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Race, Democracy, and Media

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


The Spectacle of Lynching Redeployed:

On the Performance of Democratic Regard

Dr. Melvin Rogers

Associate Professor of Political Science
Brown University

April 9, 2019



D3vWpfuWkAUFd5v.jpg largeAmerica’s history is marked by a striking image—“black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.” Abel Meeropol—a Jewish American—first articulated this line in his 1937 published poem, “Bitter Fruit,” after viewing Lawrence Beitler’s horrific lynching photograph. Although Meeropol eventually put the words to music, it was jazz singer Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition of the song, now titled “Strange Fruit,” first recorded in 1939 that made it a classic. How does one practically and conceptually engage the simultaneous existence of a professed commitment to equality and liberty alongside the fact that white Americans visually digested those with whom they otherwise shared the polity? I engage this vexing issue by reflecting on the normative possibilities latent in Holiday’s performative rendition of Meeropol’s song.

Dr. Melvin Rogers is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Brown University. He is the author of The Undiscovered Dewey: Religion, Morality, and the Ethos of Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2008) and co-editor of African American Political Thought: A Collected History (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming). His articles have appeared in major academic journals as well as popular venues such as DissentThe AtlanticPublic Seminar, and Boston Review. Rogers serves as the co-editor of the New Histories of Philosophy series at Oxford University Press. Presently, he is at work on his second book, The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow Media Ethics Initiative and Center for Media Engagement on Facebook for more information.


 

Halloween Hijinks and Internet Shaming

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Racially Insensitive Costumes

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies


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Stock Photo: Pixabay

Halloween is a holiday that many Americans wait for all year to bring out their creative costumes—funny, crude, or scary.  Inevitably, some of these costumes will be judged by others as insensitive. Recently, the issue made national headlines when fourteen staff members of Middleton Heights Elementary School were criticized for offensive Halloween costumes. Playing off of the controversies surrounding President Trump’s proposed border wall, a group of Middleton staff members held maracas and wore sombreros or ponchos marked with the phrase “Mexican,”, while another group had Trump’s MAGA slogan plastered across a makeshift border wall in reference to his border security plan. Both groups embodied these partisan and offensive labels into costumes they then wore to the elementary school. On October 31, 2018, photos of staff members in these costumes were published on the Middleton School District’s website, which then quickly spread across the nation.

The public, it seemed, was not amused by these Halloween frivolities. By November 3, the participants were placed on paid administrative leave while further investigation took place. Superintendent of the school district Josh Middleton stated that “This type of behavior has no place in education and certainly is not tolerated here at Middleton School District.’’ He admitted that this was “an unfortunate incident of very poor judgement,” but expressed that this is not representative of either the school district or the teachers. Within days, it was revealed that all of the involved staff, except for Principal Kim Atkinson, were reinstated and the investigation only discovered “love and commitment” of the staff members involved. Additionally, the staff involved in the incident released an apology. To clarify the purpose of the after-school event, the superintendent claimed that it was a team-building exercise with a focus on kindness and education regarding other cultures where staff members were divided and named after countries.

Similarly, the intentions of the involved staff members of Middleton Heights were argued to be, at worst, misguided and good in nature. News of the staff members’ consequences and the negative response across the nation spurred the creation of an online petition in favor of the staff members called “Save our Middleton Staff, Teachers, and Principal.” Supporters also left comments on the petition, such as “Unfortunately, the photos were very controversial. However, we believe it’s been blown out of proportion,” and “I support our teachers 100% and know they did not do this as racial hatred! They are amazing individuals and I’m proud to have them teaching my children!” The petition and its supporters argued that the events should not obscure the ability of the involved staff members of Middleton Heights to be loving and supportive of students.

But is the image created by their costumes too much to overcome in regard to what some students might expect of an educator? Despite the intentions of the Middleton staff members, there is concern about their ability to educate and foster inclusive environments for minority students. The 2017 U.S. census reports that Middleton has a Latino population of 9.5 percent, and Idaho Ed Trends reports that the elementary school has a Hispanic demographic of 12.9 percent; these facts could worry those that say these costume antics will displease or exclude significant populations of students. A former public school teacher, Meredith St. Clair, said in a letter to the school board that “I feel that everyone does have a right to free speech and their own beliefs, politically and otherwise, but we cannot bring these into the classroom.” St. Clair argued that “If we’re doing this overtly, what are the covert, the underlying messages that are being sent to these children on a daily basis” (Katz & Moeller, 2018)? Other critics have taken to the internet to raise support, creating a petition called “No Racism in Middleton School District” that highlights a set of demands to approach racism—including “culturally relevant curriculum, policy change, review of hiring practices, and district wide training” (Mondragon, 2018).

