|Jonathan Hobin’s photographs are being exhibited at the Finnish Museum of Photography until 18 January 2015. The exhibition is part of the Lens Politica festival. Hobin’s stay in Finland was made possible by the Helsinki International Artist Programme, HIAP.|
IT WAS an ordinary day in Toronto, until an announcement beckoned Jonathan Hobin and his fellow photography students to the radio and TV building. There, they watched in horror as the first of the two towers eroded, and the second plane hit its twin. The date was 11 September 2001.
Seeing those images over and over again in the aftermath of 9/11 took the Canadian photographer back to his childhood in Ottawa. Imagining what it would be like to experience those images though a child’s eyes led him to explore how children understand the world. And how does a child process the world other than through play? Hobin’s playroom, however, would become a few degrees darker.
Halloween candy strewn on the floor, costumes and a toy dog – you’ve walked in to a child’s play room. Yet the scene has unsettling similarities to images we’ve all seen – it’s a game of the Abu Gharib tortures.
Hobin claims that children are not as innocent as we think. The commercial feel of the scenes he sets up cleverly shows our perception of childhood, bringing stark contrast to the horrifying game that the children play. It begs the question – why?
With social media in the palm of the masses, death and tragedy has become part of our quotidian. The erosion of traditional ethics of professional journalism has seen sensationalism given priority over reality. Hobin’s work forces us to consider the perhaps uncomfortable, yet inexorable, thought of how this affects children. Through a simple but powerful depiction of children at play, Hobin also subtly thrusts a mirror in front of adults.
The era of hypersensitivity which followed 9/11 forced Hobin to harbour his idea for six years, and a further three years to first display In the Playroom in 2010. Finally, his exhibition has made its way to Finland. As Skype shakily connects, Hobin begins to reveal the layers behind the lens.
Where did the idea for your artwork come from?
9/11 reminded me of the trouble I found about processing the world around me as a kid, and thinking how much more complicated it would seem if I was growing up seeing 9/11 as a child. It was the one part of my life where I really felt vulnerable.
A lot of people grow up with this concept that children should be seen and not heard, so it became important for me to reflect and challenge that experience of myself.
How much of yourself do you see in your photos?
A lot of what I’m portraying represents me. I’m the child in these images and sort of channelling those feelings of being lost and confused. As a child you’re vulnerable but at the same time everything seems like a possibility. It’s this one time where fantasy and reality collide into a blur.
How did you get started?
My image representing 9/11 was the first one I created for the series, but it spoke to this broader idea. It became clear to me that we had passed a point where we would be able to go back from seeing these repetitive images which saturated our environment.
What is the main idea you want to show?
There are a number of different ideas and concepts that I’m working through. One has to do with this idea of play and what it represents for children. Throughout history children have used play as a tool to process and understand the world around them. The tactile nature of working through ideas is something that’s inherently important to children.
The other aspect which is deeply rooted in the series is the media’s role and the evolution of media, and this idea of it being inescapable. I started to think about doing this during 9/11 and seeing these horrific images and realising that we’ll never be able to escape the dark realm of our world that we see through media. [I saw] play as a tool to represent the concept that these images are inescapable, and they filter down to every aspect of our consciousness as a culture.
What change did you notice in the media in 2001?
[Already in 2001] it was very easy to use various file sharing sites to share some of the more horrific images that weren’t available by traditional media. I think that that was just a representation of what was to come with social media.
As such, another theme in my work is social media being a new type of media, where we as the common people are also the people creating the images. The ethical and moral obligations of traditional media have been bypassed by social media, but we as a culture are not trained in what’s ethical for us to see. Suddenly there’s no filter any more. We are not traditionally our best judges of what we should do; more is not necessarily better.
So children are more exposed to media than they have been in the past.
The safe place in a home where a parent can protect their child has been violated with the Internet, a computer or smart phone coming in to the bedroom. So even in a sacred space you see a reflection of the more horrific elements of the world coming in to child’s play.
You can’t protect your child from the world. The world isn’t going to wait for you to teach your child. You have to constantly be on top of it and in that sense it becomes a more propagated place.
Did you notice a change in children in reaction to 9/11 and the new direction media was taking?
It wasn’t necessarily that I saw a change in the way kids are, I was able to see something that had always existed that people had managed to ignore previously. I got a lot of criticism saying that I was creating something that didn’t necessarily exist, or that childhood was the last innocent place and I’ve gone and spoiled it.
For me, this idea just connected the dots for something that already existed. By the time a child is able to hold a toy gun, they already know what its purpose is. They’ve already learned about death and murder and pain and hurting people.
A child who plays with a water pistol – they’re pretending to kill each other already. What I’m doing is just showing adults how children are learning these things. Kids are learning about death and killing – but now from a more diverse range of stories, were that prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib or 9/11.
How much of your work then is a criticism or commentary of the media?
I think it has to do with communicating this idea that you can never get off the hook from being conscious of what you have to deal with. People want to take this attitude of ‘I just don’t let my kids watch TV’. Regardless of how careful you are, kids are going to see these images. You can’t just pretend that they aren’t going to.
[I’m] communicating the message to adults that this is just the world. It’s up to you to help your child or the next generation to understand by being available to discuss these things that they are inevitably going to see.
It’s a criticism of the media, but I think that media is just a result of human nature. We control that; it’s just that we aren’t willing to change that. The media is just responding to the world that exists. They deliver the news that the people want to watch, but that’s not necessarily what people need. It’s more of a criticism of who we are as people, and the world that we live in.
