Are photos of a naked child offensive? Some folks in Sheboygan, WI, thought Betsy Schneider’s images of her growing daughter were offensive and recently pressured the Michael Kohler Arts Center to remove them from a group show.
NCAC spoke to Schneider, an award-winning photographer, about her reaction to the ban, her now-teenage daughter’s response to all the controversy, and the personal and professional impact all this has had on the artist.
Are you surprised that the public reacts so strongly to photos of a nude baby?
Yes. Always. Every time.
When did you first hear that the Michael Kohler Arts Center was planning to ban your photos?
I heard about this from Alison Ferris, the curator of the exhibition, who herself was livid at the thought that they would censor part of her show. At first it sounded like they could be convinced to keep it up. I was on the way to Portland to photograph for my Guggenheim Fellowship project. I think the director [Ruth Kohler] was on the fence, and then there was a complaint from a self-righteous Catholic Priest who called the work “child abuse.” He threatened legal action if they kept the work up.
Did the Kohler Center get any legal advice?
The center was advised by a lawyer, who told them that legally they could probably hold their ground and keep the work up, but that it would be expensive. So the center made a choice to take the work down rather than defend it.
How did you feel about that decision?
There were many conflated discussions. In some ways, the center was clear and direct: they felt they had a mission that was justified by the means. Sacrificing a little free expression—mine and Allison’s—to save some money and save face was easier than showing integrity and courage in an exhibition, or even facilitating a conversation about something that touches a nerve. They chose the safe route. I was really angry at their lack of courage and integrity.
Did you expect something like this to happen?
This isn’t the first time that the work has been censored. It was the subject of a brief but intense media storm in March 2004, when an in-progress version of the work was removed from the Spitz gallery in London. It was even on the front page of The Guardian.
What was on display in London?
When I showed the work in London, they were three large pieces—each consisting of 63 images (representing nine weeks of growth). The first panel covered the first nine weeks of her life, the second was when she was two and a half, and the third panel was when she was five.
Was she nude in most of them?
She was naked in all the pictures. People were crazy angry about the work—many of whom never even saw it. And others were crazy angry about the censorship. I realized that the ideas of the work were lost in the debate—a debate that admittedly I was, and continue, to be interested in. But it wasn’t why I made the work, and the ideas which germinated the work were lost in the controversy. So I decided to wait until she was older and the work covered more time.
How did you react at that time?
That was a huge thing for me. I was in my second year in a tenure track position in a conservative state that was—and is—in search of reasons to cut education funding.
I was pretty sure that as a second-year assistant professor I didn’t have much ground to stand on. I pulled back. With a few notable exceptions, I waited until last year to really show the work. I waited so that it could contextualize itself.
Did both censorship cases in London and at the Kohler involve the directors getting involved?
Both times the censorship happened when the director of the venue undercut the curator of the show. I did anticipate that there might be problems, although the lineup of this exhibition included several artists who were no strangers to controversy themselves, notably Nan Goldin and Tierney Gearon, and the point of the show itself was to provoke people to think differently about how we define family and childhood. I did not anticipate that my piece would be singled out and removed from the show. On the other hand, I know that for some reason some people have a very strong reaction to my work and they project their own distorted views onto the pictures.
Tell us about your message behind “Quotidian.”
I had always wanted to make art about ideas of childhood. I was interested in time and change. I had just finished graduate school, where I had focused on close-ups of the body and of fruit in the process of molding. It was also the early days of the daily photo trend, or even it could be called a genre now. Digital photography was still pretty out of the mainstream, but there was already this force in the art world of recordkeeping, archiving, and cataloging, and where it intersected with the personal. I think back now, and I can see all the things that influenced me, Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, Nicholas Nixon’s the Brown Sisters series, and the Ivy League posture photos (really). At the time, I thought it was an epiphany, but now as I speak, I can trace the work back to these artists, my own roots as well as the zeitgeist. Maybe that is what an epiphany is—some subconscious synthesis of those factors.
And you happened to have a baby daughter, Madeleine, so why not combine the two?
