Photographer's violent 'Playroom' shots rile critics



OTTAWA, Michel Comte- A photographer's image shows a boy with olive skin pretending to crash a toy plane into twin towers of blocks while another plays fireman in a rendering that has fueled debate on parenting in an age of media saturation.
This and other provocative images in Jonathan Hobin's photography exhibit "In the Playroom," depict as child's play the September 11, 2001 attacks, prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, child beauty queen Jon-Benet Ramsey's murder and other real life horrors ripped from the headlines.



Alternately decried as irresponsibly risking children's innocence to make a political statement and praised for inspiring new ways to speak to kids about life's ghastly moments, the 12 photographs -- three years in the making -- are on display at Ottawa's Dale Smith Gallery until Sunday.
"Kids have always taken what they see in life and incorporated it into their play. Play is a tool that kids use to process and understand the world around them," Hobin told AFP.
"All I've done is exaggerate those reflections of our world that kids see."
Critics accused the Ottawa artist of being a pervert, a racist, of being insensitive toward 9/11 victims' families, and even a hater of twins for his staged photograph of the razing of New York's Twin Towers, "The Twins."
Most remarks, however, were directed at parents of the models -- some of them professional child models, others children of Hobin's cousins and friends -- for allowing them to participate in, for example, a torture scene in "A Boo Grave."
In it, a boy in his underwear and handcuffs is being attacked by a stuffed dog while a girl in green khakis points to a hooded child standing on a box with electrodes wired to his fingers.
"If you have teenage children who want to 'express themselves' in art, that is one thing. But volunteering your young (some in diapers) child to be photographed in a scene depicting blood or graves or people jumping out of the Twin Towers is wrong," said the popular Bad Moms Club blog.
"They don't know what political statement they are making (on someone else's behalf) and it's just wrong," said the parenting website. "Maybe this is art, but creating art while risking your kids' innocence is irresponsible."
Amanda Etherington told local media she agreed to let her five- and seven-year-old sons appear in a photo depicting the unsolved disappearance of American teenager Natalee Holloway from Aruba because she felt it had artistic merit.
Another parent told the Toronto Star her son "had a good time and got to eat a few lollipops."
The most severe criticisms involved a Jon-Benet Ramsey photo with the model's panties around her ankles. "Nobody likes to acknowledge sexuality in childhood, especially sexual exploitation," Hobin said.
Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography assistant curator Andrea Kunard notes that photographs of children often provoke "a great deal of anxiety."
"But by putting issues out there perhaps we can develop an awareness of what is at stake in certain subjects, and find ways of speaking about what we are seeing," she said.
A 2007 portrait by Montreal's Carlos and Jason Sanchez of John Mark Karr, who falsely confessed to the murder of six-year-old Ramsey, provoked equal outrage.
"I agree that kids shouldn't see this stuff, but they are, and I'm trying to start a dialogue about that fact," said Hobin.
People often view childhood as "innocent and carefree," ignoring that many kids are dealing with death, illness, depression and other grim realities, he explained.
"There are lots of children out there who experience things that wake them up to the darker sides of life and they become very aware that not everything is going to be all right."
By presenting how a child might interpret Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Princess Diana's death and the Jonestown massacre, he said he hopes to debunk the myth that kids can be shielded from what is in the news.
"For a child who does not (yet) have problem-solving skills or life experiences" to deal with these issues, he said, "it must be incredibly terrifying, or maybe it's not, I don't know. All I know is that kids do see the images that we see and it has cultural implications."
"For someone who is young and growing in a post-9/11 world, their lives are shaped by those experiences."
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Monday, October 11th 2010
Michel Comte
           


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