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This picture is making the rounds because NPR did a follow up on the girl seen here smoking and staring at the camera with a mature swagger that far belies her nine years of age. My first thought about this picture was that I'd grown up with a lot of kids like this. I was an army brat who bounced around the globe living in base housing along with other army brats doing the same thing. Usually a mixed bag of races and social classes crammed together in tenement-like conditions on military installations who's main focus was military defense, not civilian housing. Our family like most everyone else's was essentially a one parent operation with the military parent coming and going in chunks of weeks, months or years. It was tough in a lot of ways, but my family did alright. My dad was an intelligence non commissioned officer which got us a housing preference. Once he was even assigned as Base Housing Officer which got us a three bedroom apartment the same as the upper echelon received. Better housing didn't extend to the playground or school though. Everyone got thrown together - segregation wasn't really a thing even in the southern bases in the US. The Army had one color - O.G. - Olive Drab. Most of the people that chose a career in the Army were not your one percenter types. They were from the lower rungs. People who chose the Service because they had no other options in their lives, economic or otherwise. Mostly economic. The Army was a steady, if meager, income, a roof over your family's head and stability of sorts. My dad, somewhat at loose ends in his life had chosen the Army and in choosing, he found a home.

              I had any number of friends who routinely stole, played hooky, fought, cursed and even drank. All before they were ten. Smoking kids wasn't that common, but it wasn't rare either. It just depended upon how good they were at stealing and how attentive their primary parent was. Drinking was easier. Every household had a liquor cabinet that usually wasn't locked. Despite all this petty criminality, I have generally good memories of the near endless series of friends I made as we went from base to base every year or so, criss-crossing the country and the world.

              I was a timid kid with a mom addicted to pain killers because of her slow burning cancer and three older sisters who did most of the cooking, cleaning and taking care of me. When dad was home, it was like vacation for them - their duties decreased and they could spend some time being kids themselves. Dad was good about picking up household duties and making sure we got what we needed. For where and what we were, it was pretty typical. I didn't have trouble making friends, but I did have trouble following along with some of the bullshit they could get up to. I was too afraid of getting caught and ultimately having to face my dad once he found out. I inherited his temper but he had levels of anger I've rarely achieved myself.

               The base housing neighborhoods tended to be awash with groups of little kids ramming around like some twisted Little Rascals scenario where Darla's a smoking barfly in training and Spanky and his gang are petty thieves making their bones doing shoplifting jobs at the base gas station. Not all of the kids were like this, but a lot of the ones I remember were. I had my share of rotten incidents at the hands of bullies and witnessed some heinous crap of the sort that only felony-bound little boys can manage. I particularly remember a bunch of my partners in crime throwing dirt clods at a group of Down Syndrome siblings along with their older sister and chasing them home threatening to kill them if they ever showed up at the playground again. Their mother came out of her apartment with a broom and swatted one kid right off her stoop with a baseball swing that had major league potential. Despite this, we never saw them at the swing sets again.

                 As I got older, it got harder to brush off these incidents and I understood that I had to be more selective about the friends I chose to make at the next base we were sent to. This became solidified on Christmas of '67 at Fort Bragg when my new (they were always new) best friend took off with the brand new Schwinn bike I'd gotten. I spent most of the day running around the vast base housing area there searching for the little bastard, knowing I couldn't go home without that bike and tell my parents some "friend" had stolen it. It was dark and streetlights were coming on when he finally showed up telling me he'd rode into Fayetteville to go to the A&P for candy and thanks for letting me borrow the bike. I acted like nothing had happened. A few months later I stole one of the walkie talkies he'd gotten for his birthday and threw it into the woods.

So, when I saw that picture of the smoking little girl and her cousin, I didn't think of how exploited she was by the photog. How she could have used some of the money that got made from her picture being sold in galleries. I didn't think of the shit life she's had and the injustice of it all. I didn't think about her admirable resilience and positivity despite the poverty, drug addiction and general sadness in her life. Selfishly, I thought of my own friendships with kids like her growing up and the crazy stuff we used to do both good and bad. Mostly, I thought of what they must doing now and how their lives had wound out. I could guess, but I hope I would be wrong.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 2nd, 2015 01:37 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I read Kim's comments in her LJ about the "exploitation" of this girl, and I didn't agree with them at all. But hey! It's her LJ. I'm not about to abuse her hospitality. I thought she was projecting pretty heavily there, though.

In some basic sense, all art is exploitation. An image, a story catalyzes you. You run with it. The trade-off for the subject is a kind of immortality. Would NPR ever have gone to the trouble to track this woman down if she hadn't been the subject of this photo? No. Is the NPR attention benefiting her life in many positive ways now? I would have to guess, "yes."

If the only stories that artists have the "right" to are their own, then artists are doomed to be nattering narcissists.

And now that we've gotten that rant out of the way...

Neglected kids have a really complex secret life that adults know very little about. I remember my own quite vividly. In many way, that secret life takes place outside of moral codes -- which it would behoove us to remember are rarely absolutes but transient reflections of a culture in the infinity pool.

I'm glad you got your bike back.
Jul. 4th, 2015 08:43 pm (UTC)
Yeah - I didn't want to stir K's Cheerios either, but you're right - artists without other's stories to tell aren't gonna be artists for very long. At least interesting ones. I think about stories I've written and some of them didn't come from whole cloth out of the air - a lot were inspired by real people, events, conversation etc. I exploit misery or happiness all the time. And as for photos - I wouldn't have a qualm about taking a photo like this - it's a great photo. Would I have done more for the subjects? Possibly - it depends on what their story really is and what mine would be.
Jun. 3rd, 2016 05:46 am (UTC)
I remember this photograph from one of my photography classes. It was one of a number that we debated about whether it was exploitative or simply documented the moment.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )