A taste of summer in the…

A taste of summer in the midst of winter -- these are a few photos that I meant to put up ages ago. We had gone to Millenium Park with Bryan's family, and there were all these kids running through the fountain there. These two were sitting on the side wall, and there was something really compelling about them:

Part of what struck me was just a culture/gender thing -- I think they're both girls, and I don't think American girls of this age would normally go topless. Am I wrong? I'm guessing that they're foreign-born and raised. It made me wonder at what point we would feel like Kavi needed to wear a top before going outside. There's a line in a Dar Williams song, "When I was a boy":
I was a kid that you would like, just a small boy on her bike
Riding topless, yeah, I never cared who saw.
My neighbor come outside to say, "Get your shirt,"
I said "No way, it's the last time I'm not breaking any law."

How early do think it should matter? Puberty? What if it comes early, or very late? And how do you decide -- based on safety concerns, or propriety, or something else? When am I supposed to be the mean mommy who tells my daughter, "Put on your shirt," even on a sweltering hot summer day?

And from a different angle -- here's another photo of one of the girls -- there's something about that pose that strikes me as uncomfortably sexual -- she could almost be modelling those jeans, selling them with that pose. And she's what, six? Eight at most? I hate that I've been trained to think this way, to read her this way.

14 thoughts on “A taste of summer in the…”

  1. When I was growing up, we didn’t always wear tops. I think it was around 8 or 9. No one told us we had too, I think it was a natural process. I remember camping with my little sister and cousin and they were running around without their tops and I just knew it wasn’t something that was okay for me to do. I think Kavi will start to get self conscious about being naked or topless at some point and will know – you won’t have to be a mean mommie.

  2. I think it’s cultural. Even growing up on the beaches in southern California, my older daughter started being self-conscious about being topless when she was about 7. She didn’t start doing it again until she was about 15.

    With all of love,

    C. J. Czelling

  3. I remember defiantly going without a shirt in the summer until I was 8 or 9. When I say “defiant,” though, it wasn’t because my parents objected, but because a few kids thought I was “weird” for it. I was a tomboy, though, and felt that I should be able to do anything boys did.

    I do tend to think that within reason, parents should allow their children some freedom to feel comfortable with how they perceive themselves. It’s not the same issue, but there have been some news articles in recent years about little boys wanting to wear girls’ clothes to school, and parents deciding to let them, which I think is appropriate as long as the parents and teachers are on the lookout for bullying behavior.

    Back to your issue, I would probably consider safety factors too if I were a mother. I would be less concerned in a supervised setting (a picnic with lots of kids with the parents present) as opposed to my daughter being out in the neighborhood where strangers passing through might see her.

    You may be surprised anyway! I know someone who was trying to raise their daughter without gender biases — you can play sports, you can do anything, etc. — and they ended up with a girly-girl without intending it! And a girly-girl probably wouldn’t dream of going without a shirt from about age 6 on!

  4. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    No, I didn’t. In the United States, for documentary photography you don’t need permission to post photos of people taken in a public place (whether adults or minors). See Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Street_photography.

    I’d need a model release if I were going to use the photos to endorse a product or service, but otherwise, the assumption is that if you appear in public, you’re accepting the fact that your photo may be taken and published. So commercial photographers generally carry model release forms; documentary photographers often don’t.

    In this particular case, I did gesture with my camera towards the adult who I thought was the girl’s father before taking the photo, and he nodded and smiled; personally, I’m more comfortable with asking permission to photograph people when possible, although sometimes that means after the fact, in order to get the best candid shot. Although of course, they were almost certainly tourists to Chicago, and may not have spoken English.

    Photojournalism is a fascinating subject; I read a big book on it last year, which had a long section on journalistic ethics. It’s really interestng.

    For me, I think in the end it’s about trying to be respectful of those you photograph. It’s something every documentary photographer has to decide on a case-by-case basis.

  5. I hear what you’re saying about the legal issues. For me, I guess what bothers me is that you’ve put pictures of children on your site and then commented on the (in your words)
    “uncomfortably sexual” poses that they happen to be in. I wonder what their parents would think about that. Or the children themselves.

  6. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    It’s a tricky judgement call, I agree, and it’s hard to guess what a parent you don’t know would think of it.

    But I think the critique I was trying to make (of using youthful sexualized images to sell products) would be much less effectively conveyed without the images. So I end up weighing the social value of the conversation against the possible objections of the parents.

    Personally, I think I’d be fine with such photos of Kavi, accompanied by this sort of analysis. But it’s hard to say for certain right now, of course, since she’s only a baby. But even if I were unhappy about a photographer choosing to do this with a photo of my child, I would hope that I would defend their right to do so, in the interests of artistic freedom and social commentary.

