thoughts on exploitation

[updated below] I read a thought-provoking article this morning about child pornography laws and photography involving children. It’s a long one, but entirely worth reading.

I do think there is another, larger and probably more difficult question around artists using their children in their art, whether paintings, literature, or photography. Is it exploitation? I don’t know. Maybe. Sometimes. But I also think that if you want to express something about motherhood, parenthood, or childhood in our culture, at some point or other, your kid will come into the picture, literally or figuratively.

Photography seems particularly prone to exploitation. Last weekend, I watched Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light, and he says a few times that he is in control. The photographer is always in control. The people he photographed sometimes felt his portraits were cruel and unforgivable, and he himself wondered – retrospectively – if perhaps photographing his dying father was an act of hostility.

Heather Morton Art Buyer linked to Barbara Crane the other day, who apparently paid her children 35 cents an hour to sit for her, with the agreement that they would not be identifiable in the photographs of human forms. I find this fascinating. The other day, I also read this blog post on a similar topic.

I don’t know what to think of Tierney Gearon’s work. I haven’t seen enough of it, and I haven’t yet watched The Mother Project (which, incidentally, TVO is showing on Thursday, May 7, at 10 pm as part of the Contact Festival). But my initial response to what I have seen is troubled.

I don’t think it’s right to assume or take it for granted that my child belongs all to me, as raw material for my artistic expression. But I also don’t think it’s wrong to feature your children in your art either. As I said in my comment at Elizabeth Fleming’s, I’m starting to think that as long as you’re aware of the potential for exploitation, as long as you’re a little bit troubled by that potential, it’s probably ok?

this is not a work of art
This seems like an appropriate time to give you a sneak peak at the work I’m putting together from the first two years of my son’s life (which I first mentioned here a while ago). I’m alternating between two working titles, “Two-powered” and “Motherhood and Apple Pie.” If you have a smart way to put those ideas together, please share.

Edited to add: Suzanne Revy blogged on the very same topic, only far more eloquently than I did. Which is interesting, because when I wrote my post yesterday, I had meant to include a link to the recent interview on nymphoto with Revy, but I forgot before I hit publish.

The opening

Last night was the opening reception of Still Standing at the Alma Gallery. I ended up leaving kind of early (last-minute change to childcare plans), so if you came after 9 and missed me, I’m sorry.

This is what I saw as we approached the gallery:
Shit, I thought. Those black and white shots look amazing. My stuff just can’t compare.

Then I got closer, and realized those WERE my images!


What a top-notch event. The gallery looked tremendous, and the exhibition is wonderful. I especially loved Dean Palmer’s stacked, wide-angle, panoramic images from inside the Gummer Building, which burned down two years ago (the bottom image in the picture above is of the outside of the Gummer, a few days after the fire).

There were lots of people, hors d’oeuvres served by real servers, and a bar and everything. The space was amazing, and they’d opened the exhibition beyond the gallery itself into the adjacent hot yoga studio space, which is beautiful.

This is the view from the yoga studio. The stairs go up to a rooftop patio.

Two chairs I couldn’t take my eyes off. Also in the yoga space.

All in all, a great night. The calibre of work was wonderful, and I feel like my pictures held their own.  I also feel like I have to go back again, just to look at the work with fewer people around (and also to photograph the rest of my pictures, for record purposes).

Dear Fox

Please, please, please don’t cancel Dollhouse. I watch it religiously on my PVR, which I’ve just discovered doesn’t actually count in ratings. But I’m watching, I’m committed, and I want to keep watching. Please?

quotes from Annie Leibovitz

This is probably not something I should admit here, but I didn’t really know who Annie Leibovitz is until that video of her shooting the Queen made the rounds on the web a while back (just google it if you’re interested). I’d heard her name of course, but when I heard it, my brain exchanged her name with Anne Geddes and made me cringe involuntarily. But I know very well who she is now, and I’ve seen enough of her pictures to know that it bears not even the slightest resemblance to the babies in pea suits pictures.

Last weekend I picked up Annie Leibovitz’s At Work, and I’m quite enjoying it. Halfway in, here are a few things that I’d like to share:

“I was in awe of Robert Frank. Here was the great master. I couldn’t believe that I was able to watch him work for a few days, that I was actually in the room where Robert Frank was loading his camera. He picked up my camera once. I was terrified. He held it. It was like being with God. He said to me, ‘You can’t get every picture.’ That was comforting advice. You do miss things. [...] Robert Frank didn’t seem to be missing anything, though. He was tireless. He never stopped working.”

“I wasn’t thinking about any of this at the time, of course. I was just throwing up a light haphazardly and hoping the picture would come out.”

