Sally Mann’s “nolitas”

by Patricia Valero,

Photographing little girls is complicated. And it can easily verge on the controversial. Just remember how hell broke loose with Tom Ford’s editorial for December’s 2010 Vogue Paris,  the one with very little girls which got—so they say— its then director, Carine Roitfeld, fired. Vogue was mostly accused of sexualising little girls through clothes and make up.

Leaving aside whether the editorial was right or not, equalling clothes and make up to female sexuality seems rather shallow; in fact, it undermines women’s sexuality by treating it as something superficial and banal instead of as a natural part of every woman’s development.

On top of that, the controversy clearly points out the double nature operating within our society: we overprotect kids but hipersexualise everything else. But when does childhood end? When is a little girl no longer a little girl but a woman? Why do we condemn a magazine for showing ten-year-olds in an editorial but are OK with fourteen-year-olds on the catwalk day in and day out?

During Getxophoto fair’s last edition, devoted to children, its curator Frank Kalero reflected on the concept of childhood:

“Infancy does not exist for nature, only for the modern man. […] Officially, the concept of child was coined in 1924 […]. From then on, childhood is defined, delimited and safeguarded. […] We have created a whole series of institutions which have standardised the idea of childhood and which aim to protect and foster minors’ interests. With the result that we have dramatically distanced childhood from adulthood and turned children into extremely fragile entities the entire society is responsible for. We have created a psychological wall which separates childhood from the rest of concepts we manage. Adults have projected their idea of childhood, their stereotypes, fantasies and lunacies onto their children.”

And consequently, those adults have chosen to close their eyes before their children’s inevitable process of growth. On the contrary, Sally Mann’s photographic project At Twelve, offers a brave and honest vision of such a delicate moment: on a series of 35 black and white portraits, shot between 1983 and 1985, published in 1988 and which was exhibited until a few days ago at La Fábrica gallery in Madrid, the artist depicts a group of twelve-year-old girls who are just experiencing the transformation of their bodies from childhood to maturity, and shows their incipient sexuality as something complicated and confusing for them, but nothing to be ashamed of. We see how some of them are more at ease with their newly-shaped bodies than others; some of them look defiantly at the camera; others seem to want to still be babies in their dad’s arms…

Searching Google for information on this series I constantly came across the word “lolita” to refer to these kids, but are they really lolitas? Hasn’t that more to do with the way they are perceived than with the girls themselves? Why is it so difficult to witness the growing process of a woman as something natural and dissociate it from any perverted ideas? Maybe in order to start seeing these kids as “nolitas” (no-lolitas) rather than lolitas we’d need more photographers like Sally Mann to help change the dominant perception of all those Humbert Humberts out there…