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In this book, Brazilian girls from the ages of 10 to 17 are photographed topless and nude in tasteful black and white pictures. Their genitals are not shown, and there's nothing one couldn't see on many European beaches. Indeed, there's no real question of legality here in the US: this book is for sale on Amazon.com and many other books show girls more naked than this one. For girls over a certain age, it's not seen as problematic to photograph them in sexually charged ways. For example, in Britain, in national newspapers, girls occasionally as young as 16 are photographed topless, and few people say it is wrong, although many think it crude and unnecessary.
No distinction is made between the younger and older girls in Anjos Proibidos, and that is clearly why it will be a controversial book. There's no denying the beauty of the girls. The very point of controversy is that people enjoy looking at these girls, and other people think that it is wrong to do so. So there's a general ethical issue about what could be wrong about viewing topless girls, and a more specific question about this book -- is it artistically successful?
There are a number of reasons why it might be wrong to look at such photos. First, the photographer may have exploited the girls. "Exploitation" can cover a multitude of sins. Most obviously, it can mean physical harm or threat of harm. But in this case at least, it seems clear there was no such harm. At least according to the introduction, the girls agreed to the photographs with no pressure or threats, and probably not even a lure of payment. But there are other forms of exploitation: in some cases people could have their pictures taken without their consent. Now, even though the girls agreed to pose for these photos, some might argue that they are too young to consent. Children cannot give their legal consent to medical treatments, for instance - their guardians have to make the decisions for them. Maybe it could be argued that the girls were not competent to make the decision about posing topless or nude for photographs, so their agreement doesn't count. But again, it seems in this case that their parents did agree, or at least, they didn't object - the Introduction to the book isn't quite clear about this. One might say that even if the parents consented, they should not have, because the girls might regret having posed for these photographs later in life, and the effects of such a decision are too serious. Maybe this is right, but if it is, then we should not that there are many other life-altering decisions that parents normally make for children, and it would follow that they should not make those decisions any more either. This seems to be an extreme and unwelcome consequence.
So it is hard in this case at least to make a plausible case that the children were exploited. It might be argued though, that even if they weren't exploited, making these pictures available to a general public, and profiting from the sale of the book, (or even for a book review web site to gain from the extra readers that reviewing such a book brings) is wrong, because it could lead to the exploitation of other children. Indeed, it seems that the sexual use of children is increasing because of the Internet and the greater availability of such pictures. Quite regularly there are stories about the activities and prosecution of pedophiles on the news, and recently the cover story of Newsweek was devoted to the issue.
If a link could be shown between the depiction of nude girls and the sexual abuse of children, it would be a strong argument for the prohibition of such images. But of course, it is hard to show such a link. We live in a culture preoccupied with juvenile sexuality, and we have an ambivalent relation to it. On the one hand, there seems to be little objection to "healthy" or mainstream depictions of teenage and even pre-teen dating and romance - witness the popularity of the Olsen twins, and teen pop-stars like Brittney Spears. We are quite ready to accept the verbal discussion and reporting of teenage sexuality in TV, movies, and print. There's been little protest about the rise of pornographic magazines with titles like Barely Legal, Young and Tight, Babyface, Finally Legal, Just Come of Age, Cherry Pop, Luscious Lolita, Legal and Tender, Lollypops, Just Legal, Purely 18, Young Stuff, and so on. There are books and web sites by people describing the loss of their virginity as early teenagers. Many fashion models are young teenagers, and it's clear that our preoccupation with thinness and youthful beauty is now at the stage where skinny fourteen year old girls are often seen as embodying the ideal that other women must aim to emulate. What's more, there are reports that girls are on average starting to reach puberty much earlier and the average age of first intercourse is decreasing, and so it is not hard to imagine that we might start to think that a thirteen year old girl is capable of sexual maturity.
On the other hand, in the US at least, there are strong taboos on openly discussing the sexuality of girls, and especially on the depiction of nude girls under 18 years old. Standards are more relaxed in some European and south American countries, but even there it would probably be socially disapproved of to openly admire the sexuality of teenagers. This is probably largely due to the issue of age difference--it might be okay for teenagers to be sexual with teenagers, but it is far less appropriate for mature adults to be in any way sexual with teenagers.