When I started the work, I was interested in ideas about the body, time, and change. But maybe most prominent for me was the idea that as a photographer, and a mother, I wanted to control time, I wanted to have a record. There is this great quote from Nan Goldin. I’m probably going to garble it, but she talks about how she started photographing after her sister had committed suicide because she “didn’t want to ever lose anyone again.” But after photographing for years, she said the photographs just in fact show how much she has lost. And that’s it. But still we take photos. Literally, Goldin was talking about all her friends who died or relationships that had ended, but in that statement she nails it, both how it feels to be a parent and how it feels to be a photographer. When we as parents—and I would venture as photographers—do our job well, it’s inevitably about time and change and loss. We make ourselves redundant. So each step of the work, the way she develops, the way she grows and changes—has meaning because she is becoming less of me and needing less of me. Her nudity was essential at first because her father and I had total responsibility for her body. We were thrilled and terrified by this. That was what I wanted to make art about.
Did you ever consider photographing Madeleine with clothes?
Well, there really was no question, I didn’t even think about it when I started the project. It would be without clothes. I wanted to know when her umbilical stump fell off. I wanted to see what she looked like. She was that tiny body. When you look at the work in its entirety, part of it is about the transition to privacy of the body. If we had photographed her in clothes from birth, it would have been about the clothes, the clothes we chose for her. As it happened, she began to choose her own clothes at the same time she began to wear clothes for the picture, so that became her. In fact, she says now when she looks at the work the early pictures make her think about how cute she was and the later ones interest her because of her clothes. She likes remembering her clothes. In a way that kind of says it all.
How would it have changed the meaning if Madeleine had worn clothes?
If she had worn clothes, the pictures would have been dull. Instead, the project ended up being about the point where she began to make choices for herself. When she realized she could dress herself and choose her own clothing—then it was about her, about what she chose to wear. And you can see from the photos that happened, as almost everything does, gradually in fits and starts. If you look at the work, you see that the pattern doesn’t change all of a sudden—there are early days when she’s wearing some clothing and later days where she isn’t fully dressed. I didn’t instruct that. That was part of who she was then.
Did you take other daily photos of her for yourself?
Actually, I did take a second daily photo, after she was dressed, of just her face. I love these photos; they are more like snapshots, less interesting as a whole, more interesting to me as her mother in terms of being pictures of Madeleine. In fact, she was thinking about her senior yearbook the other day, at her school they put a baby picture in, she commented that she wouldn’t know where to begin in choosing a photo for the yearbook. She’s still got a few years to choose.
Madeleine’s a teen now. What does she make of all this controversy?
She gets angry when she hears that people find something wrong with the work. She got really angry when she heard that someone called it “child abuse.” She has this story that may not totally vindicate me, but she feels that it explains it all in so far as her perspective. She tells people that it was so much a regular part of her life that it wasn’t until she was about five or six and spent the night at someone else’s house that she realized that all families didn’t do this every morning. She uses this story to explain how it was just part of our everyday life. On the other hand, she’s a private person and has no real desire to be the center of the storm. She’s always been clear that this is my project; she was happy to be a part of it, and is sad that we didn’t continue. She likes it as one likes an incredibly detailed visual chronicle of ones life and she cares about it because it matters so much to me. But as far as being the subject of art, or of controversy, she doesn’t really care. And the fact that there are pictures of her naked as a baby and a child, doesn’t even phase her as something she should feel ashamed about in any way.
Kohler said your work “polarized” the community. What do you think about their reason for banning your art?
It wasn’t my work that “polarized” the community—it was people’s reactions to my work and the reaction to the censorship that polarized the community. Actually the Kohler center missed a chance to facilitate an important discussion—about the idea of family and photography—gee exactly what the show was about—instead they chose to protect themselves. The reactive and fearful response to the work and the act of cowardly censorship polarized the community.
Does a museum or art center have a responsibility to the public, as the Kohler gives as one reason they took down your art?