The counter-petition involves individuals from across the U.S., and not simply from the school district or Idaho; likewise, its point is integrated into a national conversation over racial sensitivity.  Outrage over this seemingly small instance has grown national in scope. Those thinking more about how much controversy ill-chosen costumes bring up are asking the question: How much do the supposedly good intentions of the staff members wearing the offensive costumes matter?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict over the Halloween costumes at the center of this case?
  2. Are the costumes an instance of speech or expressive conduct? Why or why not?
  3. How should the school district react to those educators that were involved in this party? What principle are you basing this reaction on, and do you think it will be useful for the next instance of controversial Halloween costumes?
  4. Are there conditions under which such culturally insensitive costumes can be worn?

Further Information:

Foy, Nicole. “Frustrations Fly at Middleton School Board Meeting.” Idaho Press, 13 Nov. 2018, www.idahopress.com/news/local/frustrations-fly-at-middleton-school-board-meeting/article_2fdd6358-7ff7-5f07-be14-7411450ab370.html.

Foy, Nicole. “Middleton Costumes Expose Racial Fault Lines in Canyon County.” Idaho Press, 17 Nov. 2018, www.idahopress.com/news/local/middleton-costumes-expose-racial-fault-lines-in-canyon-county/article_82cdc0b5-16a8-596a-afe8-7f78e7fe1bb0.html.

Katz, Michael, and Katy Moeller. “Middleton Heights Staff Placed on Administrative Leave over Controversial Halloween Outfits.” Idahostatesman, Idaho Statesman, 3 Nov. 2018, www.idahostatesman.com/latest-news/article221074560.html.

Mondragon, Estefania. “Sign the Petition: No Racism in Middleton School District.” MoveOn Petitions, 2018, https://petitions.moveon.org/sign/no-racism-in-middleton.

O’Kane, Caitlin. “Thousands Sign Competing Petitions over Teachers Who Wore Border Wall Costumes.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 6 Nov. 2018, www.cbsnews.com/news/thousands-sign-competing-petitions-over-idaho-teachers-who-wore-border-wall-costume/.

Authors:

Sophia Park & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
April 3, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Netflix and Kill

CASE STUDY: The Problem with Romanticizing Serial Killers

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies


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Screencapture: Twitter.com

On January 26, the trailer for the new Ted Bundy biopic “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” was released to major excitement. The film stars popular actor Zac Efron as Bundy, a notorious American serial killer, and model Lily Collins as Bundy‘s girlfriend, Lisa Kloepfer. The serial killer is infamous for committing a series of horrific acts, including murder, involving anywhere between 30 to 100 women in the 1970s. The trailer features the two in love and arguing about if the allegations against Bundy are true; Kloepfer is portrayed as conflicted because of her feelings toward Bundy, but she’s also portrayed as wanting to protect herself and her young daughter from Bundy ‘s lies and violent tendencies.

While some eagerly await the movie‘s release, others worry that the new biopic glamorizes and unjustifiably humanizes the killer Ted Bundy. Making matters complex, some aspects emphasized by the narrative do have traces in the real trial involving Bundy. He was not treated like other serial killers such as Charles Manson or John Wayne Gacy, and there was not the same overwhelming call for the death penalty as with other killers. Some young women, Bundy ‘s targeted victim type, even attended Bundy ‘s trial and showed support for him, perhaps because he seemed mysterious and attractive; such “fans” ignored the fact that he murdered and mutilated the bodies of women their age. With these facts in place, Suzanne Moore explains how romanticizing the egregious serial killer Bundy in the new biopic might be dangerous for women and how it could demean what it means to be a victim; she worries that the film portrays and potentially evokes “Hybristophilia,” which is “the name given to the sexual arousal that comes from a partner who has committed a crime: the fantasy that you are special enough to give the love that would stop such a man doing the things he does.” Bundy, however, never stopped committing his real life crimes, even after he started dating his girlfriends, including Kloepfer. Dramatizing this hope of redemption and attractiveness might only give him more attention, and demean the real suffering of those he hurt.

