerisms of children, their conceptual landscape, their opportunity to see the world as it is. I’m frustrated. Not by their world and childhood, but by the way, children have become caged by the worlds we have created around them, fostering them as adults, consumables traded up and down the merry go round. The measure of childhood should be experiential, experimental. Childhood is the present, right here before us. It’s manifest proof that we exist, the only part of life that is part of the greater world. It is universal.
A small boy skips along the pavement hand in hand with his father, carefree, expectant, lost in an imaginary world. His eyes dart from face to face mirroring the iridescent excitement in his voice. There is nothing more beautiful, more life-affirming of man’s proximity to perfection and hope.
The way children are portrayed is surrounded by contention, the reasoning multi-valent. I was at an exhibition of Alessandra Sanguinetti’s photographs, depicting the friendship and antics of two girls (cousins) growing up on an isolated farm in Argentina. While I was there, a guide came past with a group and stopped at the image of a pubescent girl in a bikini taken from a low angle as she arches her head back to enjoy a shower of rain. The guide tells her audience that, “the photograph is one of the more borderline images in the exhibition and had it been taken by a man, would have been wholly inappropriate”.
Male and female artists have been subjected to prejudicial sabotage for decades and, where photography and children are involved, the vomit of the small-minded has the ability to strike fear into the core of society’s thinking A circumstance where the private world of the artist is placed into the public domain will be fraught with concern. Anne Higonnet, the author of ‘Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood’ and professor of art history, makes the added point that, “the issue of a photographer’s responsibility to her or his child model is tremendously important, but the issue is the responsibility to the individual child and his or her circumstances, not to interpretations of photographs”. She goes on to suggest that, “everyone brings to an understanding of photographs the associations, good or bad, suggested by their cultural climate, and now associations with pictures of children are anxious ones”. Everything haunts everything else, wherever we look there’s a shadow to darken the view.
Of one thing I’m certain, childhood remains unknown to the adult and our comprehension of childhood has nothing to do with being a child. Ours is a trajectory of forgetting, where the event is at odds with reality. I remember the three-minute spools of film from the Super 8 cine. A whole year of family events distilled into a single screening. The call for “lights”, the throw of the switch, the whirr of the projector, the guttural splutter of bright yellow and red frames, scratched frames, black then, ker-bang, there we are dancing across the screen, electrified by the sheer joy of being alive, of having been filmed. It was the intimacy of the surrounding darkness and the reflection of light on all our faces as we greedily drank in all this imagery and all that we imagined.
Childhood is an illusion, its temporality experienced in an endless tussle with reality, a disparity between actuality and memory, that of time remembered and time imagined. Children get caught up in our adult world, they get swept up in our phantasmagorical collective, our architecture of ready-mades. Children should be left to be children, full of contradictions, endearing, complicated, transient and, ultimately, aware of a world we have long forgotten.
“There exists for each individual an image around which the entire world appears to founder, for how many does that image not rise out of an old toy chest?” Walter Benjamin