Hmm. Responsibility to the public to do what? To squelch conversation? They are of course equating their financial interest with the public interest. So their reasoning goes, if they lose money or support because they choose to show work which they themselves do not believe to be –what?—criminal? Obscene? Child abuse. Ruth Kohler told me herself that she liked my work. Tellingly, the center, while taking my work down, did not move to cancel my residency where I was scheduled to work with children. If in any way they believed I was guilty of what the detractors and the Catholic priest accused me of then how could they possibly have sponsored me spending a considerable amount of time with children? Of course for anyone who knows me, my kids and my family the idea that this work is child abuse is absurd. So I’m not at all clear about the public interest they are talking about. Clearly they are conflating their interest with the public interest, which is arrogant and inaccurate. What would have been in the public’s best interest would have been a conversation about the issues the work raises. Both the ideas that I feel are important about
the work and the ideas both positive and negative that other people get from the work. Ultimately I believe that the job of an art center is to foster conversation to probe difficult questions and to allow people a place to talk about ideas. Personally I believe that that should be their foremost responsibility to the public. If in fact they were a hospital or even a school or a freaking café, I would say fine, but an art center? I ask them that, what is their responsibility to the public? When you avoid difficult discussions than you relegate art to decoration or mere entertainment. So actually they let the public down, the same way parents who give in to a child who throws a big temper tantrum so he can have all the candy he wants let the kid down.
Do you think there’s ever a legitimate reason or instance to ban art?
Well, this depends on what you are talking about in terms of banning. If the creation of the work involves violating another person, the act of creating it could be criminal or immoral or unethical (and those are three different categories). But that’s not about banning the art. I mean we arts professionals and art academics ban “bad” art all the time when we judge or curate or discourage. I know photography professors who tell their students that they can’t take photos of kittens, babies, or flowers. That could be considered a kind of banning.
If in fact I had harmed my daughter by taking these photos—and it was still brilliant art, (hard to imagine but maybe)—it wouldn’t be about banning the art but rather punishing me for harming her while making the art. With the exception of the catholic priest, I don’t hear people really saying that—I don’t think people really believe that. Of course that is a complicated discussion, but I think it’s important to point out that there needs to be a conscious separation between the act of making art and the art itself.
I always say that the best way to fight bad ideas is with good ideas—if there is something out there harmful, and I think there is a lot of harmful culture out there. From the proprietary Disney Princesses to
films that make human beings worth no more than a bag of jelly to be exploded for our entertainment. Not letting people access ideas or art is not the right answer. Things that are unknown are impossible to fight. So do I find some culture problematic or upsetting or plain bad for society. Do I control what culture my children experience? Oh yes (less now that they are older with Netflix on Ipods but that’s a major digression). Yes. Do I think that it would be better if there were more considered complex and nuanced portrayals of (women, blacks, gays…) and fewer stories about straight white guys shooting others in search of big busted women? Yes. Do I think we should censor those movies? Hell no.
Why you decided to withdraw your residency at the Kohler, which would have involved visiting local schools.
I didn’t do it right away, which seems silly to me now. But I somehow thought I could, plus I was so focused on the project I wanted to photograph the Wisconsin thirteen year olds. Also the person I was working with Kristin Plucar was so wonderful I didn’t want to let her down. But then it hit me like a flash, how could I go spend a week with an organization, essentially lend them my name and skills after they had told me that they didn’t think it was worth it to stand up for my work or work with people who thought my work was immoral or unethical? It would have been a kind of participation in the hypocrisy – pretending that the issues we were talking about, whether it was absurd accusations of child abuse or censorship of art, weren’t really thank important.
Of course on some level the fact that they, the center didn’t try and cancel the residency themselves is further evidence of their hypocrisy. I mean either I was someone who made art that involved children and was so problematic that they had to remove it from a show or I wasn’t. Obviously, I wasn’t. They weren’t afraid to have me work through them with children. That doesn’t make any sense, unless you realize that the decision wasn’t based on their belief that my work was child abuse or pornography or whatever, but that it was a business decision.
The NCAC wrote a letter of protest to the Kohler and it as signed by photographers Sally Mann and Catherine Opie, art critic Robert Atkins, and others. How helpful to you was this show of support?
It felt good. But the work ultimately didn’t go back up. I also have to say I was personally a little disappointed in the lack of reaction from the other artists in the show. A few of them were very supportive, but most of them didn’t respond at all. But [NCAC program director] Svetlana Mintcheva was amazing Sally Mann who is a close friend was angry and supportive of me. And my boss, Adriene Jenik the director of the ASU School of Art, wrote a beautiful and unequivocal letter of not just support but outrage. Many of my colleagues here at ASU signed her letter as well. Since 2004 a lot has changed in Arizona and ASU has stood firmly behind me and this work.
