In the Playroom: Our Kids are Consumers of “Real Life”

So let’s talk about Canadian Photographer, Jonathan Hobin and his series of photographs “In the Playroom”.  For the back story first check out the video from Yahoo. Then, if you dare to peek at the images scroll to the bottom of the page after the article to view the slideshow or check them out here on Design Boom.  Long story short: children are posing “playing” re-enactments of current (over the last 50 years) tragic events.

Upon first look, I am disturbed.  That’s it.  That’s all I feel. Disturbed. Which is scary and makes me think I have been desensitized–then I remember the real fear I had when Suspect #2 in the Boston Bombings was on the loose–and I feel better(?).

The video shows the photo of the 9-11 re-enactment and I think “wow that’s messed up”.  Then, it glosses over the Kim Jong Il photo and I think “that’s pretty tame” (meh).   Finally, I take a close look at the entire gallery of photos (at the bottom of the page) and am flooded by a whole slew of emotions.  The first thing that comes to mind is “this is sick–really sick”.  The second thing that comes to mind is “this is real life”.

The images are provocative.  Isn’t that what art is supposed to be?  Doesn’t art typically push the boundaries of comfort zones?  Yes.  Let’s start with why this is so disturbing.  Kids.  He used kids.  This wouldn’t even be a talking point if he used adults.  End of story.  People would call it inappropriate and shocking—but I doubt it would have resulted in the amount of backlash that it is currently receiving. (Also, evidently people are calling Hobin a pedophile–I don’t see that in these photos.)

I think some of what Hobin says in the video deserves some consideration.  He talks about how research shows that children are tactile learners (as a teacher I can confirm this), he also notes that many children find re-enactment through play therapeutic and a way to work through the event and come to sort of an understanding.  We know that role-playing can assist in further understanding and emotional closure.  Many children’s therapists use play to work through issues with small children (I mean c’mon you’ve seen Law & Order: SVU–no but seriously they do).  He makes the point that as children we may have played Cops and Robbers or Cowboys and Indians–and equates that (sort of) to his photographs.  Through his work he is asking the consumer to stretch their mind.

Our children are growing up in a world of highly televised violence, real and pretend–they are consumers of “real life”.  We may shield them from the direct news in the home but we can’t do anything to stop the word from spreading on the playground.  These types of events weigh heavy on our their minds (all our minds really).

As a minor, I can clearly remember a handful of tragic, highly televised disturbing events: OJ Simpson Murder Trial, Columbine, the Murder of JonBenet Ramsey, and September 11th.  The footage from these events was run over and over again—people were forced to talk to their children about uncomfortable but very real dangers.  I remember the footage from 9-11 was on a loop for what seemed like months, and then the ground zero footage began–Hobin even notes that he himself knew “We are never going to be able to get away from these images”.  Newspapers everywhere had photos of people jumping from the towers to their death just to escape the flames (personally, I found that the most disturbing), the video of the second plane upon impact was ingrained in my mind, and the audio of the phone calls of United Airlines 93 haunted my dreams at night.

I don’t know if I incorporated these events in to my play—but I do remember I was frightened by all these things–and wanted to know WHY these things could happen?  Would I re-enact cops and robbers, pretend I was some sort of GI Jane, play cowboys and Indians? Yes.  Is it the same?  I’m not sure.  Growing up I was removed from war (we weren’t in one), growing up I was removed from violence (if you’d asked me, the scariest part of a police officer’s job in my town was filing out an accident report), growing up I was removed Cowboys and Indians (we didn’t live in the Wild Wild West–and I had never met a real Cowboy or Indian)—none of those things were real to me—they were merely a fictitious fantasy—light years away from my reality.   Perhaps these kids in the photos are far enough removed from these events to be traumatized from posing for these pictures? Far enough removed to be unaffected or even desensitized?

Aside from these “real-life events” there is a ridiculous and unnecessary amount of fictitious violence on television and in movies.  Think back to some of the big blockbuster films from the last year–The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, and SkyFall (Top 4 Highest Grossing Films according to BoxOfficeMojo).  Is it any wonder that Hobin finds his images in-line with Pop Culture?  And don’t even get me started on the video games–seriously.

Part of me thinks, these photos are no different than when popular television series tackle breaking-news.  After Columbine, many shows tested the waters with portraying a school shooting to various extents (One Tree Hill, Glee, Degrassi), perhaps this is their way of helping their older viewers cope with the tragedy, much like a child may be able to cope through play, by watching the characters they look up to work through the same types of situations?  I know it’s a stretch but consider it.