“It was a popular picture, and it broke ground, but I don’t think it’s a good photograph per se. It’s a magazine cover. [...] There are different criteria for magazine covers. They’re simple. The addition of type doesn’t destroy them. Sometimes they even need type. My best photographs are inside the magazine.”

“I’m always perplexed when people say that a photograph has captured someone. A photograph is just a tiny slice of a subject. A piece of them in a moment. It seems presumptuous to think you can get more than that.”

I don’t know what to call this post.

Today I was all grumbly when I headed out for my weekly stint at the Drop-In Centre. I thought about quitting, because it blocks my time in the middle of my Saturdays and cuts into my family time. Today is gorgeous and sunny, and I’d really rather hang with my boys. But I went, and I’m back into my usual enthusiasm for the place and for the time I spend serving coffee and lunch.

One of the men I’ve photographed was there, and I had prints in my bag to give him. But he was erratic and didn’t seem to really recognize me. He just talked about having to deal with the police and their threats of putting him in the local psychiatric facility. I’ve never seen him like that before. Obviously, he’s gone off his meds, and although I definitely don’t think psychiatric drugs are a cure-all, seeing him like this made me sad. Anyways, I didn’t give him the prints. I thought if he’d forgotten, seeing them in his current state of mind might upset him. I hope he’s able to get things sorted out soon.

More and more, I’m feeling like my drop-in pictures just aren’t doing it. I think they’re just not going deep enough. But because of the nature of the centre, the services it provides, and the transient nature of the population it serves, I can’t go any deeper while I’m actually there. I can’t capture the moments of community I see because people need to be assured that they can go there somewhat anonymously, without worrying about their pictures being posted on the Web. That’s why I make sure to not only get consent but to make sure the people I photograph understand that I will at least publish them on my website.

Anyways, I want to go deeper. I think I need to follow some of my friends home. So today I asked one of the first people I photographed if he would be willing to let me into his home. He understands the possibilities of photography as an art form, so he gets what I’m trying to do. He said he most definitely is willing, so expect to see some more photos of him here in the coming months. I expect it will take a while to get something up and going with him, but I’m kind of hoping it might become longer term.

I will still continue with occasional photographs of people who are willing there. But hopefully this other project will take some of the pressure and urgency away, so I can go back to pursuing the portraits a little more organically.

I was about to go off on a long and involved tangent, but instead I’m going to get outside and enjoy some of the 22-degree (Celsius) sunshine.

exhibition details

Here are the details of the exhibition I’m in, and the opening reception:

Saturday, April 25th from 7 – 10pm

Celebrate DOORS OPEN GUELPH 2009
With the official opening of

still standing
An exhibition dedicated to Guelph’s rich architectural heritage
April 21, 2009 until the end of May

Dean Palmer, Gordon Laird, Karolina Kuras, Dawn Owen, Colin Carney, Julie Pasila, KC Hornsby, Chris Tiessen, Peter Kelly, Nicholas Rees, Maggie Leighton, Romano Bernabei, Stephen Beatty, Kate Wilhelm, Rob O’Flanagan, Karin Silverstone

The exhibition, which also features the work of Plein Air Painters, Scott Abott, Kathleen Schmalz, and Laura Coutts, will include archival photographs of historical architecture from Guelph’s Civic Museum, a quilt by Joan F. Hug-Valeriote, and Janet Morton’s Knitted House.

The alma gallery
133 Wyndham St. N Guelph, ON

I will also take this opportunity to confess clarify that I have decided to change my donation practices. I’ve decided to donate 50 percent of the proceeds from online sales only to the Stephen Lewis Foundation. As I have recently learned, printing and framing is a huge paint in the ass takes a lot of time and effort, so I’m going to feed any proceeds back into my photography. When I started this website, just over a year ago, the idea of exhibiting framed prints on a gallery wall felt like a total pipe dream. But now that it’s happening, I feel like this is the right move. Back then, I didn’t feel like I really deserved or needed the proceeds of print sales myself, but now I do, for real-life sales anyways. I’ve changed all the wording on the site to reflect this change.

the four compassions

dr. gabor mate2 detail

Last night I went to see Dr. Gabor Mate talk about “The Four Compassions: A humane community response to addictions” at a local church. He is the staff physician at the Portland Hotel, a residence and resource centre for people of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where he works with patients who suffer from mental illness, drug addiction and HIV, or all three. He’s written a number of books, including The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, which I read last fall.

He is a tremendous speaker. Apparently he only prepared his talk as he arrived, but it was very well-structured, so he obviously gives a lot of talks. I could have listened to him for hours. Way back when, I wanted to talk about his book, but it took me a while to finish, and by the time I did, I’d lost touch with the first half of the book. His talk last night was a great refresher.

