Wyatt Neumann is a photographer and a father. In 2014 he took his two-year-old daughter Stella on a cross-country road trip, photographing their journey along the way. Neumann captured sunsets and cornfields and, of course, Stella, often donning one of most two-year-old girls' two favorite ensembles: a princess dress and nothing at all.
In the middle of the trip, what the Safari Gallery describes as "a hyper puritanical, neo-conservative group" launched a cyber-attack on Neumann's images, specifically those of Stella. Calling the images "perverse," "sick" and "pornographic," members of the group attempted to remove all traces of them from the web. They successfully prompted Facebook and Instagram to shut down his accounts, and they criticized his artist website as well. While Neumann claims he was open to others expressing their opinions about his work, the "forced censorship" went too far.
"The anonymous public made their opinions about my work," he explained in an interview with The Huffington Post. "It was the actions they took against me, the reality for me was that these people could actually affect my ability to express myself. They took down my Instagram and Facebook; those are huge digital platforms for a photographer. It had a physical effect on my ability to communicate with people. The fact that they had that ability to control my experience in this life made me want to fight back. I really believe that the work is beautiful and [reveals] the innocence of childhood."
Neumann was determined, somehow, to turn all the hate directed his way into something beautiful. Rather than ignoring the criticism lodged against him, he created a new series in which he juxtaposed the hateful comments with the corresponding images he maintained were innocent. What he created was a photography show that presents both sides of the moral debate, allowing each visitor to interpret the images individually.
The title of the subsequent exhibition, "I FEEL SORRY FOR YOUR CHILDREN –- The Sexualization of Innocence in America," was in part inspired by an online comment attached to one of Neumann's works that read: "The whole thing is sickening and I FEEL SORRY FOR YOUR CHILDREN." The exhibition examines the attacks launched against his photographs as well as what he sees as a segment of contemporary culture, thriving off shame and censorship, that incited such attacks.
"When I decided to do the show I was so upset and I was like, You know what? I think this is beautiful," Neumann continued. "I'm going to show these to the world the way that I saw them when I took them. I'm going to put them in beautiful frames on beautiful walls in a beautiful gallery."
The exhibition proudly displays Neumann's photos, while raising the questions asked by anonymous online critics in a public sphere. Are these images pornography or art? Exploitation or expression? Is the human body a site of shame or wonder? Fear or freedom? These questions are not only at the core of this exhibition, but of a debate about the sexualization of young girls that far exceeds the parameters of the art world.
Neumann delves into the darker details in his artist statement: "What’s troubling is the abject reviling of the human body, the intense and overt sexualization of the natural human form, especially the naked bodies of carefree young children, who have yet to feel the burden of institutionalized body image awareness and the embarrassment that comes with adolescence. My children are free, they live without shame."
He continued to The Huffington Post: "My kids have a whole lifetime of having body shame issues. My daughter is going to have years of feeling not pretty. I want my children to have a solid foundation of self-confidence and self-worth."
The exhibition illuminates a struggle faced by many single fathers, who often feel targeted by a public suspicious of a man alone with a young girl. "The most impactful reaction [to the exhibition thus far] was a father who came, a single dad. It brought him to tears. He said 'I struggle with this all the time. I can feel this in America. As a man with a little girl, I feel this all the time.' As fathers we try to do our best; it's a difficult thing. The new breed of fathers in this country are adopting a lot of the ethos and positioning that has traditionally been a women's role."
Take a look at Neumann's striking series below, juxtaposed with negative comments expressed by incognito internet users. Let us know your thoughts on this bold project in the comments.
WARNING: Some readers may find the below language offensive.
Neumann's photographs are currently on view at The Safari Gallery at 355 West Broadway until August 21, 2014.