But such attention is exactly what Bundy would have wanted. In the biopic trailer, Bundy is portrayed as enthralled by the fact he is “bigger than the Disney World.” Discourse that humanizes or compliments Bundy seemed to only inflate Bundy‘s ego, and to continue to add insulted those who were attacked by him. In 1978, Florida University student Kathy Kleiner Rubin was attacked by Bundy in her sorority house. She is the first of Bundy‘s surviving victims to speak up about the troubling realizations the new Netflix movie is causing. But many were shocked by her statement, as she actually encouraged those to see the movie: “It’s not really glorifying him, but it’s showing him and when they (the characters in the film) do say positive and wonderful things about him … that’s what they saw, that’s what Bundy wanted you to see” (Bonner, 2019). She believes that the movie‘s supposedly accurate portrayal will help women “be more aware of their surroundings and be cautious.” Director Joe Berlinger states the biopic does not “romanticize” or “glorify” Bundy‘s actions, but rather focuses on the relationship between him and Kloepfer as the murderer‘s heinous acts are catching up to him. Berlinger defends his work by revealing that the movie assumes the perspective of Kloepfer, so it will naturally foreground the complex thoughts that she is feeling about Bundy leading up to his arrest and trial (Obenson, 2019). Berlinger‘s defense brings up an interesting point about the artistic freedom in the film industry. When making a movie based on true events, filmmakers can change or select different perspectives on an event, emphasizing different points of view and different ways characters are affected. Films that do this can add to the diversity of stories and storylines we are exposed to, showing the complexities in important historical events.

This is precisely the case for the variety of stories being told about Ted Bundy’s crimes. A week prior to the trailer’s release, a four-part documentary series on Bundy was released by Netflix titled “Conversations with a Killer: the Ted Bundy Tapes.” This docuseries was also directed by Berlinger. This series does the complete opposite of “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile”: “This documentary explicitly details the serial killers gruesome attacks, not how his groupies felt about him” (Harvilla, 2019). With both of these films, Berlinger wanted to show different ways of looking back on the serial killer 30 years after his execution, but concerns remain about the ways of telling this story that might seemingly prioritize Bundy‘s looks and charm over his gut-wrenching actions. Some critics might be tempted to observe that Berlinger was able to make “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” in a light that did not romanticize the mysterious killer like his other film, one that cast popular actors adored for their looks and that used a thrilling plot to drive a movie effectively about murdering and manipulating women.

Perhaps “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” makes up for the choices made in “Conversations with a Killer: the Ted Bundy Tapes,” but the separation of visions may also do more harm than good for Berlinger in providing separable visions that inform and entertain in different ways on this serial killer. What are the ethical implications of related, but separate, artifacts that make very different choices in dealing with heinous acts and infamous individuals?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict with the controversy over the dramatized Ted Bundy biopic?
  2. Do you believe that casting a popular actor and heartthrob as a serial killer presents any problems? How should the directors have handled the casting and scripting of such a criminal?
  3. Does the existence of the documentary excuse the biopic‘s actions, or simply magnify the worries over those casting and writing choices?
  4. What general principles should directors and writers follow when creating films based upon atrocious criminals such as Ted Bundy?

Further Information:

Bonner, Mehera. “Ted Bundy survivor reacts to upcoming Zac Efron film.” WESH2 NBC News. January 29, 2019. Available at: https://www.wesh.com/article/ted-bundy-survivor-kathy-kleiner-rubin-reacts-zac-efron/26075976

Harvilla, Robert. “‘The Ted Bundy Tapes Can‘t Put You In His Head. Be Grateful.” The Ringer. January 29, 2019. Available at: https://www.theringer.com/tv/2019/1/29/18201482/netflix-conversations-with-a-killer-ted-bundy-tapes-true-crime-documentary

Moore, Suzanne. “Ted Bundy was deeply mediocre – so why are we romanticizing him?” The Guardian, January 28, 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/28/ted-bundy-mediocre-why-romanticising-him-serial-killer-played-by-zac-efron-film

Obenson, Tambay. “Ted Bundy Biopic Director Joe Berlinger Says His Film Never Glorifies a Killer.” IndieWire, January 28, 2019. Available at: https://www.indiewire.com/2019/01/extremely-wicked-shockingly-evil-and-vile-criticism-ted-bundy-1202039201/

Authors:

Irie Crenshaw & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
March 14, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Weather Media in the Public Sphere

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


Weather Media in the Public Sphere

Dr. John Durham Peters

María Rosa Menocal Professor of English &
Professor of Film and Media Studies
Yale University

