Three Child Proofs



'Three child proofs' Westspace The First Age (Poli Papapetrou, Tony Nott, Nanette Carter) (1995)

Is this a real child we look at, or a mirror of our own adult regrets? This creature whose cheeks we pinch and hair we ruffle¾does it exist outside the mythology of innocence we’ve constructed?

The three photographers in The First Age take us on a journey to that limit of the moral universe we’ve assigned to children. It’s a difficult journey that tells us as much about what it is to be an adult as it does what happens inside the mind of a child. The innocent child is after all essentially an adult invention: through this innocence we define ourselves as the cynical products of a hard world. This exhibition challenges such mythification by experimenting with the conventions of child photography. In the process we might find proof that children do indeed exist beyond the adult’s point of view.

The most recent chapter in the story of childhood innocence is the depiction of child as universal victim. According to some popular psychologists, each of us harbours an `inner child’ beseiged by the growup world. John Bradshaw’s book Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing your Inner Child proclaims this inner child to be the source of wonder and hope: `Once people have claimed and nurtured their wounded inner child, the creative energy of their wonderful natural child begins to emerge.’ Bradshaw’s encourages us to repudiate our natural parents who are largely to blame for that `toxic shame’ which inhibits creative potential. In the process, a black and white picture emerges in which children are victims and parents are persecutors. Real social issues, like the difference between rich and poor, are cast aside as irrelevant to the primal justice to be administered within. The critic of popular psychology, Wendy Kaminer, notes in her book I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: `At its worst, the recovery movement's cult of victimisation mocks the notion of social justice by denying that there are degrees of injustice.’

The main reason to be wary of the puer eternus is that it serves as an escape from the complications of adult life rather than the discovery of some core inner being. Like an inverted Russian matrioshka doll, open up the inner child and you’ll find an inner adult nestled inside. This inversion is subtly unpacked in a passage from Jean Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil:

Whereas adults make children believe that they, the adults, are adults, children for their part let adults believe that they, the children, are children. Of these two strategies the second is the subtler, for while adults believe that they are adults, children do not believe that they are children. They are children, but they do not believe it. The ruse (and the seduction) is total. Children are... a different species, and their vitality and development announce the eventual destruction of the superior ¾adult ¾world that surrounds them. Childhood haunts the adult universe as a subtle and deadly presence. It is in this sense that the child is other to the adult: the child is the adult's destiny, the adult is his most subtly distilled form. The child nevertheless repudiates the adult ¾all the while moving within him with all the grace of those who have no will of their own.

We can see evidence of this `repudiation’ nightly on the Simpsons. Bart Simpson play acts the innocent child when it suits him, but he’s usually a step ahead of Homer’s vain attempts to make of him the sweet cherub promoted in adult mass media. The current joke in popular culture is a scene where adults tear themselves apart with anxiety trying to make the world a safe understanding place, while their offspring are sitting in front of the TV watching Ren & Stimpy.

With this refutation of the myth of innocence, we are forced to confront a less sentimental image of childhood. What kind of creature will we find?

Child proof #1

Tony Nott’s photographs present a child’s eye view of the world. In this pre-rational world, parts do not yet make up a whole. This is the world perhaps best understood within the primitive logic articulated by child psychoanalysts such as Melanie Klein. Here the term `part object’ is used to describe the intense attachment infants develop to particular features of their environment, primarily the mother’s breast. According to this logic, the infant has little sense of the distinction between itself and this object, suffering alternately a feeling of persecution when left unsatisfied, and guilt at its fantasies of retribution. For those of us as yet uninitiated in psychoanalysis, it takes a huge leap of the imagination to understand the intense drama focused on this maternal gland. The images fabricated by Nott provide us with some cues for this operatic struggle with the immediate environment.

In the process, we can become aware of the subtle barriers that exist to protect the adult’s world from this marauding infant. Practically, of course, a family home contains many devices designed to exclude the restless hands of children. The extra effort needed to open bottles of medicine is testimony to the presence of a dangerous creature who cannot be trusted with adult goods.

What would happen to the world if the barriers which protect us from children were brought down? This scenario is given dramatic form in the 1960 film Village of the Damned. In case your memory of that film is foggy, I’ll summarise the plot. An entire English village is mysteriously put to sleep for a number of hours, during which all the women of the village are impregnated by an alien force. The children they subsequently bear are disturbingly alike: they are precociously intelligent, have platinum blonde hair, and share a telepathic understanding with each other. Are they angels of a utopian future or demons plotting the end of human history? This question is answered in a critical scene when these children demonstrate an ability to transgress the physical boundaries of a child’s world. A Professor gives a four year old child a very tricky Oriental box to open¾the 60s equivalent of Rubric’s Cube. To his amazement, the child succeeds in this difficult manipulation just as quickly as any adult. The Professor’s delight in these `perfect’ children is suddenly tinged with fear. I’ll let you remember the rest of the film, but it’s enough to point out that even the most angelic children can become terrifying when granted adult powers.

Such is also the fear that power will cause some adults to regress back to a childhood sense of omnipotence. Consider Benito Mussolini, just before his declaration of war, saying: ` To make a people great it is necessary to send them to battle even if you have to kick them in the pants.’ In case that seems too remote, we can look at proceedings in the floor of the Australian parliament, where invectives often take the form of schoolyard taunts. All it seemed necessary for Alexander Downer to lose his leadership of the opposition was for Paul Keating to call him a `sook’.