Would you change the way media presents current affairs?
It’s not my job as an artist to solve people’s problems. [I want to] let the viewer decide how they want to cope with that, but I think that communication is the key.
Parents think that it’s going to be a real challenge to approach this issue with their child, but the kids always know a lot more than the parent thinks. With the 9/11 photograph, just by seeing the building blocks in the shape of the towers, one of the kids was like, ‘This is where the plane hit the building’. The mother wasn’t aware that the child had even known about 9/11.
You mentioned the media can be compared to a children’s story.
The way that news stories are communicated to the public, it’s not factual. In much of North American media, stories are communicated to people almost like a television show or a movie trailer; they have this story telling quality. You could easily see them as being a modern day fairytale or nursery rhyme.
For instance [the photograph] Diana’s Dead has to do with the death of Princess Diana, and all the elements have this story quality. People wanted the picture of this princess so badly that they chased her down and killed her. It almost sounds like a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. I think for a child a lot of the stories that they see in the news can be interpreted by them to have the same qualities.
What is the significance of media portrayed as a story?
Fairy tales and things like that have a place in the childhood experience through communicating morals and how society works. A lot of these ideas with the In the Playroom images are sort of a modern day fairy tale.
I have a previous series called Mother Goose, which references the mother goose nursery rhymes, which have traditionally reflected political stories.
To what extent do the children understand what the stories you’re depicting are about?
Some of the images have to do with basic concepts. There’s a bad guy and there’s another guy, one person is hurting another person and causing them pain. The kids get it right away: ‘You want me to kill that person? No problem.’ The concept of what they were doing was certainly nothing new to them. I let the child guide me through what they know. I don’t want to leave them confused.
It’s strange how for one day a year [Halloween] it’s totally acceptable for a kid to dress up as a murderer. For a child what difference does it make if they’re taking it from a movie or a killer in real life?
Have you had any surprising experiences?
People are terrified about approaching these subjects with their kids. If anything these kids are left having an opportunity to speak about these issues about their worries or concerns to their parents afterwards. It wasn’t a goal of mine; it was just one of those happy consequences. People tend to assume I have some kind of sinister reason to do what I’m doing and that’s crazy.
Do you get a lot of ideas from the kids themselves?
I certainly do, but not necessarily from the Playroom series. [For the photo shoot], they almost become living dolls. Which is important, because I think that society as a whole still takes the attitude that the kid is just a prop. They aren’t witness to these things, they don’t experience these things. Which is exactly what I’m trying to say with this series- they’re real, they have feelings and get worried.
Working with kids has inspired my next series Cry Babies. It’s a response to criticism concerning childhood being a time of innocence. They say, ‘Oh not me, but for everyone else it was easy.’ I think that a creepy concept – that everyone thinks everyone else’s childhood was easy.
What is the main difference between childhood and adulthood?
Childhood is a time where the future is valuable. For a lot of people it’s a dark subject, but I think at the same time it’s relatively optimistic.
As adults we are broken by experience. Adulthood implies that after a lifetime of experiences they tend to pile up and can break us. Kids can become broken, or they can become stronger. With children anything is a possibility, it can be optimistic. Children are still learning and might have the strength to change in the future. But I also don’t think kids are as innocent as we make them out to be.
Do you think everything children know is learned from the adult world?
Kids look to adults and reflect it, which has to do with the concept of play and learning ideas.
I think that the reason why they behave like that is that it’s a part of human nature. Selfishness and bullying and having power over one another is human nature; this existed already without the media.
Childhood is a microcosm of human nature. We are selfish, we are short sighted and we are combative. I hope that we can evolve past that, but for now I tend to see the same pattern in humans over and over.
How much of child’s play reflects back to the adult world?
Look at Russia, Ukraine, North Korea and of course the US. If you take a step back, it looks like a bunch of kids fighting over toys in the playground. It’s this selfish nature that we often see being not just innocent but a short-sighted and not a very intelligent way to approach the world.
I think that we as adults often behave more like children than how we expect children to behave. Innocence is a lack of sophistication, but we as adults are more like children than we like to admit.
How does western society’s concept of a child compare with elsewhere around the world?
We’d like to think that in western society that we’re superior in this idea of childhood as innocent and this thing that needs to be protected. But childhood is a relatively new concept; it was only with the emergence of the industrial era that children were taken out of the world of child labour. We created this concept of innocence – childhood as escapism. Women and children were taken out of the workplace and kept in the home, which became the reclusive place of patriarchal society.
We think we’re superior from other societies though valuing childhood, [but] we take it to the extreme which can also be bad. We have this expression of bubble wrapped kids – this idea that you over protect your child to a point where they become incapable of experiencing any real world challenges, so they end up having no coping skills. We are losing contact with base level emotions and basic skills.
How do you think your art will be received in Finland?
The conversation will finally be able to get to another place. I don’t want to exhibit my work just because it’s controversial, but because I want people to appreciate what I’m trying to say. In the US I find I constantly have to explain some very basic level of my work. I spend half of the discussion explaining to people that these kids weren’t abused. Even the idea of having a series that involves children is enough of a complex idea for them. The conversation never gets to the next level where I also learn something.
The next part of that conversation can be about recognising what the problem is and finding if there’s something that we as a society can do about it. I think [in Finland] it’ll actually get to the place where we can discuss solving problems.
Image: Jonathan Hobin