He believes that the basic, instinctual response of humans is compassion, unless experience shuts that response down. The four compassions are:

1. acknowledging the suffering of other people
2. understanding, and a drive to find out what’s behind the suffering
3. recognizing ourselves in others’ suffering
4. possibility, transformation

He also said that even referring to someone as an addict diminishes our understanding, because that is not what or who they are. They are human beings in deep suffering. He talked about InSite, the safe injection facility in Vancouver where people get clean needles and rubbing alcohol, and if they overdose, health professionals are there to revive them. He mentioned the RCMP head’s official stance on reviving people from overdoses, which is that it shouldn’t be done since it sends a message that it’s ok to use drugs. Dr. Mate said he couldn’t fault the logic of that, but if we’re going to take that stance, the entire medical system should take it, so that the workaholics who have heart attacks don’t receive bypass surgery, and the smokers don’t get antibiotics for their bronchitis. Which is just inhumane, of course.

He talked about how judgment hurts all of us, because it separates us into us and them, and denies the unity of human beings. He also said that if we find ourselves making judgments we shouldn’t feel too bad about it, because the human brain is wired to make judgments all the time. We’re just there. But the trouble comes when we believe the judgments. So the trick is just to observe the judgments without becoming attached to them. He also said we judge most harshly the things we are ashamed of in ourselves. So to serve his patients compassionately he needs to take care to deal with his own addictions (workaholism and compulsive cd shopping) so he doesn’t lash out in shame.

In the Q’s and A’s after his speech, he said that he believes nobody is beyond help. If a person is alive, then their soul is alive, and the soul is infinite possibility. He also talked about recovery, how the word recover means to find again, and you can’t find something again if it wasn’t there in the first place. What people find again when they recover is themselves, their wholeness, their infinite possibility. To do that, they need confidence, some hope of victory. And our judicial and medical systems don’t nurture that hope at all.

He ended the night answering a question about parents who let their kids cry it out to train them to sleep. Essentially, he said it wasn’t good for the child’s emotional wellbeing, even though explicit memory doesn’t begin until after age 2. But the practice teaches kids that the world is an indifferent place. He said it isn’t the child’s problem that our world requires both parents to work full-time. Now, I pretty much agree with him, to a point. And it wasn’t something that we were able to do. However, I also bristle at anything that smacks of prescribing what a mother should or shouldn’t do. Fortunately, I have the benefit of having read his book, and he did advocate that our culture needs to support mothers and families much better than it currently does. Because early experiences have such influence over a person’s brain development and later wellbeing, a mother’s job is quite literally the most important task there is. But if I hadn’t read the book, I might have left the church all set to ream somebody out for doing what they think is best for their family.

That said, I’m so glad I went to hear him speak. And I enjoyed the irony of hearing him critique certain Christian approaches up at the pulpit.

dr. gabor mate

I will leave you with my memory of something he quoted at least a few times through the night:
“Do not pay attention to the things that others do or fail to do. Only pay attention to the things that you do or fail to do.”

CONTACT festival coming soon!

Duuuude! Not only is the CONTACT festival website now live with 2009 details, but apparently TVO is running a concurrent month of photography documentaries! Yeehaw! I am so deleting the first season of So You Think You Can Dance Canada from my PVR for this. (And yes, I really am this pathetic.) They’re showing some great-looking films, including Tierney Gearon’s The Mother Project, which just yesterday (seriously!) I was thinking I might have to break down and buy, since it’s proving hard to rent.

If there are any long-time readers, you may recall that last year I had a decadent Mother’s Day all by myself in the Big Smoke, and went to a lecture with David Hurn AND an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s classical work. This year, I’m going to spend two Saturdays in a documentary photography workshop with Donald Weber, and I’m trying to find a way to spend one of those Sundays wandering around.

Easter at the farm

This weekend we went to my parents’ farm.

After the village easter egg hunt:
after the kill
(That night, we told him the Easter Bunny was going to visit the house. My son replied, “I just hope he doesn’t throw eggs at my head!” — Apparently, the Easter Bunny at the village egg hunt sometimes threw eggs from his basket, and a few came near my son’s head.)

washing hands

A slice of life…

I’m fascinated by how my son organizes things. He’s more interested in playing with the eggs than eating them!

easter tractor

easter eggs-2

things that annoyed me today

Well, the day itself wasn’t so bad, but coming home was NOT fun.

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

Exhibit C

Yeah, apparently the city cleaned the sewers today. I did see the letter that said we should keep the toilet lids down and plugs in the sink during the day this week, but I only remembered when I saw the spray of toilet paper bits on the cupboards. They weren’t kidding apparently. On the bright side, the bathroom was overdue for a good mopping.
Here’s hoping tomorrow is a better day.