Children and photography
Posted: 14 May 2012 | By: Victoria Hynes
Portraying children in contemporary photography is beset with moral dilemmas about exploitation, as seen in the controversial cancellation of Bill Henson’s solo Sydney show in 2008. In Europe, privacy laws now prevent the photography of minors in the media without written consent from parents. Melbourne photo-artist Polixeni Papapetrou, however, has largely managed to skirt this political minefield by employing artifice — shooting children in staged, theatrical settings.
Papapetrou investigates the mythology of childhood through ‘dress-ups’, role playing and fantasy. Using her daughter Olympia and her friends like actors in a school play, Papapetrou dresses them in costumes and places them in highly constructed tableaux, to enact characters from literature, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, or figures from history paintings, such as Haunted Country (2006) which reconstructed scenes of lost children in the bush from nineteenth-century Australian paintings by Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin. More recently, in Games of Consequence (2008) Papapetrou explored the psychology of childhood, by re-enacting some of the manipulative and cruel games children play on each other, where an individual child gets excluded or bullied.
Her new series of works, titled The Dreamkeepers, follows on from her last Between Worlds exhibition at Stills Galley in 2010. In that series, her child performers were hidden behind animal masks, confusing their identity and turning them into strangely comical hybrid creatures. As her daughter and her peers approach adolescence, the photographer again explores the notion of physical identity in The Dreamkeepers. Her subjects are masked again, but this time they wear the grotesque heads of elderly crones and gnarly old men. The children still wear their juvenile garb — one carries balloons, another wears pigtails, one more is bedecked in a clown suit. The images are startling and the extremes are initially shocking — that of innocent youth fused with decrepit old age. Yet upon reflection, there seems to be a commonality between the adolescents and the aged faces they wear. In puberty and old age there is often a shared anxiety and fear about physical transformation — one faces leaving behind the innocence and protection of childhood as the body develops, to face the harsh realities of adulthood; the other faces the loss of physical and mental faculties through corporeal decay and decrepitude of old age. At both stages, they face the unknown — for children it is the unknown of the adult world and for the elderly it is the ‘Great Unknown’ of death.
One cannot help but imagine that in these works the artist is facing her own trepidation about ageing and the process of physical change, both for herself and her daughter. Her enigmatic images also tap into our own deep-rooted, unconscious fears about the passing of time. Visually challenging, this is probably Papapetrou’s most unsettling and unnerving series to date. With more than 40 solo shows behind her, this new body of work reveals an artist at the height of her creative powers.
Visit Nellie Castan Gallery in Melbourne, 10 May–2 June, for an exhibition of Polixeni Papapetrou’ artworks.