To See the World Through the Eyes of a Child.
Updated: Jul 6, 2019
On March 1, 2018 a Facebook post of two year-old Parker Curry gazing open-mouthed at the portrait of Michelle Obama's portrait at the National Portrait Gallery went viral, reaching millions of people around the world. [Fig. 1] Photographed by Ben Hines visiting from North Carolina, Parker later confessed on television that she thought Mrs. Obama was a queen.[i] Summarizing the thoughts of many, one reader of The New York Times wrote: "I am inspired by the universality of this story. I sincerely hope she achieves all of her dreams, to make this world a better place."[ii]
Such is the power of a child's gaze.
Over the course of history there have been a handful of powerful images of children that have wakened the world of adults. Sometimes they have elicited a sense of horror and shame that affected social change, and sometimes they communicated a shared sense of joy and hopefulness for the future. Oftentimes the pictures are captured by accident by an opportunistic bystander like Ben Hines, and occasionally deliberately composed by an artist. What makes them resonate across diverse peoples and cultures is recognition that through the innocence of childhood a powerful 'truth' about humanity has been revealed. To quote William Shakespeare: "The silence often of pure innocence persuades when speaking fails."[iii]
At the turn of the 20th century images of children as young as five years old working in industrial settings for low wages and long hours from coal mines to cotton mills stirred the national conscious to begin enacting child labor laws. Particularly effective was the haunting image of a little spinner girl at a cotton mill in Augusta, Georgia taken by photographer Lewis Hines in January 1909 who secretly visited manufacturing sites at a time when an estimated 2 million minors under the age of 15 years were denied a formal education and sent to work.[iv] [Fig 2] Looking directly at the camera in a grubby dress and sad eyes, the girl—whose identity is unknown—communicated a sense of bewildered hopelessness that started a national conversation in the halls of power. Never-the-less it took Congress took almost two decades to formally prevent the employment of anyone under the age of 16 years through the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
In 1960 the photograph of Ruby Bridges, the first African American child to attend a white elementary school in segregated New Orleans after the passing of the Civil Rights Act on October 14 became a flashpoint around racial integration. [Fig 3.] Four years later the photograph likely influenced Norman Rockwell's iconic painting "The Problem We All Must Live With," for Look magazine that shows a defiant little girl wearing a white dress accompanied by four burly U.S. Marshals [Fig 4.] John Steinbeck who observed the jeering crowds shouting racial epithets "bestial and filthy and degenerate," questioned, as did many viewing the pictures, how a small little girl could strike such fear and invective in adults.[v]
Figs. 3 & 4
There are key images that will forever be seared in the collective memory of children in fear, pain and even death as a result of putting politics ahead of human rights: Ronald Haeberles's 1968 photograph of the crying girl running naked from the US-led My Lai massacre in Vietnam, that in the words of General George McGovern, "ripped the mask off the war",[Fig 5.]; the Pulitzer Prize-winning image of federal agents forcefully removing a terrified 7 year-old Elián González from his relatives home in Miami in 2000 [Fig 6]; and the haunting image of Oman Daqneesh sitting in an ambulance after an airstrike in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on August 17, 2016. [Fig 7]
Figs. 5 & 6
That adults are still slow to act to images of distressed children, however, also seems a given. As noted above, it took Congress almost 20 years to legislate against child labor; 5 years for America to withdraw from the Vietnam War, and as recent headlines confirm, the debate over the plight of Syrian refugees continues. [vi] In September 2015 the photograph of the 3 year-old Aylan Kurdi's body washed ashore on a Turkish beach went viral. [Fig 8] So shocking in its impact, some suggested that publishing the body of a dead child had crossed the line of human decency. But, as at least leading one leading reporter argued, "Photojournalists sometimes capture images so powerful the public and policymakers can’t ignore what the pictures show." [vii][Fig. 9]
Figs. 7 & 8.