May 2 (Thursday) ¦  1:30-3:00PM  ¦  BMC 5.208


jdp IKKM photo 2018On its face, weather sounds like the most banal and mundane thing possible. Ordinary people look down on talking about it and journalists often regard it as the lowest kind of news. This talk aims to show that the accusation that talking about the weather is intellectually empty is hardly the case in the age of climate change, and even dangerous. The rise of weather as a topic of conversation coincides with the rise of the bourgeois public sphere.  More broadly, weather is a key part of media history.  The history of human interaction with weather is also a history of cultural techniques and media technologies. Dramatists and divines have sought meaning from atmospheric events. Reading the skies is one paradigm case of human-nature interaction, and studying weather can stand in as part for whole as an inquiry into the environments humans have made or unmade. The history of modern weather forecasting is also a history of the militarization of the sky and oceans, and is co-extensive with the history of modern telecommunications, computation, and reporting. Weather raises two questions of profound interest to recent media theory: how mundane infrastructures are full of meaning and how vaporous or evanescent entities can be tracked, recorded, and programmed.  Talking about the weather is not dumb; it may be essential.

51zPF50pI0L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Dr. John Durham Peters is a leading scholar in the area of media history, communication theory, and philosophy. He is the María Rosa Menocal Professor of English and of Film & Media Studies at Yale University. Previously, Peters taught at the University of Iowa between 1986-2016. He is the author a range of books, including Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition, and most recently, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. He has held fellowships with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Leverhulme Trust.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow Media Ethics Initiative and Center for Media Engagement on Facebook for more information.

Media Ethics Initiative events are free and open to the public.


 

Race, Democracy, and Media

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


The Spectacle of Lynching Redeployed:

On the Performance of Democratic Regard

Dr. Melvin Rogers

Associate Professor of Political Science
Brown University

April 9 (Tuesday) ¦  3:30-5:00PM  ¦  BMC 5.208


ebYmKbc-_400x400America’s history is marked by a striking image—“black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.” Abel Meeropol—a Jewish American—first articulated this line in his 1937 published poem, “Bitter Fruit,” after viewing Lawrence Beitler’s horrific lynching photograph. Although Meeropol eventually put the words to music, it was jazz singer Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition of the song, now titled “Strange Fruit,” first recorded in 1939 that made it a classic. How does one practically and conceptually engage the simultaneous existence of a professed commitment to equality and liberty alongside the fact that white Americans visually digested those with whom they otherwise shared the polity? I engage this vexing issue by reflecting on the normative possibilities latent in Holiday’s performative rendition of Meeropol’s song.

9780231144872Dr. Melvin Rogers is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Brown University. He is the author of The Undiscovered Dewey: Religion, Morality, and the Ethos of Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2008) and co-editor of African American Political Thought: A Collected History (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming). His articles have appeared in major academic journals as well as popular venues such as DissentThe AtlanticPublic Seminar, and Boston Review. Rogers serves as the co-editor of the New Histories of Philosophy series at Oxford University Press. Presently, he is at work on his second book, The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow Media Ethics Initiative and Center for Media Engagement on Facebook for more information.

Media Ethics Initiative events are free and open to the public.


 

The Ethics of Computer-Generated Actors

CASE STUDY: The Ethical Challenges of CGI Actors in Films

Case Study | Additional Case Studies


By Lucasfilm

Photo: LucasFilm

Long-dead actors continue to achieve a sort of immortality in their films. A new controversy over dead actors is coming to life based upon new uses of visual effects and computer-generated imagery (CGI). Instead of simply using CGI to create stunning action sequences, gorgeous backdrops, and imaginary monsters, film makers have started to use its technological wonders to bring back actors from the grave. What ethical problems circle around the use of digital reincarnations in film making?

The use of CGI to change the look of actors is nothing new. For instance, many films have used such CGI methods to digitally de-age actors with striking results (like those found in the Marvel films), or to create spectacular creatures without much physical reality (such as “Golem” in The Lord of the Rings series). What happens when CGI places an actor into a film through the intervention of technology? A recent example of digital reincarnation in the film industry is found in Fast and Furious 7, where Paul Walker had to be digitally recreated due to his untimely death in the middle of the film’s production. Walker’s brothers had to step in to give a physical form for the visual effect artists to finish off Walker’s character in the movie, and the results brought about mixed reviews as some viewers thought it was “odd” that they were seeing a deceased actor on screen that was recreated digitally. However, many argue that this was the best course of action to take in order to complete film production and honor Paul Walker’s work and character.

