Children as subjects in Art – Sally Mann a Case Study

The Wet Bed, 1987

 the wet bed

                        Mann Sally, The Wet Bed, 1987, gelatine silver print, 49.53 cm x 60.64 cm, Collection SFMOMA


In the 1980s Sally Mann took a collection of photos of her three children (Virginia, Jessie and Emmett), which were then published in a book called Immediate Family in 1990.  The work contained a collection of images of her three children who were at the time all under the age of the ten (Jenkins 2010). The collection included of images of the three children naked and or injured.

For the purpose of this case study, I will be focusing on The Wet Bed, 1987.

The image is of a young female child (Virginia, approx age 3), sleeping on a bed, with her arms and legs splayed. There is a watery residue on the bed. The bed sheets are crumpled at the base of the bed, leaving the child’s naked body exposed. The camera’s point of view is looking down upon the subject. This suggests that the viewer is a more dominant or at least a larger witness to the event. This increases the vulnerable nature of the young naked child.

In addition, the title of the work, The Wet Bed, has two main connotations. The first is that the child has wet the bed, leaving the apparent residue. The second is sexual, and relates to an excretion of bodily fluids.


Children have long been used as subjects in the art world. Historically, as Anna Douglas (1994) states, children were depicted as nymphs, angels and were often the representation of innocence and purity within fine art. When Mann began developing her collection of work, which was later published in the book Immediate Family, there was an emergence of female fine art photographers.

“Women photographers, amateur and professional, have always focused on the family and children, through family photography, commercial work, social documentary and photojournalism. As a new generation of women fine art photographers emerged during the 1980s so this legacy was given critical and public focus. Photographers explored the concept of family and brought to this enquiry a new focus which concentrated on issues of history, identity and sexuality.” (Douglas 1994, p. 16)

Although it appears that Mann is in involved in an exploration of family life, in reality there is an element of in-authenticity in The Wet Bed and the wider Immediate Family collection. The idea that these images capture children in their ‘natural state’ becomes invalid because the artist is constructing these settings. As Mann (cited in Woodward 1992) states herself, some of them are tableaus, where the children have been paid to pose for extended periods of time. In The Wet Bed, Virginia is not actually sleeping says Mann (cited in Woodward 1992), in which case she has been instructed to lie in this vulnerable position whilst her mother creates images.  Even though during this period in art many artists engaged with the personal realm, there is a premeditation here that denies a reality and instead exploits the familial relationship.


bill henson untitle

Bill Henson, Untitled #8, 2011/2012, archival inkjet pigment print, 127 × 180cm


In a contemporary context this could be compared to Bill Henson’s naked images of adolescents. While Mann’s images of her children have a personal context, Bill Henson’s photographs of pre-pubescent/early adolescent children are clearly staged, not set in a home environment, and in turn lack the intimate narrative of Mann’s work. Henson’s images instead could be seen to be part of a grander historical narrative. The poses too are quite modest in contrast to Mann’s, as genitalia is usually covered or blurred and the subject appears more aware of their role in the image. By comparing the two art practices you can see the difference in the artist as a stranger and the artist as a parent: Mann is the children’s mother, she has greater sway over what poses her children adopt, whereas with Henson’s subjects, the models have a threshold for what they are prepared to do for the image, which they would not necessarily have under a parent’s direction.

Censorship Debate

On a surface level the censorship debate in relation to Mann’s work was about the depiction of naked children. The wall street journal censored the image of Virginia by placing black rectangles across her eyes, nipples and genitalia. Other publications followed suite by taking similar action (Woodward 1992), as they too were concerned about how the content would be perceived.

