Girls and Childhood: Growing Up Too Soon?
I’m on the verge of officially giving up. Not the blog, although I so rarely find the time to research at the moment that I might as well. No, I mean giving up on life. I’m not suicidal, chill oot, but I’m increasingly despairing of the direction society has willfully decided to take.
Now maybe I haven’t written enough on the photography of childhood to prove that I’ve got credibility in this field, but on this occasion I don’t think I’m bothered. Although I should say that I saw this story on the BBC’s website and that probably impacted how I viewed it to the tune of maybe 90%. I DO NOT TRUST THE
This photography project was created by Carolyn Mendelsohn, and is currently on show at Impressions Gallery in Bradford, formerly the home of the National Media Museum. The project happened over a 6-year period, and consists of portraits of girls between the ages of 10 and 12. The aim is to explore the “complex transition between childhood and young adulthood” and draws its inspiration from the photographer’s own experience.
The exhibition features portraits of 90 young girls against a dark background and in a variety of poses, from folded arms to side-on gazes. If you were a cynic, like me, you’d see these photos and think, “Yeah, they’re just portraits of girls.” But of course you’d be mistaken. These photographs are “remarkable”, they’re “playful, yet serious”, they’re a “record of our uncertain times,” and they are also “timeless”. 
The aim of the project seems to be to encourage girls to talk candidly about their lives and the things they’re thinking about. But underneath, it sounds like a series designed to project young girls into the spotlight of burgeoning womanhood, a state of being for which they are currently woefully unprepared, and rightly so because they are still CHILDREN.
I think I’ve just delivered my conclusion in the introduction. No change from the MSM, then.
The Being of Childhood
I think that photographing children whilst committing to the strict formalities of traditional portrait photography is tricky. By this, I mean photographs that are taken in a studio (however makeshift), against a background, and generally featuring a frontal pose. Photographers have of course taken portrait-style photographs of children, like Mary Ellen Mark or Sally Mann, but they weren’t in the insular, oppressive studio space; they were in the fragrant, lush arenas of the natural world. Gardens, in other words, and other outdoors spaces.
I was never particularly fond of Sally Mann’s photography; I found her photographs of her own nude children a little too confronting at the time. Of course, I should have been able to recognise that the impact of motherhood never left her and inflected her work to the extent that “Sally Mann the Artist” was never separate from “Sally Mann the Mother”.
I should also have realised that the Victorians set a precedent for photography of nude children, and it was not conceived with immoral or wicked intentions. In photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron, for example, these tiny, young children represented cherubs, a subject matter that emanated from a rich painting tradition which depicted biblical scenes. In Renaissance art they were referred to as putti, or winged male infants, which had less of an association with the bible and derived from Greek and Roman art.
The secular putti and biblical cherubim (plural) differ greatly; whereas the cherub comes from the bible/Old Testament and belonged in the ranks of the angels, the putto (singular) was a wholly secular invention and its meaning evolved during the 19th century to become a symbol of love.
The cherub as it’s mentioned in the Old Testament is about as far from a tiny child as it’s possible to get. In Exodus, G-d commands Moses to let the Children of Israel build him a “sanctuary that I may dwell among them” [Exodus 25:8] within which should be placed the Ark, and on the cover of the Ark should be placed “two cherubim of gold… at the two ends of the cover.” [Exodus 25:18]
"The outspread wings of the cherubim were 20 cubits across: one wing 5 cubits long touching one wall of the House, and the other 5 cubits long touching the wing of the other cherub..." [Chronicles 3:11]
So where the does the infant representation come from? In Ezekiel 10:14, “each one had four faces: one was a cherub’s face, the second a human face, the third a lion’s face, and the fourth an eagle’s face.” There’s a huge amount of commentary on the cherub, or keruv, itself and it’s all quite circuitous so let’s just stick with Rashi’s commentary on Exodus which says of cherubim that they “had the form of a child’s face” [Rashi on Exodus 25:18:1, Sukkah 5a]. You can also find commentary that explains the difference between the two faces as being one of size: the face of a man refers to a larger face, whereas the face of a cherub refers to that of a small baby. 
G-d’s divine presence could rest upon the cherub, so the cherub was itself a holy thing. Of course, art only relies on verisimilitude to the extent that it agrees with what’s already been imagined by the artist, so from the description of the cherub in Prophets, an artist can extrapolate the face of a child and then develop that into belonging on the body of a child. It retains its innocence, holiness, and purity.