The flip side to childhood tragedy is wonder and a sudden transference of innocence to the adult population. Who can forget John F. Kennedy Jnr. as the first child born to a sitting president in almost 80 years, peering out from under the Resolute desk? [Fig 8], or 5 year old Jacob Philadelphia who wanted to touch President Obama's hair to see if it was like his?[Fig 10]
Figs. 9 & 10
Today Parker Curry's fame continues to spread. Dubbed "Portrait Girl," she is being seen as the embodiment of "black girl magic;" a symbol of a historical moment when the first African American presidential couple made it possible for young children of color to envision a positive future for themselves.[viii] Such is the power of portraiture – to see the world through the eyes of a child, remember our own childhood, and mourn the loss—and in rare instances, regain—our innocence.
1. Ben Hines. Parker Curry looking at the portrait of Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery, Color photograph posted to Facebook, 4:45pm March 1, 2018.
2. Lewis Hine. A little spinner in Globe Cotton Mill, Augusta Georgia. January 1909. Collection Library of Congress
3. Unknown artist. U.S. Marshals escorted Ruby Bridges to and from school. Photograph November 14, 1960. Courtesy AP / Wide World Photos. Aged 6, was the first African American child to attend Franz Elementary School in New Orleans.
4. Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Must Live With, 1964. Oil on Canvas, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA. President Barack Obama, the first African American president, had the painting installed in the White House outside the Oval Office from July to October, 2011.
5. Ronald L. Haeberle, My Lai Massacre, Black and white potograph taken on March 16, 1968.
6. Alan Diaz, Elián González is held in a closet by Donato Dalrymple, one of the two men who rescued the boy from the ocean, right, as government officials search the home of Lazaro Gonzalez for the young boy in Miami. Color file photo, Miami Herald, April 22, 2000.
7. Aleppo Media Center, Oman Daqneesh, August 17, 2016, still image taken from a video after airstrikes in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.
8. Nilüfer Demir , Three-year-old Kurdi lying dead on the beach, Doğan News Agency Turkey, press photo that was re-tweeted by journalists on 2 September 2015
9. Alan Stanley Tretick, John F. Kennedy Jnr., 1963, photograph for Look magazine.
10. Pete Souza, Jacob Philadelphia, the young son of National Security staffer Carlton Philadelphia touching President Obama's Hair, Color photograph. May 8, 2009.
[i] March 7, 2018: CNN Parker Curry interview with Don Lemon: https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/07/politics/parker-curry-meets-michelle-obama-portrait-don-lemon-cnntv/index.html
[ii] Nico from Montreal, March 12, 2018. In comments section: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/12/opinion/michelle-obama-portrait-sherald-parker.html
[iii] Shakespeare, William. The Winter's Tale, Act II, Scene 2. Paulina in prison line 890. originally published in the First Folio of 1623.
[iv] Child labor statistics quoted from the National Archives "Teaching with documents: Photographs of Lewis Hine: Documentation of child labor." https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/hine-photos
[v] Steinbeck, John. Travels with Charley in Search of America. Viking Press, 1962.
[vi] While Aylan's plight forced Europe's politicians to develop a response, that included Germany admitting thousands of refugees to cross into their border from Hungary and establishing a humanitarian corridor that stretched from northern Greece to Bavaria; President Bashar Assad of Syria continues to attack his own people with more than 1,200 civilians reported having been killed to date: Associated Press, "The Latest: Syrian TV shows hundreds leaving rebel enclave," Washington Post, March 15, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/the-latest-activists-syrian-strikes-target-rebel-enclave/2018/03/15/a0150818-282c-11e8-a227-fd2b009466bc_story.html?utm_term=.41d7c190484c
[vii] Nick Logan, "These images changed public opinion. Has Alan Kurdi's photo done the same?" September 4, 2015. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/2204006/these-images-changed-public-opinion-has-alan-kurdis-photo-done-the-same/
[viii] Andrews-Dyer, Helena. "She took her daughter to see Michele Obama's portrait. Now they need a publicist." The Washington Post, March 15, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/she-took-her-daughter-to-see-michelle-obamas-portrait-now-they-need-a-publicist/2018/03/14/b8b73608-26f5-11e8-b79d-f3d931db7f68_story.html?utm_term=.d1f617cde8ce