Art or exploitation?

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March 20, 2009

3:42 AM

Mere days before the Sex Workers’ Art Show comes to the College of William and Mary March 23, a traveling photography exhibit that taps into the more private, less sexualized and deeply emotional aspects of female nudity went on display at the Muscarelle Museum of Art.

The Century Project, photographer Frank Cordelle’s collection of nude women ages 0-100, is on display from March 16-20. The College’s administration made the decision to move the show from the Sadler Center earlier this year.

Considering the controversy surrounding the project, students are understandably curious. Aly Cockerill ’10 approached the exhibit without any preconceived notions.

“I was intrigued by all of the girls who were photographed under the age of eighteen because I know that that’s the core of the controversy,” Cockerill said. “But I didn’t go in with a strong opinion.”

The models featured in Cordelle’s exhibit represent a diversity of not just age, but also race, class, body type and health status. Many of the women are survivors of abuse or physical and mental diseases, the details of which they explain in personal statements alongside their images. Their bodies often bear the signs of these experiences. The effect is that Cordelle’s photos tell each model’s story with a level of photographic intensity.

“If you look at the picture, the focus is on the energy of the woman, and the message trying to be communicated by the photographer, and not that she’s in the nude,” Cockerill said after an hour of viewing the Project. “The reason all of the women are nude in the exhibit is that you’re talking about intimate subjects … that intimacy of not having clothes on allows women to discuss these more personal experiences.”

When Cordelle began photographing nude women 25 years ago, he didn’t expect to become, as he describes it, an ambassador into the world of women.

I’ve learned so much about women as a result of this project,” Cordelle said. “I’ve learned a lot about men, too. I’ve learned a lot about society, and I’ve learned a lot about me. It’s been a monstrous education for me, in terms of understanding the trials, tribulations and ecstasies that people go through.”

Cordelle defends his decision to display images of nude minors, citing Supreme Court case studies that
identify the photos as a form of free speech and “not in any way pornographic.”

He also relies strongly on parental permission and support.

“Many of these children volunteer to be photographed a second time when they’re much older. I think that says a lot about whether this is a good experience or not,” said Cordelle.

Some members of the College community nonetheless believe there is an inherent immorality in the exhibit’s depiction of minors.

“The potential for exploitation is still very big,” Brian Fries ’10 said, who chose to protest outside of the Muscarelle Wednesday. “The pictures don’t fall under the legal definitions of pornography, but under the research definition that researchers use in pornography studies, it is considered child pornography.”
Fries is preparing to start in the College’s masters program for education and said he is uncomfortable having student activity fees fund the Project.

Cockerill said that she did not find the content of the exhibit to be pornographic.

“Someone who’s searching for something that’s wrong with this exhibit will potentially find one,” Cockerill said. “But that’s not why people who are interested came out … they are interested in the greater message of this exhibit, want to understand women, and want to understand humanity on a certain level. To boil it down and say it’s pornographic material no matter what is close-minded and doesn’t help our society grow in any way.”

Many of the models’ personal statements describe their participation in the Project as a profound experience.

“[For women who have been through trauma] the act of being photographed nude has been a very important step … in the process of their recovery,” Cordelle said. “It’s kind of a hoot for me to know that I’ve been able to be a part of that. There are a couple of cases where women have told me that I am the first man they undressed in front of since whatever happened to them happened.”

Cordelle thus finds himself in a very interesting role as a male photographer, privy to a set of charged emotions that seem to emanate from his models as a result of his gender.

“The first woman I photographed who was a rape survivor … that was a very emotional session … She and I got to be pretty good friends after that. I had lunch with her after, and she said something that completely blew me away — she said that if I had been a female photographer, she would not have volunteered. For me, that was completely counterintuitive.”

Over the following years, Cordelle has asked women with similar experiences how willing they are to reveal themselves to a male photographer, and reports that all have felt the same as the first woman.

Whether visitors to the Century Project find the content immoral or uplifting, they nonetheless leave having been invariably moved by the exhibit, frequently reporting it to be not just an ordinary visit to an art show, but an emotional experience.

“I feel like it was a wonderful exhibit because it made me mull things over in my head,” Cockerill said. “I think the point of the exhibit is to touch people. No one’s story is going to be the same, but you gather information about these [women] through their stories. And these women and their stories affected me very deeply.”

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