'Children By Themselves, Children On Their Own' by Adam Phillips
Even as a child, there are some experiences one can have only on one’s own – not least the experience of having experiences on one’s own. Indeed, D. H. Lawrence believed the only way to educate chil- dren was to leave them alone. The child left to herself will find what really absorbs her; and only the child who can forget herself can dis- cover her desire. Lawrence wanted us to believe that adults foist their own desires on children, and that children end up having to want what they suppose the adults expect them to want. It is a stark pic- ture of adults as people who distort the child’s development rather than nurture it; of parents as exploitative rather than protective; of grown-ups as predatory. And yet the child as vulnerable to the desire of adults has become one of our preferred contemporary images of childhood. Nothing makes us more wary now than children on their own, left to themselves.
In Frances Kearney’s extraordinary photographs – which appear at once utterly unstaged and wholly composed – we are invited to think again about what kind of world the child can make in a world so determinedly made by adults. Her subject is the child, in her own world, in the natural world, with made objects. We are never allowed to forget in these poignant and eerily disturbing pictures the often harsh beauty of the landscape. Kearney reminds us by showing her youngsters always in some kind of proximity to the hard surfaces of the man-made environment that making is required, even for children, to make an inhabitable landscape. It is part of the uncanny effect of these photographs that Kearney’s absorbed girls seem entirely at odds and simultaneously of a piece with their environment; and everything in their environment seems comparably self-absorbed. It is as though the images make a startling assertion: we are in the world only when we are in a world of our own. To lose the capacity to forget oneself is to lose the world. The photographs, in other words, are interested in what sociability distracts us from. And yet, of course – and this is the essence of the artfulness, the tactful curiosity of Kearney’s work – the child photographed is never, whether she knows it or not, by herself. In other words, and this may be one of the many questions the intriguing but unprovocative photographs suggest, can solitude be photographed, and particularly the beginnings of the solitary self in childhood?
Photography is the only art form that inevitably intrudes upon the privacies it pictures. As with André Kertész’s photographs of solitary readers, Kearney’s images make us think about this fact in new ways. We are left wondering what effect the presence of this relatively new kind of artist must have had on the subject. What are we doing to children – what are we wanting to do to them, and what are we una- ware of ourselves wanting to do with them – by photographing them? What does the image of a child give us that a child cannot? What is the privacy of others if we want to observe it, to enter into it some way, the privacy of childhood being emblematic of privacy itself, the pho- tograph always showing and never telling? In Kearney’s art work, the real innocence of childhood is set against whatever the alternatives to innocence might now be.
The child nurtured by her solitude seems almost nostalgic, a pastoral image of childhood harping back to the often idealized Romantic child of Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge – a child naturally open, receptive and curious who will be corrupted by the adult world of getting and spending. Kearney wants us to look again at this solitary child, but in a contemporary way, mindful of the paradoxes – and the suspicions – involved in photographing, as opposed to painting, sculpting or writing about, the solitary child today. The child being photographed is never really alone. And if she imagines she is alone, she is unwittingly deceiving herself. She may forget herself, but she has not been forgotten. In childhood, the line between protection and intrusion is always uncertain, and it is this ambiguity, I think, that gives Kearney’s photographs their uncanny tenderness. The child, the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott wrote, can be properly alone only if she has had the reliable experience of being alone in the presence of the mother. A capacity for solitude depends on, and can only get started with, the available but unimpinging presence of a sympathetic adult. An adult who can back the child’s desire, who can allow the child’s preoccupations to unfold in her own time, and in her own way.
The camera can expose the child – can expose anyone who has not consented to being photographed – to a violation of privacy. But it can also reveal, as Kearney’s works do, something about the precon- ditions of privacy, of the strengths entailed by the acknowledgment of its vulnerability. We never get the sense in these pictures that a spell has been broken, that an estranging self-consciousness has been called up (or demanded) by the photographer; the children are not, as we say, performing for the camera. Whilst minutely constructing her images, Kearney’s art relies on the appearance of naturalness, even happenstance. It is as though she is suggesting that there is the camera that can let people be and the camera that coerces them to be something special. When the photographer is too knowing, the image is too calculating, and we don’t always know how to tell the difference. So perhaps photography is akin to parenting.
The violated child and the violated childhood were the spectres haunting industrialized society, and dramatized in the great nine- teenth-century novels. And yet Lawrence, like Winnicott, also reminds us of just how formative the solitudes of childhood are – and just how pleasurably solitary children can be, given half a chance. Children are so preoccupied that they do not always need to be occupied. The risk is that in protecting children we also protect them from the experi- ences that can matter most to them; from their informal inventiveness and their vagrant curiosity. But now more than ever before, the child on her own is an image fraught with danger. The solitary child lost in herself has become the child all-too vulnerable to accident, and to the desires of others. And yet the privacies of childhood are the seedbed of the child’s future. Our fears for the child can also be a cover story for our fear of the child, and of her freedom to discover her desire, to discover what she really loves, what really absorbs her.
In what sense is photographing children a way of looking after them? And if it is not a way of looking after them, what is it? Kearney’s absorb- ing pictures, which show us what it once felt like to be absorbed, are both visionary and revisionary. They ask us something by showing us something; something that we need to look at again and again.