Wyatt Neumann's show I Feel Sorry For Your Children at The Safari Gallery has just closed, to the relief of some. The exhibition documented Neumann's pictures of his children that were posted to Instagram and the resulting fallout of internet vitriol, free speech campaigns, and TOS violations. Neumann's pictures caused a fuss because, in some, his children were naked. He was accused, in the colorful language unique to the internet, of being a child pornographer (incorrectly) and in violation of Instagram's terms of service (correctly). The whole event was an update of the controversy involving Sally Mann and her nude pictures of her daughters. Mann was accused, in the colorful language unique to fundamentalist pastors, of being a child pornographer (incorrectly) and not having the public good in mind (correctly).
Wyatt Neumann is not a child pornographer, but rather a dad with the slightly bohemian tendency to allow his children to run around naked. He’s one of those fathers constantly cluttering your newsfeed by posting images of said children to his Facebook/Instagram without thinking twice.
The Internet's reaction to his photographs has propelled Neumann to the public eye. The pictures themselves are snapshots of his kids taken on a family road trip, so the comparison to Sally Mann is a bit unfair, photographically. Although, as a mother who experienced backlash about her controversial naked children pictures then later produced a critically acclaimed book, Sally Mann is a point of reference. While Mann's controversial images were designed for a gallery setting, Neumann's weren't. Link a gallery to his Instagram and they will probably say some nice things, but wouldn't put on a show.
A lot has been written about the Internet's intense reaction to Neumann's work, and this is where the similarity to Sally Mann starts. Mann and Neumann (apt names there) are parallel in plenty of ways. They are both outsiders raising their kids in unconventional manners; allowing them bare-bottomed freedom, instilling the idea that kids shouldn't be ashamed of their bodies, placing blame on society for nudity’s stigma, and so on. Another interesting similarity is that the pictures are all taken in private settings, like in hotels, on the road, or in a house in the woods. One assumes that Mann or Neumann wouldn't have their children nude and about town.
The point of interest in I Feel Sorry for your Children isn't Neumann's work as a whole, his documentation of the American West and the road have a fine art slant that separates his photography from his instagram. One hesitates to say that one is more serious than the other, or worth more, because fine art and instagram are entirely different mediums approached in entirely different ways. It is ironic that the most innocent in terms of medium, intention, and content caused the most fuss. The show is interesting because the reaction to his Instagram, and then the reaction to said reaction of the work.
If the Internet reacts to anything, it reacts intensely, either with rancor or with altruism. Neumann's work brought upon a chain reaction that is becoming familiar. First, it is important to note that arguing on the Internet is as pointless as arguing with Pat Robertson. A third of the people who saw the images were furiously expressing their frustration in the comments section and by spamming the “report” button on Instagram. A second third saw the furious comments demanding Neumann get his head out his ass and stop being a child pornographer, and became infuriated that people would try to censor art and stigmatize children with oppressive sexualization, responding by demanding “no u get your head out your ass.” Grammar was corrected and re-corrected, the Instagram page was taken down to try to quiet the screaming, and nothing of note was achieved.
Then the Safari Gallery rightly decided that it was actually important to have this discussion within the framing of “new media” and see what, if anything, has changed since Mann's photo book. The Internet has a sordid history when in comes to child pornography, and should be sensitive to that, but the images were posted on social media, the safe Internet, not some dark alt.newsgroup. The gallery show merged the worlds of fine art and snapshot Instagram. Neumann's Instagram page was put back up and something of value was achieved. The pictures are not porn, and nudity is now allowed in the context of art online. The conversation had to happen, and Neumann's images really typify the innocence of childhood more than anything, making them the perfect catalyst for the argument that ultimately was won by the more sensible side.
Photographs courtesy of the gallery and the artist.