  7. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    What’s particularly interesting, of course, is that it’s the textual framing of the photos that even raises the question. If I had just posted the photos, and said the girls were beautiful and charming (which they are) I doubt anyone would have even considered whether I had gotten permission to take/publish the photos.

  8. I appreciate your thoughtful responses. Actually I was first taken aback by the fact that you didn’t know these children and yet posted pictures of them on your blog (the kids are adorable, of course). I guess I would be really upset if I came across a photo of my kid on a blog, with or without the additional commentary. Anyway, like you said, it’s a judgment call–people are going to have very different opinions on this.

  9. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    And I appreciate your thoughtful and non-antagonistic tone! It’s good to be able to discuss these difficult issues calmly.

    I really do think a lot of it comes down to intent of the photographer (sadly impossible to tell from the photograph, of course), and respectful handling of the photographs. Consider these documentary photographs of street children, meant to highlight their poverty and child labor.

    I doubt most of my Western readers would object to this kind of photography — but if you stop and think about it, these kids’ parents may well be upset at the idea that their children are being represented as poor and in need of help. I can just imagine how angry my parents would have been if someone had taken a photo of me at the park, in the handmade dress my mom made for me, and published it as a documentary photograph about the poor immigrant child…but just because they would have been angry doesn’t mean the photographer was wrong to publish the photo. I think.

    Interestingly, in at least one of these photos, the child in question is clearly naked — which I admit, did startle me. I think I’ve seen nakedness before in this sort of photo, but usually framed in such a way as to hide genitalia. I think it’s a Swedish foundation though, and standards re: nudity are definitely different there.

    I think we’re all very used to seeing documentary photos of kids, especially poor kids. And of course, black and white makes it seem more ‘artistic’ somehow, and most documentary photography has traditionally been done in black and white.

    Still, I do think it’s mostly a question of context — can I ask, if your kid were in a big crowd of kids playing at Millenium park (or some other big public attraction), and someone took a shot of the crowd and posted it, would that upset you? Would it be more upsetting if the focus was on your kid alone?

    This photo is one of my favorites I’ve ever taken — focused on one girl in a crowd of schoolgirls. I’d hope that she (or her parents) might be startled to see that photo published, but that they wouldn’t actually be upset by it.

    The girl looking at me seems so calm and aware — and actually, in some ways I like even more capturing the girl in the front right of the photo, who seems so tired. There was no way I could ask permission before taking this photo, and even afterwards, it would have been tremendously difficult to track down all the students and get their permissions.

  10. One thing a photographer can do in some cases is use a photo editor to blur the faces of the people in question.

    Of course, that doesn’t work for lots of things — art photos, or any other context where the face is an important part of the image. But in a case where a photographer just wants to show a pose, or a context, then if they’re concerned about showing the person who’s in the photo, face-blurring can sometimes be a useful compromise.

  11. What you’ve written is very interesting. i came upon your site quite by accident. i was trying to locate indian authors who’ve been dead by 1947 🙂 you can call it my quirk.
    noticed you have a nice list but some errors, obviously you’ve not revised it. but i did not write to say all that, i wrote to say you write really well and most important, you think.

  12. I’m too tired to sort out all my thoughts on children and nudity (especially since I have a possibly unconventional upbringing in regards to this). However, I wanted to comment that, on the second photo, I don’t perceive it as sexual. Yes, her posture reflects (or almost parodies) the posture of models in some ads, but I do not think there is any awareness of that going on in her head.

    In fact, I’m wondering if part of the attraction of a woman casually lounging (in a jeans ad, for example) is the reminder of the unselfconsciousness of how children often sprawl? Does that carefree attitude get used in ads because it equates with confidence? With sensuality? With something else, altogether?

  13. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Oh yes, Mya — I didn’t express myself clearly. I think she was entirely unselfconscious and non-sexual. What I found weird was how reminiscent it was of the over-sexualized jeans ads, and how that conjunction in my own head was disturbing to me; I don’t know where they get that pose from.

    Jed, I think the blurring thing is pretty useless to me — you might use that once in a while, for a purely academic discussion, but a) blurring would be hugely distracting to me, interfering with the impact of the photo, b) it would ruin the photo as art, and c) often, the subject’s face is a large part of the photo. That smile on the face of the little girl in the skirt — that makes the photo work, I think.

    Snigdha, thanks for your kind words. Are you talking about the list of S. Asian authors? I agree, it needs some updating — really, all of those lists, I should turn into wikis so others can update them as necessary. It’s one of my ongoing projects; as soon as I figure out how to do it properly…

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