Monday, August 27, 2007

Art or Exploitation-only you can decide.

Lots of talk about photographer O Zhang's exhibit Daddy and I ( has been bubbling up in blogs and Internet chat groups over the past week or so.

The exhibit is a series of photographs of girls who joined their families via adoption from China and their Caucasian fathers. Sounds good so far, right?

The artist's statement about the photos indicates that he was trying to "capture the affection between a female child an an adult male"-especially when different racial and cultural groups are part of the mix. Zhang further writes, "through the relationship of the emerging feminine power of the adolescent girl to the mature father, each image explores the relation of the two often divided cultures: East and West."

Sounds reasonable, right?

Why, then, are the photos creating such a stir? Maybe it is about the vague sense of unease we get when we look at the photos? We ask ourselves, "Are these poses appropriate for a father and daughter?" or "Are these photos suggestive?". Are they intentionally provocative? What would your reaction be if you didn't know they were fathers and daughters?

Our reactions are largely based on our own internal wiring and the ever present biases and stereotypes that are part of what makes us human.

And maybe, despite the photographers 'statement' about the images, that is what the photos are supposed to do. Instead of simply exploring the relationships between fathers and daughters in a trans-racial family, the photos force us to come to grips with some long-held biases relating to older men and young girls, sexual stereotypes and the 'right-ness' of trans-racial families to name just a few.

Whatever the photographer's intent, the result is that people are looking at these photos and reacting-viscerally. Some are appalled, shocked and angry. Others think that the images do show the love and respect between fathers and daughters that transcend race and culture.

But, the important thing is your reaction to the photos? Do it make you feel warm and fuzzy or creepy? Maybe you think that the brouhaha is a just another publicity stunt to help the artist sell more photos and stage more shows. Whatever, you think-the point is you did think.

Thinking is the first step to identifying our biases and stereotypes. We don't have to get rid of them if we don't want to. We just have to choose whether or not we want to pass them on to our kids.

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, once said, "we need to view reality as it is and not as we want it to be."

Bigotry and bias have no place in the 21st century-the world is too diverse-and dangerous for us not to figure out how we can find our place without stepping on someone else's place.

And just so you know, I did think the photos were skeevy. They had a big yuck factor for me.

With respect,

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