Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Sacred Child

[ed. I've been reposting a few things from 2015 over the last few days. Here's something from a bit earlier. Given the ubiquity of phone cameras these days it's an issue to think about.]

Goa, India, 2009. A shimmering white beach. Clear blue water, a cloudless sky. The rush of waves and a constant din from jet skis. Behind us: rust-coloured sand, skinny cows browsing among trash and dry bushes.

I'm lounging on the sun bed with a mystery novel and keeping half an eye on my three-year-old daughter, who is sitting in pink swimming pants and playing with a bucket and spade. She is blonde, blue-eyed and unbelievably cute. People here stare at her, ensorcelled, love-struck, touching her hair, pointing at her. The other day the restaurant waiter - stoned? - approached and bit her tenderly on her yummy upper arm. And above all, they want to take her picture. In this country headed headlong into the future - the little dirt track back to the hotel that we walked when we arrived a week ago has already been tarred over with asphalt - every Indian seems to have a camera phone. Often they ask me, or more rarely my wife, civilly if they may take a picture. Having been brought up on Swedish school pedagogics, I relay the question to my daughter: "Is it OK for you if they take your picture?" I guess I think it's her decision.

A well-dressed slender Indian man in white pants and shirt wanders past on the beach. He smiles and coos at the playing Swedish child and takes out his cell phone. My sister-in-law is already there, asks my daughter, who says no. The man pays no attention, takes the pictures anyway.

My daughter is clearly stressed and uneasy with the situation, the strange man who stands before her with his phone portraying her, laughing lightly. My sister in law tells him off sharply, "Please! No!". He pays no mind, takes some more pictures.

I run down to the water and confront the man. "You respect my daughter!" I yell repeatedly. He apologises, looks nervous, says something in Hindi that I don't understand and points at his phone, as if showing that hey, he just took some pictures, what's the harm? He hurries away.

One of the beach guards soon catches up with him and takes the phone, clearly in order to flip through the photo folder. The man, by now visibly sweating and piteous, explains and gesticulates to the grim guard. Apparently there is nothing on the phone to suggest that the man is a sex tourist or pedophile, as he soon gets his phone back and slips off.

I sit back heavily on the sun bed. Conflicting emotions. I feel indignant and aggrieved - dammit, I should have thrown that phone into the sea, would have served that perv right. Uncertain - OK, he shouldn't have done that, but what if he's really just an everyday Indian guy who loves to see European kids on the beach and wanted a lovely holiday souvenir? Is that really such a big deal?

No more strangers take any pictures of my daughter on the trip. I quit offering her to decide. I just say no, categorically. Her image becomes untouchable. Her likeness becomes sacred.

I should perhaps begin with the disclaimer we all seem forced to start with when we talk about this issue. To wit: I hate everything about child molestation. I hate pedophiles, child porn, all the dirt and darkness and nauseating shit those awful people do. I have two little daughters and I'm prepared to kill or die to protect them against that kind of evil.

This is not actually an essay on child pornography, at least not if we take that to mean images of children being sexually abused, images that could not exist unless children had been violated, defiled, victimised. But in 2011, in Sweden, that is not the definition of child pornography. Instead there is a boundary zone between images that are OK (legitimate though potentially provocative) and such that are a crime to produce, disseminate and possess. That gray zone raises a number of difficult questions about children, art, society and sexuality. Those questions have rarely been more topical than today, and they touch upon the most personal, forbidden and sacred of issues.

Biddick Hall, north-east England, 1976. This time the three-year-old's name is Rosie Bowdrey. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is a guest at the wealthy family's garden party, the sun beats down and he takes innumerable pictures. Rosie has been swimming and runs around in the nude; her mother hurriedly gets the child into a dress. She sits down, a little huffily, on a stone bench. Mapplethorpe takes a picture, probably using his new Hasselblad. Then the skirt comes off again.

34 years later this picture is considered the single most controversial work in Mapplethorpe's oeuvre. We're dealing with an artist who, later in life, took pictures of BDSM, of coprophagy, sexually charged images of African American men, pictures of himself with a bull whip up his posterior. But the picture where the genitals of a three-year-old can be made out is worse. Wherever "Rosie" has been shown, it has soon been taken down again, most recently in November 2010 at Bukowski's fine-arts auction house in Stockholm.

It makes no difference that Rosie's mother, Lady Beatrix Nevill, signed a release for the image, stating that she does not find it pornographic and that she wants it to be exhibited. It makes no difference that Rosie Bowdrey herself, now an adult, has said that she is proud of the picture, that she can't see how anyone would find it pornographic, and that she wants it to be exhibited. It makes no difference that nothing suggests that Mapplethorpe, who incidentally was gay, had any sexual interest in little girls.

Who is eroticising the child in the picture? The photographer - or the viewer?

Because at the same time: isn't there something erotic about that image? Or what? About the large luminous eyes, about the sullen mouth with its slightly drooping corners? Something like posing, provocative, that we recognise from a thousand sexually explicit or implicit pictures of adult women? Or what? What do you think?

People in art circles rarely condemn a work of art; more commonly one will encounter a "permissive" attitude to the sphere of aesthetics where anything smacking of censorship will be loudly decried. Thus it is interesting to note mystery novelist Mons Kallentoft writing on his blog that the image goes "way, way across the boundary to child porn" and noting with pleasure that this time "the alarm bells" had worked. "It's never ever right to eroticise a child, not even for the most self-aggrandising, priggish artistic purposes", he added. When I reach Kallentoft on the phone he is at first happy to develop his thoughts further.

"The girl in the picture can't choose, she's being watched. There are people on Earth who get turned on by pictures like these, and that constitutes abuse against her no matter how you shake it. Nobody has that right."

But as an adult, the girl in that picture has said that she doesn't view it as pornographic?

"It doesn't work that way. That's like saying that with consent, we're allowed to do whatever we like to each other, and we might as well sign contracts permitting others to murder us ... That picture is child porn and exhibiting it to the public is wrong! I mean sure, OK, you can keep it to yourself in your home."

So would the image be acceptable if it sat in somebody's photo album - where pictures of nude kids are pretty common?

Our interview takes a left turn here. Mons Kallentoft is very upset by my question, or by my matter-of-fact and slightly impersonal way of phrasing it. He asks me if I have experienced any sexual abuse against children. Before I can answer, he angrily declares that he isn't willing to intellectualise this issue further and abruptly ends our conversation.

I feel bad about this, like a cynical and superficial asshole. Somebody who is happy to sit in a comfy desk chair under pleasant lighting with a cup of tea and soft music in the background, writing about this issue as if it were all about aesthetics - while in fact we're talking about children's lives being ruined, children being violated and defiled in unimaginable ways. Do we even have the right to a lukewarm analytical attitude regarding an issue were the stakes are so high?

I don't want to use a fellow human being and colleague's emotional reaction as a rhetorical tool or pedagogical example, but Kallentoft's reaction really shows me how fraught, personal and painful this issue can be. And suddenly I also think I have gained a deeper understanding of how devout Christians or Muslims feel about pictures such as Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin's Ecce Homo or Lars Vilks's Mohammed cartoons. It's such a gross violation that it's impossible to speak rationally about it, a violation that can only get worse when some uncomprehending respectless bastard asks why you feel violated.

Suddenly I understand better how difficult it is to get anywhere when it comes to things that touches the depths of our souls. How much really is at stake.

by Jens Liljestrand, Aardvarcheology | Read more:
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