Since Baby T has been born it feels like the violence has increased exponentially—we’ve had the Aurora Massacre, Newtown Shooting, Boston Bombing and Mother’s Day Parade Shooting.  He’s only been alive 15 months. The world is changing.  It’s a scary place for our children.  I am going to have to explain things much more complex than “don’t talk to strangers” to my son at a very young age.

Did the photos accomplish what all good art sets out to do: get you thinking?  It got me thinking.  I am less disturbed by the images and more disturbed by what they represent: the world my kid is growing up in.

What do you think of these photographs?  Disturbing? Terrifying? Don’t see what the fuss is about?  I’d love to hear your take on them!

Not trying to ruffle your feathers,


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13 thoughts on “In the Playroom: Our Kids are Consumers of “Real Life”

  1. I think the artist is merely photographing albeit posed, the types of scenarios that young children are recreating in their play. I think it opens the eyes of parents who may not be aware that children pick up on the violent news around them, even though they may not be watching the nightly news. When I was young, I vividly remember reninacting the OJ Simpson car chase with friends, riding around in circles on our bikes. But I don’t recall ever seeing this scene on the news when I was young. I didn’t really understand what had happened until I was much older. So I don’t think these photographs mean kids these days are desensitized to violence, because I don’t think they really understand it. I think these photographs are meant to open the eyes of parents to what they expose to their children, even if it is just discussing the news around your children, they do pick it up & are capable of connecting the dots.

    • Sam–I am intrigued that you remember re-enacting the OJ car chase–I tried really hard to pin-point a similar instance but couldn’t come up with one…although I am sure it happened…my Barbies’ lives were VERY effected by popular culture at the time but I don’t remember linking any real life violence to play. I remember my mom trying to shield me from all of the news about JonBenet and I remember just soaking up every little piece of information I heard elsewhere (aka not in my home)–I couldn’t really understand what happened except that a girl ended up murdered–and that was really enough for me. I do think the photos raise a great point about children absorbing the information just from it being in their environment, even if they cannot really understand it. I would bet that most of the children in the photographs couldn’t understand the provocativeness of the photos (although the JonBenet one is probably the one I find most disturbing–and I do wonder how he explained that one).

      • In 94/95 I was 9/10 years old, so I remember a lot. OK City bombings, I was in middle school when Colombine happened & a junior in high school for 9/11(practically an adult).

  2. As art, as photography, I think these are excellent. Amazing. Composed extremely well, the subject is clearly displayed, and even though children are part of them, they are posed down to the facial expressions. As to how I feel, I am detached. Disturbed, but detached. I think a big part of it is that I don’t clearly remember a lot of what the images are. The scenarios were never real to me. The news isn’t real to me sometimes, even now. What’s real is knowing people who live and work in Boston during the bombings, or realizing that it was horrible news when I saw Mrs. Reeve’s face drop as Mr. Martin told us about the first plane hitting on 9/11.
    With 9/11 we were in high school, so I remember it very vividly. But at that age, I was also able to discuss it with the adults in my life to better understand. I remember seeing the OJ car chase, and JonBenet, but I was somewhat shielded from it. Did I reenact these things? Maybe. I know my neighbors and friends and I reenacted scenes from TV shows, so why not what we saw on the news or being discussed by our parents?
    Another thing is that, as opposed to when we were kids, information is everywhere and so easily accessible. Look at the Boston Bombing and the media/social media aspect of it. Everybody was saying something when no body knew anything. Yes, there are horrible things happening all over the world. But there’s always been. We’re just able to see more of it now, as it’s happening, and not a little bit of news that comes out after the fact. Everyone, even children, now have to deal with SO MUCH MORE. It’s overwhelming at times. It can compel you to spend hours researching and reading all this horrible news. But it can also have you looking for all the good stuff that happens. Technology is a blessing and a curse.
    In the 90s, the really bad stuff that was on the news was on at 11, when the kids were in bed, not 5 when the tv was on as background noise as dinner was being made. It made the news, but it wasn’t the full coverage or the same blurb being repeated for the whole show. But newspapers were also lying around, and headlines were read.
    You said it best: “I am less disturbed by the images and more disturbed by what they represent: the world my kid is growing up in.” As terrified I am to have children, I truly believe that there are SO MANY more GOOD people in this world. We need the empathetic, critical thinkers. We need to keep believing in the GOOD. The good people, the good things. The good news.