As a society we have a level of acceptance with images of naked children. It is however the context and innuendo inherent in particular images that make us instinctually question its ability to be pornographic. At the time The Wet Bed was produced Child protection laws were somewhat vague in their definition:

In America child pornography laws refer to the ”lascivious exhibition of children’s genitals” without a precise definition of “lascivious”. … In Britain The Protection of Children Act (1978) states that “It is an offence to take, or permit to be taken, any indecent photograph of a child”, but nowhere in the Act is there a definition of indecency, and despite a quasi-definition ten years later to include “what right-minded people might conclude” it remains entirely ambiguous. (Douglas 1994, pp. 15-16)

From this statement we can see the obvious difficulty in ascertaining the definition of an indecent image. However, the ambiguous nature of protection laws for pornographic images of children allow for public debate and scrutinisation within the legal system, which in turn can question the responsibility of an artist to their children as subjects. Conversely this allows for an important space for art practice to be explored within the law, giving the appropriate leeway for an activity that is often ambiguous and abstract in meaning.

If you were to judge Mann’s images by these criteria, it is likely that they would not be deemed pornographic. However the question to censor the work is not just about the sexualisation of a child, but is also about removing the child’s rights to privacy when an incredibly vulnerable image such as The Wet Bed, with many connotations, is on public display. Regardless of how beautiful the image may be, the reality is that at this age, the subject (Virginia) is too young to make a decision about whether she would want this public or not. Interestingly, when Immediate Family was to be published, the children selected images they did not want to be included in the book. Virginia selected one of herself urinating (Woodward 1992), however, it can be seen that she was unable to understand that by being placed in a bed wet with urine stains was symbolically connected to her urinating. With this in mind, we can see the impossibility for the young children to have a semiotic understanding of the connotations inherent in many of the images.


In conclusion, the role of transgressive art is to push boundaries and to shock and there is value in it’s ability to do so. In theory the production of artworks that use children or adolescents to explore sexuality is not the issue. The questions that need to be asked when censoring images of this nature are: What are the rights of the child in the image? What is the impact on the child when participating as a subject for the artist? Who is responsible for protecting the child (government, artist, parent)?

Legally Mann’s work in Immediate Family is unlikely to be deemed pornographic, as it wasn’t challenged in the legal system at the time and the outcry from lobby groups appeared to dissipate. So what is it that we find so uncomfortable about the images? From this case study it appears that the unconscious concern as adults viewing the work is for the children as subjects. Initially it is about the potential for the images to be exploited by those who would want to use them for sexual gratification. Even Mann herself states that she “only wishes for people to look at her children the way she does.” However she contradicts this statement by acknowledging the risk that this may not happen by saying “They have no idea of what’s out there in the world. I know what to be afraid of. They don’t.” (Cited in Woodward 1992)

The other concern we have for the children is their right to privacy and the role their mother has in protecting their rights. As small children, they inevitably want to please their mother, which gives Mann a certain amount of power over them as models that another artist may not have. The children make decisions based on what they have learnt is normal from their parents and also based on what would make their mother happy. The nakedness in the photographs is not a natural nakedness, as the majority of the images are constructed (Woodward 1992)). The children have learnt to be on display and move into and hold poses at the request of their mother.

In ‘The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann’ (Woodward 1992) Jesse says of the process “The few times I don’t like it is when I have a friend over and I’m just in my room and Mom says, ‘Picture time,’ and I don’t really want to do it.”… Like all the children, she will note places where her mother might photograph her. “I know what my mom likes sometimes, so I point it out to her.” Jesse’s account indicates reluctance but an inevitable submission to her mother’s requests, suggesting that although Mann’s Immediate Family collection can be considered artistically poignant, it is at the sake of the rights and wishes of her juvenile subjects.



List of References

Douglas A, 1994, ‘Childhood: A Molotov Cocktail For Our Time’, Women’s Art Magazine, Vol. 59, pp 14-18.

Jenkins T, 2010, ‘Art or abuse?: A lament for lost innocence’, The Independent, Tuesday 14 September, retrieved 3 April 2013, Newspaper website

Woodward R, ‘The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann’, New York Times, 17 September 1992, retrieved 3 April 2013, Newspaper website

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