Satirists take delight in the political playpen, but the carnivalesque inversion has its complement: it’s not just leaders who can act as children, there are also children who act like leaders. There are moments when adult discourse takes a holiday from the burdens of office so that children may give voice to higher ideals. We’ve seen recently children’s parliaments, children’s opinion pages in newspapers, all with a host of solutions to the world’s problems of pollution and war laid out. But are these really what children really think, or what they think adults expect them to think?

Tony Nott’s photographs depict a less civilised mind at world. The child’s eye is focused on the toys bountifully provided by doting adults. What returns through these images is an almost alien intelligence picking up the visible evidence of forms imprinted in their autonomic reflex system: the smiley face, the jagged geometry of a dinosaur jaw.

Child Proof #2

The countenances of children, like those of animals, are masks, not faces, for they have not yet developed a significant profile of their own.

W.H. Auden

One of the easiest ways of locating the film counter at a chemist shop is to look for images of smiling children. Children’s smiles are such a natural object for photography you could almost imagine that cameras were equipped with devices for generating a happy expression¾perhaps imperceptible rays of energy are projected onto the drawstrings that pull the corners of the mouth up toward the cheeks

When this smile generator fails, the skilled photographer must try alternative methods. If the simple presence of the camera is not enough, words may be used. These days the traditional word `cheese’ has been replaced by the more compelling vocalisation, `sex’. As a final resort, before the smile clamps are fitted, the photographer might try the old fashioned tricks of imagination. Planting thoughts of confectionary, or revenge on bullies, often produces a blossoming smile, ripe for harvesting.

Once fixed on photographic paper, the smile is picked over with the same minute attention that wool classers employ to grade fleece. With the child’s destiny at stake, the adult scrutinises this frozen smile: is it forced, manic, easeful, uncertain, false, fearful, smarmy, winsome, genuine, shark-like or just plain ridiculous?

Polixeni Papapetrou’s photographs provide a rare glimpse of childhood on the other side of the smile. If you look at `Rebecca at 7: Nursing baby doll’ you’ll note a richly enigmatic expression. Does her care for the black doll express a willingness to take responsibility for the world or is she disappointed to be given a politically correct doll when all she wants is a Barbie? Just put a smile on her face and you need ask none of these questions: she’s just a kid. It’s as though the smile were the mask of consumerism, screening adults from the mix of emotions inhabiting their children.

In giving her subjects dramatic control, Papapetrou also avoids the genre of child eroticism that defines the cameras of Jock Sturges, Sally Mann and Robert Mapplethorpe. The naked alluring child is just as much a spectacle contrived for adult eyes as the beaming school photo.

In the spirit of Tony Nott’s child’s eye camera, we can wonder whether Papapetrou photographs children as they would photograph themselves. I think yes, although my evidence is only one set of shots taken by a six year old child who was given a disposable camera for her birthday. She is one of those photogenic children who bursts into smiles whenever there is camera-bearing adult around. Yet, on the other end of the camera she produced a folio of children’s faces completely devoid of smiles. Each photo looked like a police mug shot. Perhaps she didn’t have the authority or skill to extract smiles, or perhaps she didn’t need to.

Child Proof #3

The image of a finger poised at the ear hole is disarming on a number of levels. What seems an innocent act has overtones of a more sinister penetration. We are, in a subtle way, placed in the theatre of child abuse, where what is presented as harmless play is a mere decoy for a salacious subplot. In later life, the revelation of this subplot is fraught with the kinds of uncertainties evoked by this image: is the finger poised to block the sound of sweet nothings or enter more deeply into the flesh? The faceted portraits of John Venables, the 11 year old killer of James Bulger, compel a similar moral oscillation. Innocent angel or `the face of evil’? Nanette Carter’s images reveal the role of photography in the public spectacle of `child monster’ crimes.

Why is this drama so compelling? One of the contradictions in a modern democracy is the difference between what is permitted by law and what is officially considered antisocial behaviour. The `checks and balances’ that guarantee individual liberty restrain the law from exercising its full potential. Thus, despite the near universal condemnation of tobacco smoking, there are no official calls to make it an illegal drug. The fantasy of a totalitarian state rests partly on the natural extension of these moral codes into law. Yet while such developments run against the grain of adult sensibilities, they find a home for themselves in the control of children. If adults lived in world they assign to their children, it would be called a fascist state. It would be a world of strict curfews, no voting rights, prohibition, compulsory school attendance and legal disempowerment.

Is there perhaps some pleasure in creating this fascist enclave in an otherwise liberal society? This may at first seem an implausible question, but consider the events in Bosnia. Here the liberal West has tied itself in knots attempting to please all sides of the conflict. Meanwhile, Bosnians are being picked off by snipers, forced out of their homes, placed in rape camps and starved of basic necessities. What does it take for the West to act? You know the answer. In 1993, an otherwise impotent west suddenly geared into action to airlift Irma Hadzimuratovic, a badly wounded Sarajevan girl. Later that year, the US became directly involved in a massive airdrop known as `Provide Santa’: ` to bring a little sunshine to the children of Bosnia’. Most recently, the true military capacity of US was demonstrated when they successfully attempted to get `one of our own boys’ out of enemy lines. Diplomacy is no longer a barrier when it comes to children.

The `New World Order’ amounts to a desperate struggle of private interests whose only limit is the welfare of children. You can even see it in Melbourne. Any unease that might have been felt about the `freedom of choice’ offered by the introduction of the new Crown Casino becomes focused on the plight of children left in the car park. When it comes to children, the law is black and white¾good and evil once more have role to play in human affairs. Nanette Carter’s photographs trace the origin of `child monster’ back to the adult worldview, where childhood is marked as a sanctuary of goodness in a heartless world. Such innocence is skin deep.