Other recent films have continued to bet on using CGI to help recreate characters on the silver screen. For instance, 2016’s Rogue One: A Star War Story used advanced CGI techniques that hint at the ethical problems that lie ahead for film-makers. Peter Cushing was first featured in 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope as Grand Moff Tarkin. In the Star Wars timeline, the events that take place in Rogue One lead directly into A New Hope, so the story writers behind the recent Rogue One felt inclined to include Grand Moff Tarkin as a key character in the events leading up to the next film. There was one problem, however: Peter Cushing died in 1994. The film producers were faced with an interesting problem and ultimately decided to use CGI to digitally resurrect Cushing from the grave to reprise his role as the Imperial officer. The result of this addition of Grand Moff Tarkin in the final cut of the film sent shockwaves across the Star Wars fandom, with some presenting arguments in defense of adding Cushing’s character into the film by claiming that “actors don’t own characters” (Tylt.com) and that the fact that the character looked the same over the course of the fictional timeline enhanced the aesthetic effects of the movies. Others, like Catherine Shoard, were more critical. She condemned the film’s risky choice saying, “though Cushing’s estate approved his use in Rogue One, I’m not convinced that if I had built up a formidable acting career, I’d then want to turn in a performance I had bupkis to do with.” Rich Haridy of New Atlas also expressed some criticism over the use of Peter Cushing in the recent Star Wars film by writing, “there is something inherently unnerving about watching such a perfect simulacrum of someone you know cannot exist.”

This use of CGI to bring back dead actors and place them into film raises troubling questions about consent. Assuming that actors should only appear in films that they choose to, how can we be assured that such post-mortem uses are consistent with the actor’s wishes?  Is gaining permission from the relatives of the deceased enough to use an actor’s image or likeness? Additionally, the possibility is increased that CGI can be used to bring unwilling figures into a film. Many films have employed look-alikes to bring presidents or historical figures into a narrative; the possibility of using CGI to bring in exact versions of actors and celebrities into films does not seem that different from this tactic. This filmic use of CGI actors also extends our worries over “deepfakes” (AI-created fake videos) and falsified videos into the murkier realm of fictional products and narratives. While we like continuity in actors as a way to preserve our illusion of reality in films, what ethical pitfalls await us as we CGI the undead—or the unwilling—into our films or artworks?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict when filmmakers want to use CGI to place a deceased actor into a film?
  2. What is different about placing a currently living actor into a film through the use of CGI? How does the use of CGI differ from using realistic “look-alike” actors?
  3. What sort of limits would you place on the use of CGI versions of deceased actors? How would you prevent unethical use of deceased actors?
  4. How should society balance concerns with an actor’s (or celebrity’s) public image with an artist’s need to be creative with the tools at their disposal?
  5. What ethical questions would be raised by using CGI to insert “extras,” and not central characters, into a film?

Further Information:

Haridy, R. (2016, December 19). “Star Wars: Rogue One and Hollywood’s trip through the uncanny valley.” Available at: https://newatlas.com/star-wars-rogue-one-uncanny-valley-hollywood/47008/

Langshaw, M. (2017, August 02). “8 Disturbing Times Actors Were Brought Back From The Dead By CGI.” Available at: http://whatculture.com/film/8-disturbing-times-actors-were-brought-back-from-the-dead-by-cgi

Shoard, C. (2016, December 21). “Peter Cushing is dead. Rogue One’s resurrection is a digital indignity“. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/21/peter-cushing-rogue-one-resurrection-cgi

The Tylt. Should Hollywood use CGI to replace dead actors in movies? Available at: https://thetylt.com/entertainment/should-hollywood-use-cgi-to-replace-dead-actors-in-movies

Authors:

William Cuellar & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 12, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

When Does Artistic Creativity Become the Exploitation of Children?

CASE STUDY: Photographic Art and Ethics

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


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Photo: Lee / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Modified

Art foregrounds creativity, imagination, and often includes materials that are meant to shock us out of our ordinary approaches to the world and life. But when does art transgress ethical boundaries normally thought to be operative in relationships among human agents? This debate about the relationship between artistic creativity and ethical norms is on display in the controversy surrounding the work of Sally Mann. Mann is an American photographer famous for her artworks consisting of large black and white photos. She is the mother of three children—Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia—who played the protagonists in her third, and most controversial, photographic book, Immediate Family (1992). Included in the work were 65 pictures of her children carrying on in their everyday lives from the mid-1980s until they reached puberty; causing the bulk of the controversy were 13 pictures of her children in the nude, then aged eleven, nine, and five years old. These naked and often-vulnerable posed pictures of her children caused critics to raise concerns about the work involving child exploitation and child pornography.

