I was stunned. This was the second time in a year I have received a phone call from a reader because of a photo of a bare-chested child. We are so obsessed (for good reason) by what we don't want the culture to become we also miss what it isn't. Unfortunately, there is child pornography. This is one issue where, no matter how conservative or how liberal we are, we can agree. It is vile and it must be wiped out. But when we militantly begin to insist that an image is pornographic simply because a child pornographer might enjoy it, we let their perverse tastes dominate our lives. There is a world library of cherished images that any sad, sick pervert or pedophile might find prurient, but we cannot let a twisted mind decide the meanings and set the standards for our shared culture.
Sally Mann's photo is not an Ivory soap vision of blissful childhood. It is an unnerving work, the children's attitudes uncertain. It is compelling. Its menace -- if that is the right word -- is subtle. I find it not the least pornographic, or even sexual; I hope and pray that I live in a world where that is true.
I was rude to the caller. I should have listened more carefully. In a world where many feel the very moral core is crumbling, our children are our most threatened and cherished asset. (I don't think the moral core is crumbling, but that's another story.) But there is a power to photographs and argument as to their meaning. The controversy over the photograph on the cover serves as an introduction to Rebecca Cohen's thoughtful piece that explores these very issues.