the hard part

Have you heard the Fresh Air interview with Sally Mann? She’s a photographer specializing in black and white photos of life in the South, her family, decaying human bodies (from a forensics lab), a series of photos of her husband’s withering body, and—what got her a lot of negative attention from the media—photos of her young children, naked. Her pictures are stunningly raw and intimate.

Terry Gross opened the interview with the controversy surrounding Mann’s photos of her naked children. Terry painted a word picture of several of the photos, including this one: a young, naked girl leans against a bed, one hand on her cocked hip, the other hand touching her chest. Another child is in the bed under the covers. Immediately, all my red flags went up. How was this not child pornography?

But Mann was neither ruffled nor defensive. She simply explained the situation: their family lived in the deep South with not another human for miles around. It was so hot that her children rarely bothered to wear clothes, and they pretty much lived in the river all day long. That particular day, the older daughter was sick in bed. The younger daughter, the picture of health, was standing beside her, defiantly flaunting her good fortune over her laid-out sister. That was it: two sisters—one healthy and one not—juxtaposed.

I find it disturbing that I (and everyone else, apparently) was so quick to sexualize the children. And I am both fascinated and dismayed by how far my perceptions were from the truth.

Art in context makes sense. The risky thing about art, though, is that it’s rarely in context. It’s one person’s experience put out to the world for interpretation. In a sense, we’re all artists, shaping our lives, editing its meaning, curating our existence, longing for appreciation. No matter how carefully we craft ourselves, we are received differently, depending on the person.

That’s what I got out of Terry’s interview with Sally Mann: to approach people as I would art. To appreciate art—to appreciate each other—I need interest, open-mindedness, a few questions, and the time to listen, the only agenda being to hear what the other person wants to say.

It’s so simple, really. Remembering to do it is the hard part.

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (5.26.14), questions and carrots, we love you, Wayne, and de butchery.


  • Rebecca

    "No matter how carefully we craft ourselves, we are received differently, depending on the person." That's been the lesson of middle age for me: I cannot possibly make myself acceptable to every person I come in contact with. And I need to spread grace around far more lavishly than I'm inclined to.

  • karen

    I very deeply appreciate your bigger "life lesson" in this post. I struggle to understand what the big whoop is with things as "far out" in our society as people who's gender does not match their body parts, and those, such as intersex people, who didn't receive a body with a definite and easy definition. I don't understand to the core of me why we can't simply accept people for how they define themselves and move on.

    So I really value your lovely way of painting this picture for another way to illustrate that very simple but impossible in our media/religion driven society: to meet people where they are at.

    I hope this makes sense.

  • You Can Call Me Jane

    Here's what bothers me: when these children are older, how will THEY feel about these photos being public? Even on facebook, among friends, I struggle with what to share and what not to share. When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a naked picture of me in the bathtub (as in infant) or in a swim suit, you'd have to visit my parent's, sit on their couch and look through their photo albums.

    • Jennifer Jo

      I don't know if this makes any difference, but these photos were taken about 30 years ago and were released in a book (I think?) The children are all grown and gone (and I believe she said one is a model!).

  • Becky

    Having a child who doesn't like to wear clothes when it's hot out, I get it. I do like that approach and you're right, remembering to do it is the hard part.

  • KTdid

    The first thought that came to my mind: how old are the children? The answer, I believe, would play a big role in how I felt about the nude photos. I'm quite liberal in my thinking, and yet–when humans throw off the last shreds of clothing (adolescents and upward), I can't help but ponder the animal aspect of it. Q.

    • Jennifer Jo

      According to Mann, the children were young and not even close to puberty. So, three? Six? I don't know, but she's a huge proponent of always respecting the people she photographed.

      (Also, just got a comment on Facebook from someone who is reading her book now and highly recommends it. I'm going to look it up.)

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