The way they look

Sally Mann

I’ve always loved her work – Immediate Family. Before knowing any news about the controversy of this work, I find this book very sensual, intimate and shows very primitive lives of children and family. I looked at the work and I felt like I was transported back to the primitive age, during the time when societal beliefs were different. I felt a great sense of innocence from looking at these photographs. Children that were photographed felt genuine and Mann was in my view point capturing the true essence of childhood. I actually admired that this is how they chose to live their lives. And through these photographs, I understood the essence of childhood if children were brought up that way. To me she was just documenting and displaying lives as how it was lived. Rather than just picking those that looked “great”, she also picked those that doesn’t seem so appealing e.g. bruises, wet beds, bloody noses to show that life isn’t just about the great stuff, there are also these imperfects and “wrongs”.

In my mind I never doubted anything about this piece of work other than whether the children consented to put their photographs on display, in the public. But Mann’s work was crucified by criticising her morals as a mother and as a photographer.

Then while I was studying this work in more depth, I found lots of discussion about whether this work is art or abuse. The main article came from NY Times “The Disturbing Photographs of Sally Mann” where it questioned whether some of the photographs, the way they were posed and made were art or children molestation. Some even said that if the subjects were adults, they could be pornography. Sally Mann replied and gave her side of the story, stating her position and how this work has started and ended. She actually went through tough times and was also worried about paedophiles too of the area.

For me this work can raise so many questions.

Standing on the viewpoint of an artist, I can’t agree more with what Mann said about her role as a mother should not be confused with her role as a photographer. And that her children’s roles were different too when they were in front of the camera. This doesn’t, in my point of view, change at all because they are children, and specifically her children.

Standing on the viewpoint of a critic, yes I do see some photographs that are borderline inappropriate, meaning, they can easily be misinterpreted based on most’s knowledge of culture and societal beliefs at modern days. And yes – that can lead to people questioning her motives, her morals and she as a person. And who knows? They may really do in fact attract paedophiles.

I guess my question is, whether Mann was putting her role as a mother above her role as a photographer. Everything is okay up until the point where these photographs are published. If she knew society was likely to think that way, would she have given up publishing the work to protect her children? Or would she think that there’s nothing wrong with this work (in her point of view) and that she did every possible moral and ethnical thing she could with her children for the work to be published?

I don’t know. It could be either way. She could have a strong belief that she needs to put this out just to make a statement that this is the way families should be documented and memorised. Or it could be that, even this statement isn’t as important as to protect her children. You know but then, she’s a photographer.

This work actually led me to learn, as viewers, how are we really judging and analysing photographs? And how should we? Do we take into account of the photographers’ personal life with the work they make? Or do we leave that out and just critique the photographs made by the artist objectively?


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