Thus we live in a culture torn on the depiction of teenage eroticism, and it's rare to see the issue discussed frankly and honestly. There are many possible sources for the increase in the sexual exploitation of children, and I've seen no evidence that pictures of topless girls or nude children are a cause of the problem. There's a similar debate about the relation between pornography and rape, and again the evidence that the wide availability of nude pictures of women leads to violence against women is slight and highly contested.
It seems then that whatever misgivings we might have about the pictures in Anjos Proibidos cannot be plausibly based on the worry that the girls were exploited or that it will lead to other children being exploited. Furthermore, it would be absurd for someone to deny the beauty of these girls. At their age they have both innocence and sexuality, and this is an extremely powerful combination. Our early sexuality is psychologically important to us and formative of our later sexual selves, so we often remember our early sexual experiences vividly. Physical and emotional attraction to others often dominates the lives of teenagers, and those experiences can have a strength and purity that is hard to recreate later in life.
The difficulty for books like Anjos Proibidos is in creating a distinction between the depiction of young adolescent beauty on the one hand, and, on the other, the mistake of adults confusing this with mature sexuality. The trap is that these pictures are powerfully sexual, but for adults to be sexually aroused by children is deeply problematic. Yet how can we show sexuality without allowing sexual arousal? By my even admitting that these pictures of children are erotically charged, I cross a boundary that is unacceptable for most people, and I risk being labeled a pervert.
For my part, given that we live in a culture so preoccupied with youth, sexuality, and youthful sexuality, I don't see how we can afford to avoid discussing such issues, and books such as this are important in that they provide us with good opportunities to do so. Yet when we move into such dangerous area, we have to be extremely careful. In many ways this book seems extremely simpleminded in the way it shows girls.
Anjos Proibidos idealizes girls, and it shows none of the complications of the lives of children. The girls are themselves idealized versions of youth, for viewers to impose their fantasies on. These girls don't have acne, bad hair, and we don't know what annoying pop-stars they worship. They aren't whining, complaining, or dismissing the viewer. They are all shown as pure but a little seductive, ready and even happy to be seen topless, and to have their beauty admired. Such a mistake is even more obvious in the work of French photographer David Hamilton, who has for decades published photographs and created movies featuring an almost comical soft-focus idealization of teenage girls, often accompanied by bad poetry or musings about the nature of young love. Often his models stare out to nowhere in a daze, or lazily hold each other in a sultry yet innocent embrace. Of course all his models are utterly beautiful, and are apparently unaware of their nudity and openness to the viewer. Hamilton's work is saturated with a fantasy of the innocence and beauty of young girls, and is apparently never complicated by any deeper understanding or awareness of imperfections.
In the last ten years it has been the work of Jock Sturges that has gained the most press and the most notoriety. He also takes pictures of young girls and is fascinated by childhood innocence and burgeoning sexuality. But his photographs have far more depth to them, since they include the awareness of his subjects both of each other in groups shots, and a far more obvious awareness of the camera.
Fabio Cabral does not match Sturges in the beauty of his images or the subtleties in the depiction of his subjects. Nevertheless, the black and white images are often striking and beautiful, and they do involve some interaction between the model and the viewer. There's a dynamism in the girls' awareness of their sexuality and their posing for the camera. We are not asked to maintain an illusion that we are undetected voyeurs. Having said that, these pictures are still troubling and disappointing in their simplistic portrayal of childhood eroticism, their openness to misuse as simple pornography, and their lack of recognition of the problematic nature of such pictures and the role of the viewer. Some of the poses of the models are basically the same as we would see in fashion magazines, and in others the girls wear lacy underwear which makes them look more awkward, as if they have been dressed for someone else's fantasy.
Of course young girls can be alluring. Any fool knows that. In order for an artist's work to tell us more than that, it has to raise difficult questions for the artist and the viewer, and it has to go some way to providing an answer to those questions. When judged according to such a standard, this book is slight in its achievements.