One of such critics is Valerie Osbourne. After viewing a picture of Jessie posed on the ground only in rubber galoshes and panties included in Immediate Family, she writes that “She appears so vulnerable and so frail, yet her gaze is so enticing. The image is taken from above, objectifying her. Her gaze falls directly into the lens as if beckoning the viewer to come join her. The name again suggests something sexual and playful; ‘Dirty Jessie.’ This image becomes the most sexual due to the positioning of the camera above her, and the semi-modest touching of her nipples” (Osbourne, 2006).

In this critique, Osbourne points out a common charge among Sally Mann’s critics: her work relies on or emphasizes the sexualization of her children. Others have also condemned her work as being ‘unnecessary’ and “problematic” (Cohen, 2018). Critics are also concerned about the repercussions the photographs would have on the children as they grow older. From posing with cigarettes and “lolita” glasses to pretending to be garroted or strangled in Mann’s photographs, detractors wondered whether Mann was providing them with “props whose dark associations they [couldn’t] begin to understand. Rather than preserving their innocence, the photographs seem[ed] to accelerate their maturity by relying on the knowingness of the viewer” (Woodward, 1992). In fact, after seeking advice from a federal prosecutor, Mann was informed that no less than eight of her pictures could be cause for her arrest (Woodward, 1992). While she may not intended these photographs to be taken in a sexualized fashion, some worry that overzealous or disturbed individuals might see them in this way. This may have been the case when one male fan of her work wrote to her editors, journalists, and the children’s school seeking more information about Mann’s children. Others worry about whether any consent given by her children was valid due to their very young age and lack of them truly understanding the repercussions that being featured in such photographs might bring. They also speculated whether her status as their parent could have unduly influenced her children’s willingness to take part in this artistic project.

Mann defended her work by stating that she had originally not planned to publish the photo books until her children were older and were no longer children. She says in an interview with the New York Times that such a delay was rejected by her children; they were angered, she reports, by her unilateral plan to delay publication. To placate them, she compromised and promised that she would publish the book only after they had met with a psychologist in order to make sure they understood their decision fully. She also gave the children veto power over the pictures included in the photobook; 13 year-old Emmett used his veto to remove a picture of him with socks on his hands and 7-year-old Virginia rejected a picture of her urinating. Furthermore, individual interviews conducted with the children when the book was published and they corroborated their willingness to be portrayed in Immediate Family. Jessie was quoted as saying in her interview that “I have no objections, none. The few times I don’t like it is when I have a friend over and I’m just in my room and Mom says, ‘Picture time,’ and I don’t really want to do it” (Woodward, 1992). Furthermore, Mann vowed that if she ever thought even for a moment that the pictures would harm her children, she would immediately stop. She argued that her photographs had nothing morbid or exploitative in them and only wished that people could see them as she saw them, natural, just like the pictures she had from her childhood taken by her dad.

Although there has not been any legal actions taken against Sally Mann and her photographs, that has not stopped her critics from protesting the book’s release and continued availability. The director of Belfast Exposed photography gallery, Pauline Hadaway, says, “naked or not, exhibitions of children can be precarious, and what is OK or not can be arbitrarily decided” (Jenkins, 2010). Where does creativity in photographic art end and exploitation of children begin?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict in the artworks of Sally Mann?
  2. Do you think it is important—or even possible—to get informed consent from her children for their photos to be included in Mann’s book?
  3. What general limits should our concerns over the exploitation of children put on artistic creativity? How far can artists go in using children in their artworks?
  4. If you find Mann’s use of her children in her art troubling, is there anything she could have done to produce similar works in an ethical fashion?

Further Information:

Cohen, Alina. “Why Sally Mann’s Photographs of Her Children Can Still Make Viewers Uncomfortable.” Artsy, January 4, 2018. Available at: www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-sally-mann-s-photographs-children-viewers-uncomfortable

Jenkins, Tiffany. “Art or Abuse? A Lament for Lost Innocence.” The Independent, September 14, 2010. Available at: www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/art-or-abuse-a-lament-for-lost-innocence-2078397.html

Osborn, Valerie. “Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’ – The Unflinching and Unafraid Childhood (2006).” ASX, October 26, 2006. Available at: www.americansuburbx.com/2009/11/theory-sally-manns-immediate-family.html

Woodward, Richard B. “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann.” The New York Times, New York Times, September 27, 1992. Available at: www.nytimes.com/1992/09/27/magazine/the-disturbing-photography-of-sally-mann.html

Authors:

Oluwasemilor Adeoluwa & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
January 18, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


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