If You See Something, Check Yourself Before You Say Something

It might not be any of your business, and you might be misinterpreting what you are seeing.

Two toddlers eating popsicles in the park

You may have seen the PetaPixel story about Wyatt Neumann’s photo exhibit and book, I FEEL SORRY FOR YOUR CHILDREN: The Sexualization of Innocence in America, which grew out of his experience traveling across the United States with his daughter, taking photos – including photos of her –  along the way. Neumann did what many of us do: he shared his photos on Instagram and Facebook. Then the criticisms started pouring in. He was called perverse and pornographic. The complaints eventually caused both social networking sites to shut down his accounts. (They have since been reinstated.)

Neumann’s book and exhibit, calls out his critics and challenges them to stop sexualizing images of childhood. Rather than conceding that the images are problematic, Neumann puts the burden of responsibility on the viewer. He did not see his daughter in a sexual light when he took the photos. If the viewer sees the images that way, then that an indication of what the viewer is bringing, and that is why Neumann’s title is so powerful.

You might, then, think that this concern about sexualization in family photos ends when the children reach a certain age. And you would be wrong. Just this morning I read a story about a different challenge to family photo taking. It was the story of a father, Jeff Gates, who takes a vacation with his family every year. He told his story in the Opinions section of theWashington Post on August 29, and it goes something like this. Every year the family takes the Cape May Ferry to the Jersey Shore, and every year Gates takes a picture of his daughters at ferry’s rail, with the sea and the sky behind them. This year the girls are 16 and 17, and this year he was challenged as he took his photo. A stranger, also male, approached his daughters as Gates was snapping pictures and asked if they were okay. Okay? Why would they not be okay? Why would this man, this stranger, think that two smiling girls being photographed by their father might NOT be okay? Because he saw the situation as sexualized. Why? Because the girls have features that mark them as Chinese, and Gates appears to be a white American middle aged man. Gates reports that it took a few moments before they understood what this man was actually asking, but then it occurred to Gates that this stranger thought he was taking photos for an erotic web site advertising exotic Asian girls. Later, Gates approached the man to discuss the situation with him. According to Gates, the man’s response was “I work for the Department of Homeland Security. And let me give you some advice: You were standing there taking photos of them hugging for 15 minutes.” Was it the hugging? The length of time it took to get the right shot? They were on a moving ferry after all. But no, really it was that the stranger saw the situation as a sexualized one and intervened.

These two stories are different in several ways. In one, a single stranger is involved and race is the dominant factor behind his reaction. In the other, many strangers got involved, and age was the dominant factor behind their reactions. But they share some very important features in common. In both cases is is a male figure, a father, doing the photography. In both cases the subjects of those photos are female. And in both cases there is a marked age difference between photographer and subject.

This stranger-intervention in family photography didn’t start with the Internet. Stories about families dropping naked-baby-in-the-bathtub photos off at the local drug store and then being visited by police after a clerk/developer found an image alarming still turn up, even though many of us have ditched film for phones. In some states photo processors are required to report images that they think represent child pornography.

How should you intervene if you see a situation that you think represents exploitation? You might first start by asking yourself if the problem is that you just don’t like the situation. Wyatt Neumann’s critics were, for the most part, simply voicing objections to the images. There is nothing inappropriately sexual occurring in any of the photos of Neumann’s daughter. She is a toddler doing toddler things. If you don’t like the images, don’t look at them. But for a viewer of the images to criticize Wyatt for that viewer’s own sexualized response is the epitome of what psychoanalysts call projection. The stranger in Gates’s story also didn’t witness anything actually sexual. If his racial profiling made him suspicious enough to say something, then perhaps he has redefined “mission creep.” But, even if he were a simple bystander and he were unreasonably concerned, might me have said something that would have avoided offending the likely innocent people into whose moment he was intruding? Gates suggests that a concerned stranger might have approached by saying “What a beautiful family you have,” thus giving the girls an opportunity to say “He’s not family,” which might have led to further questions. I might have recommended something more subtle. Offering to take a group picture of all three people would have allowed an opening to say “So, where are you headed,” which in this case would have allowed the girls to enthusiastically tell about their upcoming vacation. If the girls were uncomfortable with their situation, that would probably have been obvious at this point, and also would have allowed for follow-up conversation.