Anyway, back to the rant.
Childhood and Pronouns
According to the Impressions Gallery’s website text, Mendelsohn:
"allows each individual an opportunity to reclaim their identity, encouraging a dialogue on ambitions and aspirations, hopes and fears." 
Okay. I more or less remember being 10, 11, and 12. I had absolutely no clue what my “identity” was, I didn’t have any ambitions, and my only fears revolved around finding a cheese sandwich in my lunchbox. My somewhat anecdotal point is that children rarely have enough self-awareness or intelligence at such a young age to ponder the intricacies of such global or personal issues that really only raise themselves at puberty or later.
You can start driving lessons at 16, you can start voting at 18, and you can start drinking at 18. Legally. If such is the legal background for making potentially life-altering decisions pertaining to: your immediate personal safety and that of those around you (1); your cognitive ability to understand and disect political platforms (2); and your capacity for listening to your body tell you “I’ve had enough alcohol to stun a small horse, stop drinking“, then isn’t it reasonable to suggest that children who are still several years off these milestones are allowed to remain as children?
On an entirely separate, but equally deserving note, why would you use the gender-neutral pronoun “their” instead of the female pronoun “her” to refer to girls? The sentence still makes sense:
- ” … allows each girl to reclaim her identity…”
instead of which we get:
- “… allows each individual to reclaim their identity…”
I mean, it’s dumb because earlier on in the same paragraph you’re told about the “90 girls who are in the midst of navigating this complex, and potentially defining, period in their lives”.
And while we’re on that rollercoaster of thought, why wouldn’t you call these “individuals” children? They are literally, physically, and biologically still children. Okay, they have individual interests and likes or dislikes, but they haven’t formed their identities yet (and yes, I’m fine using the gender-neutral collective pronoun here) so can we just refer to them as children, please?!
The underlying aim of this project is not a unique one. I did some research for a photographer about 5 years ago on a nascent photography project in which he wanted to take 16-year-olds from different faiths and ask them pretty much the same things: how do you see the world, what do you think about, what do you want for the future. These quotes would then be paired with formal portraits of their respective sitter.
Laying aside the fact that these girls are all between 10 and 12, and therefore a little young to be talking too profoundly about the state of things, they do still have thoughts and opinions on what they see around them. I obviously don’t have a problem with that.
However, I do question the extent to which a 10-year-old can be a “creative participant and collaborator” in this project. From what I can see, I don’t think it’s obvious that these girls had the kind of creative agency that Mendelsohn purports. Understandably, the photographer insisted on a neutral background that remained universal across all portraits in order to create some kind of consistent, creative link. So that only leaves the posture and facial expression in the hands of these young girls.
Obviously every girl is different, and I don’t mean in relation to age or ethnicity. Every girl is different like every human is different. And yet there appear to be at least three main poses that repeat across the 90-portrait spectrum. I didn’t need 90 different poses but I did sort of think we might see some divergence from the formal portrait tradition, especially since these girls haven’t quite yet reached that age of extreme self-awareness that most of us get to during the difficult years (you know, the period years).
In fact, these portraits sit much more rigidly in the formal portrait painting tradition than I expected. Most of the girls are photographed standing, although there are exceptions, and most are face-on or positioned at a slight angle. The studio lighting has that traditional balance of light and shadow so that, photographed against a much darker background, the lighting brings the girls into the foreground with some gentle shadows eating away at the edges, like their shoulders or arms. Obviously with studio portraiture you restrict yourself; there’s only so much you can do inside. But if the aim of this project was to offer an “inclusive insight” into this group of young girls (why inclusive?), then surely allowing them the creative agency to choose a location which represented them and their fears or concerns would have made more creative sense?
Beyond the unchanging backdrop and their different clothes the photographs don’t seem to vary that much. So since each girl has been endowed with the “creative participant and collaborator” label, I do wonder how far this can be said to be the case.
Culture and Ethnicity
This was always going to be a thing because apparently we can’t escape it. At the risk of making myself incredibly unpopular, let me lay down some truths.
I don’t care about skin colour.
I don’t care about physical ability.
I don’t care about socio-economic background.
Just in case you want to misunderstand me, when I say “I don’t care” I mean that none of these things affect the way I treat, react, or respond to anyone.
Can we just let children be children? Do we have to put all these very grown-up burdens on them at such a young age? Do we have to actively make them aware of what, if anything, differentiates them from their friends or society en gros? Who benefits from that? Because it sure as shit ain’t the kids.
