One morning I spotted a link on social media about local photographer Jane Ammon, and her series featuring foreign-born adoptees entitled, “The Clothes They Came to Us In.” The emotions I feel when confronted with things of this ilk churned as I read the page littered with “cute,” “beautiful,” and “You’re so wonderful for doing this,” commentary from people who haven’t lived life as an out-of-the-fog adoptee.
If you haven’t had much experience with adoption, you may be asking, “What could possibly be wrong with these photographs?”
I’m not calling anyone a bad parent or doubting their love for their children. I do believe there was some good intent here. No doubt Parker was thrilled about gaining a nephew. Higgins recognized her son’s pain and was (on some level) trying to alleviate it. Ammon expressed sentiments of wanting her daughter to feel like she can talk about her adoption. The parents whose children participated in her project probably saw it as being positive and encouraging.
The problem is, these aren’t just family photographs. All three are examples of turning a child’s adoption experience into art. When it becomes Art, it is meant to convey a larger message… one that is not being expressed by the child.
Let’s face it: Adopted children are an easy subject for an artist because they will garner instant positive attention. The general public is so enamored with adoption, how could one possibly hate a good adoption story? It’s like saying you hate a cute meme with puppies and kittens.
Behind the win-win idea that “a child in need gets a home and a family gets a much-wanted child,” lies profound (often negated) loss for the child. Loss of mother (often instantly after birth), loss of genetic identity, loss of culture… suffice to say, a whole lot of loss happens for the child before they are brought into an adoptive home. Consciously or unconsciously, they will carry that loss within for the rest of their lives.
The photographers claimed they were sensitive to the desires of the children. Ammon stated in a newspaper article, “I asked Maddie’s [her daughter’s] permission before I even started the project, and she’s been on board ever since.” Higgins said her son Latrell was enthusiastic about the shoot and laughed hysterically while she snapped his “baby photos.”
It is disingenuous to say you asked permission or that your kid “loved” being photographed. Kids, especially adopted kids, will often go along with something if they sense their parents are enthusiastic about it. Consciously or unconsciously, many adopted kids will go to great lengths to prevent the initial rejection they faced with the loss of their natural parents. Latrell Higgins in particular likely has concrete memories of rejection. My guess is that he was scared to death to risk another by saying no to his adoptive mother, even though she likely would have been understanding.
Deciding whether something is appropriate for a child is ultimately up to the parent. Placing that responsibility on the child is a cop-out. They do not yet have the critical thinking skills to imagine how they might feel about their adoption, let alone your photography project, later in life.
The Road to Hell
As I said above, the part of me that wants to give the benefit of the doubt believes there were some good intentions, in that the photographers envisioned their work to be a positive experience for the children.
However, the child may feel anything but positive about someone trying to make them “feel better” about being adopted. I remember people doing this to me as a child, usually in various forms of patronizing “you’re very special and wanted” type of speech. All I felt was singled out and different.
Ammon’s work is a shining example of this. When I visited the gallery to view her installation, all of the children’s pictures were lined up, all smiles, each containing flowery, trite prose describing their personalities. Why do people feel the need constantly remind adopted children of how great their lives are now, in spite (or because) of their adoption? It’s as if the institution made them what they are. The whole thing rings false and condescending. Instilling confidence and self-worth in an adopted child is better accomplished through honest conversation (sans unicorns and rainbows), and allowing the child to grieve over what was lost.
The good-intent-poor-execution scenario was most apparent with the “13-Year-Old-Infant” photos. Higgins says she got the idea when her son expressed sadness about not having baby pictures of himself. I believe he was trying to say he wanted his missing history, not a bunch of pictures of himself in baby clothing. What made this shoot particularly horrendous is that it (intentionally or not) made a mockery out of a child’s pain.
Ammon and Higgins couldn’t seem to overstate how their projects were “about the children.”
Ammon said she wanted the children to feel “empowered” and photographed them with their original clothing because it was often the only history they had. Here’s where the whole thing takes a turn, in my opinion. How is it “empowering” to exploit this very sacred article, and therefore the child?
As a kid, I remember rummaging through a bunch of old photographs when I spotted my parents (unlocked) lockbox containing my adoption paperwork. They contained absolutely nothing about my pre-adopted life… only correspondence with the lawyer. I returned to that box every so often and stared at those pages, wishing more information would magically appear.
I can’t even imagine how I would have felt if someone suggested I pose for a portrait and plaster a smile on my face holding those papers that only made me want to burst into tears. I guarantee you, as a child I would have pushed aside my authentic feelings and done it for the approval.
I’m not saying the clothing holds that same meaning for all the children in question. If it does for any, they surely won’t admit that now that the adults made them smile while holding it.
With “Art” Comes Responsibility
Art can serve many purposes. It can convey deep emotion or it could just be a hobby with no deeper meaning than “I like painting daisies because they make me happy.” There is nothing wrong with either one. The problem arises when the artist isn’t honest about their purpose.
As I said above, the subject of adopted children is a surefire win for an artist because of public conditioning to regard this type of thing as “wonderful.” All of these photographers crossed the line into self-promotion over the child’s interests when adoption was used as a “hook” to get people to view their work. Parker gushed to Huffington Post, “Throughout their entire adoption process, I knew I wanted to document whatever lucky baby we would welcome into our family.” In other words, “I couldn’t wait to pounce on this subject matter because it would garner attention for me as a photographer.”
The problem with making a child’s adoption the central focus of any artistic endeavor is the artist is appropriating the child’s experience- one they can’t possibly understand because it isn’t their own. A profound experience left to the interpretation of somebody that can’t comprehend it, is cheapened.
Bottom line, if any artistic statement is to be made about someone’s adoption, it should come from the adoptee themselves… in their own words, with their own feelings, and without influence. Now that the adults have created art about the children, they have not only denigrated the children’s experiences, but they have (unwittingly or not) set a clear precedent: Smile and be the poster child for this institution. This is how we want you to be seen talking about your adoption.
When I visited Ammon’s installation, I remember asking the gallery owner if he had any insight on the artist’s intent with the project. He shrugged and said, “Uh, coffee-table book, maybe?” Clearly, he was as confused as I was.
A table full of trinkets for sale stood in the middle of the gallery containing little gem:
How about questioning why international adoptions are so expensive in the first place? Perhaps instead of fundraising for the extra costs, rally against the fact that adoption is a for-profit industry that rakes in billions and pretends there’s no money for pre and post adoption services.
If you’re into “saving orphans,” there are hundreds of children languishing in our (free!) foster care system right here in Berks County. Heck, you could take in a whole herd. But you didn’t. You chose to drop tens of thousands on international adoption, perhaps to dodge the “problems” of foster care kids, or to avoid dealing with those pesky birth parents. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that, and nobody should feel obligated to bite off more than they can chew just because they’re adopting. Just don’t hold yourself up as championing orphaned children.
Next time you create “art” and are stuck for a way to talk around the nagging feeling that you might be doing it for the wrong reasons, try the Arty Bullocks Generator. It will save you some time.