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.

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

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