This series of 50 unstaged photographs (20 of which are shown here) explores the subtle power dynamics between children and the social and natural world around them. I made most of these portraits while writing a memoir centered on the loss of my brother Alex. While very different from each other, both projects examine the inherent vulnerability of simply being alive and “exposed,” in every sense of the word, even within our most secure circles of family and friends. Every interaction is fraught with questions: Friend or foe? Protector or threat? To trust or fear? To obey or defy?
The series title was inspired by Songs of Innocence and of Experience, an illuminated book of poems and paintings by William Blake from the late 18th century. Blake was keenly attuned to the spiritually complex, intersecting worlds of children and adults, and used light as a potent metaphor. He wrote of children having “a radiance all their own” despite often harsh environments, and of lost boys “led by the wandering light” to safety. Although he cast adults in idealized caring roles, as nurses, angels, schoolmistresses, gentle mothers and fathers, he could not hide his ultimate cynicism that childhood is something to be survived.
Can he who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care
Hear the woes that infants bear?
—from Blake's "On Another’s Sorrow"