“In the Playroom”: The Aesthetics of Affect, Trauma, and Childhood
Photographer Jonathan Hobin’s “In the Playroom” is an acclaimed series of staged photos reenacting traumatic events with children posed as it’s subjects. Hobin’s photographs actively recreate tragedies such as 9/11 and the death of Princess Diana as “childish” scenes, utilizing toys, costumes, and child models. It is through the lens of Hobin’s work I aim to interrogate the contemporary national (re)construction of memory around the traumatic; highlighting the complicity of the media in harnessing children for affective work. There has been considerable backlash to “In the Playroom,” from which Hobin, as well as the children’s parents, have received hate mail and death threats; most of which center on their use of children in such “shocking imagery. This, I believe, highlights the power that the figure of the child wields. Moreover, placing children as the propagators and victims of heinous violence has the dual effect of both infantilizing the acts themselves and demonstrating the heightened affective power that violence involving children engenders. It is this question of how children are figured in contemporary media discourse that I aim to interrogate, specifically in relation to trauma and memory. The “unquestioned” innocence of childhood is often wielded as a shield to political-cultural hegemons, making undebatable issues such as those depicted in Hobin’s work; national security, sexual violence, and racial inequality to name only a few. My aim is to recalibrate these figurations and the make apparent the dynamic and multifaceted systems of power that constitute an aesthetics of childhood today.
Cathy Caruth in her introduction to the anthology Trauma: Explorations in Memory, argues, “the traumatized carry an impossible history with them.” Therefore, the psychic force of a traumatizing event is such that it instills a collapse of understanding in that moment. Because of this Caruth asserts that the event itself is only first experienced after its actual occurrence. In essence it is assimilated only belatedly. Taking Cathy Caruth’s conception of the traumatic to heart, I believe that Jonathan Hobin’s work constitutes an aesthetics of trauma “after the fact”, that both questions and colludes with dominant nationalist sentimentalities. For “In the Playroom,” experience of the event itself is not a precondition of depicting the traumatic. Instead, it is precisely because these children have no direct experience whatsoever of many of these tragedies that their staging is so powerful.
For example, when Hobin was asked in an interview for Vice magazine about the children’s own understanding of the events, he replied, “Sometimes the kids just get it. Like the 9/11 picture. Even though they are three or four years old, they saw the twin towers and said, “I’ll hold the airplane, this is where the plane hit the building.” The mother was stunned. These symbols have worked their way into our subconscious.” The childrens’ recognition operates as what Marianne Hirsch has termed postmemory, “the relationship that the “generation after” bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before.”
What is most intriguing to me, however, are the political-ethical aims that traumatic imageries are mobilized for. I believe that both Hobin’s series, and the dominant cultural images they ape, utilize children as both figures of, and, spectators to, national tragedy; as objects to be “saved” in both regards. While many of Tobin’s images seek to illustrate the horrors of U.S. intervention abroad, his supplementation of Canadian/American children, particularly, in the place of Middle Eastern torture victims is telling. These children are the perpetrators and the victims in his photos, thereby making invisible those who have actually been tortured or murdered. These evocations of trauma displace an originary mode of violence done by North American bodies by re-presenting North American children as the victims of violence. When Hobin says, “I am trying to break down the notion that childhood is a time of innocence.” this would seemingly be supported by Hirsch’s assertion of the traumatic possibilities of postmemory. Children (as well as adults) are inundated by images ready-made to highlight the violences to and of the nation. Hobin simply assembles them together. Yet it is precisely this lack of innocence that energizes the affective power of the images.
These tragedies depicted first in traditional media coverage and later by Hobin highlight the ways in which perceptions of collective loss are made visible for those traumas the US has suffered and invisible for the neocolonized. As Judith Butler has asserted in her work Precarious Life,
A national melancholia, understood as a disavowed mourning, follows upon the erasure from public representations of the names, images, and narratives of those the US has killed. On the other hand, the US’s own losses are consecrated in public obituaries that constitute so many acts of nation-building.
Depictions of children, particularly in-and-around “The War on Terror” evince a kind of national melancholia surrounding tragedy that emboldens zealous nationalisms and obviates the imperial and historical genealogies of the national traumatic event. This political work of trauma, moreover, can be projected forward into the future, with each subsequent generation both educated in a nationalized sense of loss for the un-experienced event, yet affected nevertheless, as we see in Hobin’s “In the Playroom.”
To conclude, Hobin’s work, though seemingly articulating an alternative to the kind of melancholic sentimentality of the traditional national image of tragedy, nevertheless reinforces the trope of North American as victim and elides childhood agency. Here the child is always an object of ideology, the medium through which an ethics or epistemological truth is disseminated. Children are never agents of truth, meaning, or experience, but rather ciphers to be mobilized and decrypted, symbols to be developed, subjects-in-waiting. We are constantly presented with imageries of tragic past events, e.g., the twin towers of 9/11 or the deaths of Jean-Benet Ramsey and Princess Diana. These iconic images, however, are often mobilized in service of something heinous, to restrict civil liberties, to demonize and shame young women’s sexuality, and/or to commit atrocities in neocolonial endeavors of enormous scale. Cathy Caruth has said that “to be traumatized is to be possessed by an image or event.” If the image of the child is constantly figured as indicative of a collective trauma that supports such brutal undertakings, as I believe it is, then we must banish those demons that engender violence without forgetting them; we must mourn the past but not enslave ourselves to it.