How has this incident affected you as a person and as an artist?
The episode in London had a really profound effect on me. There is this perception out there that being controversial is good for an artist. That of course depends on what controversy you are talking about. I see galleries promoting artists as controversial because they make babies cry and take pictures of them. Or thinking back to the “Sensation” show 15 years ago where it was a kind of managed controversy. I said above that I think it’s important that art raise questions and the work in “Sensation” raised some really good and important questions, but there is an assumption out there that controversy is a path to commercial success and recognition. That hasn’t been true for me at all and I suspect that there are many others out there for whom the case is the same. People like issues that are clear. But complex issues, often those very things that need to be discussed, scare people, even art critics, publications and galleries. And even when they do give you attention it can be very mean, or guarded or they focus on the controversy and don’t really talk about the work itself. Sally Mann is a good example, her work opened up a whole new conversation and yes she was successful, but it was not a fun ride for her. And still so much of the conversation around her work revolves around not the ideas in the work but the controversial aspects of it. I can assure you that being called a bad mother, in my case one newspaper in London called for me to be dragged through the streets by my hair. It’s not fun. So I have been naive, but I’m not sorry I have done what I’ve done. And I don’t want my experience to be a cautionary tale. I took risks and continue to take risks, maybe modified and tempered by experience but that’s the trade off of experience. I would love to have the arrogance and the naivety back—well not really. But you throw stuff out there and you see how people respond.
This recent incident the one in Wisconsin actually showed me how much the London censorship and the way my life has changed in the past eight years affected me. But ultimately the experience made me a more mature artist which is a good thing. I make more sophisticated work now, not necessarily better but more consciously created. And there are ways in which that feels really good. Then again I’m still a pretty intuitive and impulsive person.
Do you think you’ll self-censor, even subconsciously?
Well we all do. In my personal life, also as a colleague and a teacher, I’m actually known for not censoring enough. I tend to say what I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. And you know, it’s not always a good thing. But if the question is whether or not I think about what work I show where, yes. If you mean what art I make and how I put my work together, no. I don’t believe I did anything wrong. I change as I grow older and but despite the censorship that has happened to me, I have incredible support for my work, from my partner, my kids, my colleagues and others, as you mention in that letter above. I feel supported and for me the real question is how to show the work in the way that makes it the best art it can be. I am excited to show it in its entirety (which hasn’t happened yet) and I am not planning at all on holding back. I will just make sure that I have a venue that is prepared to fully support the work.
Your work is now at the Weatherspoon Art Museum. How’s that going and were you anxious about stirring any controversy there?
Yes, I was anxious. But the director assured Allison that it would be fine and it seems to be. So that is great.
What does artistic freedom mean to you and why is it important?
The best way to fight bad ideas—if an idea can ever be called bad—is with good ideas. It’s pretty important to understand that supporting free expression means allowing people to say things that you find problematic or offensive. But it’s hard to do when you are reacting to the idea—especially if its something you believe in deeply. Art often takes us places we didn’t plan on going, or places we don’t want to go. But that’s what makes it art and not decoration or mere entertainment. Taking us places we didn’t plan on going.
But I also think that paying attention to nuance and engaging in discussion and debate, embracing ambiguity and contradictions is essential. Good art (and maybe even some bad art) teaches us this.
What are you working on now?
I’m hoping to find a venue to show Quotidian in full. But the majority of my time now is being spent on a project called “Triskaidekaphobia.” In 2011, I was named a Guggenheim Fellow. My fellowship project is still and video portraits of 250 13-year-olds. This work came out of the same part of my being as “Quotidian.” I watched my daughter and other kids I’m close to enter adolescence and I became fascinated about that stage of life. I found that people had very strong opinions about the age of 13 and that it served as a kind of lightening rod for memories, opinions and fears. I spent 2012 traveling around the country and photographing and talking to these kids. Now I’m pulling the work together, printing up the photographs and editing the video. The museum exhibition is slated for late 2015. Meeting the kids and creating the images and the video was wonderful and I actually have so much material my biggest challenge right now is creating different edits and choosing from what is what a colleague of mine would call an “embarrassment of riches”. I’m super excited about this project and can’t wait for the exhibition to open.
By Debra Lau Whelan