Thursday, July 19, 2012

Lynn Powell: Framing Innocence

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In 1999 Cynthia Stewart was prosecuted for taking pictures of her eight year old daughter rinsing off in the shower. Stewart lived in Oberlin, Ohio, the liberal college town, and was a well known and liked, if slightly eccentric, bus-driver, appreciated for her slightly obsessive habit of taking snapshots of everything. Families all over town had Stewart's photos of their kids on their refrigerators, and knew she was into documenting everything. She was an oddball, but pretty much so was everyone in Oberlin, and no one had any particular qualms about Stewart's particular brand of eccentricity. Except the clerk at the photolab who developed the pictures of Stewart's daughter naked in the shower that day. Photolab operators are trained to raise the flag on potentially abusive photos, and they did in this case, and the photos found their way to a hardnosed police officer, and then to a hard core Republican prosecutor, and the case took on a life of its own. The case snowballed to criminal charges and community uproar, child abuse allegations and nation-wide attention.

Enter author Lynn Powell, Oberlin resident and author. Mother of a child in Nora's class (Stewart's daughter), she became one of Stewart's many allies, as well as a member of the ad hoc Stewart defense committee that developed in Oberlin. Ten years later, she wrote Framing Innocence, telling the story of "A Mother's Photographs, a Prosecutor's Zeal, and a Small Town's Response." Powell is very much a participant journalist, with no claim of nonbias: She details her initial ambivalent response to the description of the offending pictures, her role in Stewart's life, her sympathetic feelings as a mother, etc. Everyone involved in the situation took detailed notes while it was going on, so the book, though written much later, reads like it was written during the events.  As a sort of true-crime story, the book reads wonderfully.

But Powell seems to miss one of the big questions, and the reason I think this book was on my list- though I never note where I heard about books, so who knows. Powell mentions a lot of the Big Issues in passing, but as the book reads smoothly, doesn't really stop to ponder them.  What is the role of politics in prosecuting crimes? The district attorney in this case, for the county that Oberlin resides in, is much more conservative than the residents of Oberlin, perhaps more Representative of Lorain County, but still quite extreme. Should the law be practiced with an eye towards any one's political views? Stewart's family are historically "down to earth" and practice all kinds of "out there" behaviors, like posing for nude shots as a multi-generational family every year: What does society do with family practices that seem on the edge of acceptability? Where do civil liberties end, and when does big brother step in, as in the case of child pornography and photolabs? When do we *want the government to step in and protect children?

The question for me, though, is when does photography change the act that it aims to capture? There is no question in my mind, based on Powell's account (again, admittedly biased in Stewart's favor) that Stewart meant no harm towards her daughter. Stewart believed that it was important to document every possible moment of Nora's childhood in order to help Nora remember later, as she regretted not being able to remember her own childhood. She took thousands and thousands of pictures, posed and unposed, dressed and undressed. (Mostly dressed.) The pictures that caused the uproar were pictures of Nora rinsing her nether regions with a shower head in a ritual they had developed early in childhood to make sure that Nora had cleaned her whole body, and a picture of Nora posing in the bath like a picture she had seen in a museum: Nora had requested that Stewart take this picture.  Powell mentions that most people involved in the case, even Stewart's allies, were initially disturbed by the descriptions of the pictures, but when they saw them, were not bothered at all. They almost unanimously said that they would not take the pictures themselves, but that the act of the child didn't bother them at all.

Clearly, something about taking a picture of an eight year old child rinsing off her vagina and posing in the manner of an adult bothered everyone, some enough to cry "porn!" And clearly, the act of a child posing or washing in the shower is not lewd. Additionally, the pictures were not taken as "art" but as documentation. So what is it about photography that changes the situation? One of the prosecutor's demands in the settlement was the destruction of the photographs: is it the permanence of photography? The capturing of a fleeting moment forever?  Stewart was intent on showing the prosecutor the intent and context of her photographs. This is not porn, she wanted to say, this is documentation of a childhood, of a life, for my daughter. Out of context, though it still doesn't look wrong, and isn't wrong, she argued, you couldn't possibly understand. So does the photography only change the act in a way understandable through context? If you knew that Stewart was a loving mother, would that make it different than if the photographer was a character in a Law and Order episode? I don't have an answer, but it's a large question that deserves treatment in a powerful case like that of Cynthia Stewart.