Royalty in the House
If you haven’t seen the video yet: GO WATCH IT. What Royalty’s father, Kory, says against CRT (which is a different kettle of piranhas) is pure and honest, and his 6-year-old daughter agrees: children don’t see skin colour; they love everybody. Given that Royalty is 6 years old, and these girls are almost twice her age, maybe I’m not giving them enough credit. But equally, maybe the message against CRT is so obvious and ingrained within good people that we don’t need to be taught it. Unlike global warming. 
Question and Answer
Okay. I have zero issue with the questions asked because on the face of it they do seem quite standard:
- What do you love
- What is your ambition
- What do you really dislike
- What are your hopes for the future
I have two almost contradictory responses for this so bear with.
On the one hand, we’ve got quite candid, child-like answers that are interpreted as being “refreshingly direct” by the curator, like it’s some great scientific discovery that kids want other kids to be happy. So there’s Ruby, who’s 11, wearing a tee shirt that says INFLUENCER, and “proclaims” that her ambition is to “help others be more self confident about themselves”, which is a great ambition to have. People want people to be happy. Becca, who’s also 11, “affirms” (which is such an annoying verb for the curator to have used when speaking about a child) that one day she’ll ride a rollercoaster in her wheelchair. No problemo. Rollercoasters aren’t my cup of tea, but they don’t have to be; this is about her.
But then things start to unravel.
I remember being in AS Level French when our teacher was telling us to pay attention to the news of the Arab Spring. I remember watching the telly on 9/11. I remember hearing about the financial crash of 2008. In all of these instances I was older than 10 or 12, and if anyone had asked me about them I wouldn’t have known what to say. In all of these instances I was also told about the events, I didn’t discover them organically. So when I read that Mendelsohn asked girls around 2014/2015 the above questions and received worries about “hunger, homelessness, loss, and war” I was a little surprised. But maybe some of us girls develop later than others and I was a self-centered child.
Then, in 2019, “the girls more frequently referenced the world and environment as a source of anxiety”. And finally, in 2020, one girl called Lottie expresses fears about the apparently “widely-underestimated Coronavirus”. In fact she says:
'I hope that we stop destroying the world. We have got to stop cutting down trees as well to make homes and to stay warm. I am scared that the sea level is rising and also I worry about the coronavirus".
Do you ever, as a child, remember having independent worries about the world? Were you even aware of what happened in the world beyond your back garden or school playground? Maybe this demonstrates the extent to which kids are developing their awareness of existence at increasingly younger ages, but my concern is that this sounds a little too much like a child parrotting what they hear at school or from their parents. Do you think she would be able to explain why she feels this way? Do you think if you told her “Well, if we keep buying lumber for furniture and houses there’ll be a financial incentive to plant more trees” that she would understand this?
My point is this: there are some things from which children should be protected. War is one of them. Global “pandemic” is another. Rising sea levels and the destruction of the environment (most of which can be laid squarely at China’s and India’s respective doors) are some more. Body image is an additional one. I don’t think we should be patting ourselves on the back when our children say that the world is a “source of anxiety” to them. Children, at least those who are fortunate to live in a
first world developed country, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, should not be exposed to this kind of news. Clearly I’m in over my head. The children are scared, the end.
I’m obviously not criticising the girls who participated in this project. And nowhere have I made any mention about their physical appearances, so don’t go getting any ideas.
Having said all of this, there were some very relatable statements, and I think that’s what this project should have been about:
“My dream is to have a big house, a loving family and loads of pets – mostly dogs.
I wish that there was no evil in the world and we were all nice to everyone, and everyone had a voice in the world, and no-one would be put down or anything.”
“My ambition is to be more self-confident when I am older and to help other people be more confident about themselves.”
It often seems like there’s such a desperate need to capture the unique aura that makes a child a child that it feels somewhat vampiric; trying to recapture the lifeblood of the youth in order to extend our own mortality. What Sally Mann achieved with her photographs may have come from a purely maternal instinct, but she also managed to create something that was honest and artistic and pure. To what extent can we say the same for this?
- BBC website: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-57062159 [last accessed June 6, 2021]
- Sefaria: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/162331?lang=bi [last accessed June 6, 2021]
- Impressions Gallery website: https://www.impressions-gallery.com/event/being-inbetween-by-carolyn-mendelsohn/ [last accessed June 6, 2021]
- The Rubin Report, Youtube, June 4, 2021: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chF1WA8WLxE [last accessed June 6, 2021]