Bystanders need to be willing to speak up in defense of those whose oppression or exploitation they witness. But bystanders need to be careful not to act based on stereotypes or projection. If you see something, think before you speak.

~~~

Photo of two toddlers enjoying popsicles is by Wyatt Neumann, and is used with his permission.

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8 comments on “If You See Something, Check Yourself Before You Say Something

  1. It’s worth noting that Gates’s daughters were on the cusp of adulthood. In another year or two it would have been perfectly legal for them to be taking photos for an escort ad service if they chose to do so. This was not a sexualized situation, but what if it had been, and what if it had been a legal one? I wonder what the interloper in Gates’s story would have said if he’d seen three people who looked very much like the Gates and his daughters, and discovered that he’d stumbled upon a taboo but perfectly legal business encounter.

  2. So…who got hurt? The guy asked, the father answered.

    No brainer that people see things through their own lenses. In most cases, for kids in middle class families, especially white ones, this means if they are abused the abuse will be ignored bc the predominant lens is that parents are always doing the right thing–and omg nobody I know could ever be a perp. And the clues are almost never overt. You almost never come across your neighbor/relative/boyfriend in the act of beating or raping a kid. But there are always signs that something is up–bruises, specific kid behaviors, etc.

    So–this guy called it wrong and maybe his worldview is a little warped. (Though no less warped than people who cannot *see* abuse, even when it’s happening more or less in front of them).

    You’re saying that it’s better to leave abused kids to suffer with no intervention than to have short potentially uncomfortable conversations? Middle class parents should be that immune to questioning or critique?

  3. Actually, I’m not saying that there should be no intervention. I agree that white middle class parents of white children often do get a pass and don’t have their behavior scrutinized. That is part of the white supremacy that underpins the biases at play in the second of the two stories reported above. My post above actually suggests possible interventions that would have been less harmful to those involved. See the second to last paragraph, specifically.

  4. It’s a huge study in “MYOB” – if someone doesn’t seem to be in distress, or objecting to [having their picture taken] the situation, then there’s no reason for anyone to intervene. Mind Your Own Business, people!

  5. For my two cents worth I think we need to hit a balance where we don’t go over the top with thinking what could be deemed a sexual photo of a child and casually uploading naked photos of young children online (however innocent they may be). It was sad to hear about the case of Wyatt Nuemann as described above but any nudity even in a young child can still attract the wrong sort of people, so parents have to be careful. In my opinion public photos showing any of the child’s genital area or bottom should be censored or otherwise kept safe in the family’s photo album. I do think a lot of fuss was made over Courtney Adamo’s Instagram 19 month toddler photo which showed her bare belly (photo shown below). I mean come on, it’s a toddler girl’s bare belly! Did Instagram really have to delete her account over this completely innocent photo!? I would totally understand if she had a photo deleted which showed the toddlers genitals as after all, it is wrong to post those sort of photos however innocent they are. The photo shown above this article is an innocent one which shows a toddler and a little girl enjoying a lollipop or popsicle. Yes, the girl on the right has no top on but loads of little girls in the summer are just the same so if anyone think this is remotely sexual needs to visit a psychiatrist.

    I myself enjoy photography and sometimes search through people’s blogs as many of them take pretty decent photos. I was looking through a blog which featured someone’s little daughter and there were some lovely photos of her in everyday life and it was clear that she comes from a loving family. However, among a set of photos featured when she had just turned two years old, was one which showed her standing playing with a shawl while naked (photo shown below with identity hidden and censored to make web safe). As her genitals were exposed I really don’t think this was appropriate to post online. No doubt a minority of people and I stress a MINORITY of people, who are perverts and deviants could get hold of this and obtain sexual stimulation from such an image. Worse still the image could be shared and traded to all sorts of undesirables. Eeeeewww! Totally gross and it’s just not fair on the child! So surely a balance and common sense would make people know what is acceptable to post online while protecting kids at the same time.

    Thanks for reading.

    David

  6. For my two cents worth I think we need to hit a balance where we don’t go over the top with thinking what could be deemed a sexual photo of a child and casually uploading naked photos of young children online (however innocent they may be). It was sad to hear about the case of Wyatt Nuemann as described above but any nudity even in a young child can still attract the wrong sort of people, so parents have to be careful. In my opinion public photos showing any of the child’s genital area or bottom should be censored or otherwise kept safe in the family’s photo album. I do think a lot of fuss was made over Courtney Adamo’s Instagram 19 month toddler photo which showed her bare belly (photo shown below). I mean come on, it’s a toddler girl’s bare belly! Did Instagram really have to delete her account over this completely innocent photo!? I would totally understand if she had a photo deleted which showed the toddlers genitals as after all, it is wrong to post those sort of photos however innocent they are. The photo shown above this article is an innocent one which shows a toddler and a little girl enjoying a lollipop or popsicle. Yes, the girl on the right has no top on but loads of little girls in the summer are just the same so if anyone think this is remotely sexual needs to visit a psychiatrist.

    I myself enjoy photography and sometimes search through people’s blogs as many of them take pretty decent photos. I was looking through a blog which featured someone’s little daughter and there were some lovely photos of her in everyday life and it was clear that she comes from a loving family. However, among a set of photos featured when she had just turned two years old, was one which showed her standing playing with a shawl while naked (photo shown below with identity hidden and censored to make web safe). As her genitals were exposed I really don’t think this was appropriate to post online. No doubt a minority of people and I stress a MINORITY of people, who are perverts and deviants could get hold of this and obtain sexual stimulation from such an image. Worse still the image could be shared and traded to all sorts of undesirables. Eeeeewww! Totally gross and it’s just not fair on the child! So surely a balance and common sense would make people know what is acceptable to post online while protecting kids at the same time.

    Thanks for reading.

    David

    • Hi David,

      I understand your position, but I’d like to push back a little bit. In looking at the two images you posted, I think the bigger and perhaps more important difference is that in the first, the child is depicted as looking at her own body, where in the second, the child is depicted as displaying her body for a viewer. Both are truly innocent images. A reasonable person, upon looking at them, doesn’t imagine that either child is inviting sexual activity.

      I don’t think we can, as a society, afford to censor images based on a small number of ill-intentioned people. Imagine the possible conclusions of such a strategy.

      More important, I think, is to contextualize images so that viewers are clear about the intent and conditions under which the images were made. When we wholesale censor an imagine, regardless of its intent or the conditions under which is it is made, I think we often heighten its illicit appeal, and by doing that to children’s bodies, I think we place them in greater harm, which is the opposite of what we intend to do.

      • Hi Elizabeth,
        Thanks for your thoughts and I can see where you are coming from that by masking photos of kids innocently playing naked may send the reverse message out to unwanted viewers. I guess we all want kids to be kids and in an ideal world we wouldn’t need all this censoring going on. I’m just concerned where such uncensored photos would end up which is what I don’t find fair on the child in particular. I think the 2nd photo of the child would be perfectly fine if the parents slipped her on a pair of panties before taking a photo intended for public viewing on the web. The original nude photo would be fine for her own private album though.

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