    • Ali,
      I’m glad I’m not the only one–I actually had to look up some of the events related to the photos…the Jonestown one for example–one with all the baby dolls and anti-freeze (I think). I agree that even in the last ten years technology and even broadcasting has changed drastically. Having so much information readily available does give me a compulsive need to gather as much information as possible when something goes desperately wrong (ie. didn’t sleep at all during Boston Bombing Coverage–I went from site to site, signed up for twitter to follow the police, news stations, and get the latest news…this was only exacerbated by the fact that we live too close for comfort to the shootout site–and was essentially paralyzed by fear). I am terrified that Baby T has to face this world–not only the violence which may or may not be more in quantity–but just the fact that he has to face it every day–it’s EVERYWHERE–modern media ensures that. As corny as it is, I do try and remind myself of Mr. Rogers’ famous saying “Look for the Helpers”.

  3. Hmmmm….what is art’s function? What role ought it to play? To whom? By what methods? All vital questions, and I agree with you, Kayla: art is meant, at least in some way, to stretch us. Is that all? I’m not sure. Is it likely to do so by infuriating us? Making us question ourselves and our world? Bringing about in tangible form some vision of truth the artist perceives, though we ourselves may not? Or maybe we could glimpse what the artist sees by encountering his work and contemplating it and where it “takes” us? Is art definable at all? By whom? And of course what offends one person may enlighten another….
    ….These images certainly unsettle me, and I think that’s a good thing: I “ought” to be unsettled when I view children used really as props….things….because they’re not things; they’re people. Little tiny people, who likely have little idea what they’re doing in these “living dioramas”….but must on some level feel it’s OK because after all, Mom and Dad have allowed them to be part of this weird adult activity, right? Bottom line: I find myself wondering if I lived in a much different age. The only horrific event I recall from my youth which was visible in the media was JFK’s death. By that, I mean: no twenty-four hour CNN and Fox coverage; no internet; heck! No color TV. (We’re talking 1963…..and I was only four….OK, so do the math!) What I clearly remember, though, was the image on TV of the riderless horse in the funeral cortege, the boots reversed in the stirrups, the heartbeat-like cadence of the drums….and the fact that for the first time, my mother had the TV on during the day, and was clearly saddened and distressed while watching this mysterious event. I know that distressed me….because it grieved her. But the actual “live, in color, watch this in super slow motion” was non-existent. And I’m glad of it.
    ….Fast forward in time: 9-11-01: and the TV is on in room 304 at LHS….and in front of 40 or more fifteen year olds, a 747 slams into WTC 2. I am at the board, my Humanities teaching partner beside me….and she, older than I, begins to cry….and I look around at the faces and feel my heart pound, and my stomach sink…..and think, “What the hell can I SAY to these children?” I’ve never felt so helpless and bewildered in front of a class before; my Lord, such a thing has never happened before. And it’s happened now. In front of these young people. And suddenly, these young people are my children. Oh sure, we talk about all kinds of situations via literature; we talk about all kinds of things in “real life” in this room. But a mass murder via jet plane? That’s been televised live? And has literally happened before their very eyes with no “filter’? That’s not art; that’s horror. Real.
    ….I found I could listen; I could speak, and we did so that day. And 24/7 live and in color media coverage and internet saturation were still a bit in the future. Now? Well, Bradbury and Huxley weren’t so far off in writing about dystopias in “Farenheit 451” and “Brave New World”: we live there now. Yet. Yet. Those texts, unlike the texts which are these photographs, do not rely on real, live children as props. Whether these photos qualify as art, I cannot say. Certainly, they’ve provoked my thinking, though they’ve unsettled me, too. I can’t help but wonder if the children’s parents have had regrets about using their children so.

    • Controversial right? I saw these and thought to myself “hot damn–I’m not even sure I can formulate an opinion.”
      I think the lack of “filter” and the fact that technology has allowed us to see things unfold in “real time” makes horrific and tragic events exponentially worse. You’re right about the 9-11 planes and the footage of the impact–being able to see the mass murder of thousands of people in real time was a new thing. It changed all of our lives forever–that may be the defining moment where media coverage changed (and I am not sure for the better).
      Because of advances in technology, we are able to access things in ways that were unimaginable 60 years ago. I wonder how would the live broadcasting of footage from WWI or WWII changed the culture of the time–would it have called people to further action or inaction?
      I think the coverage from the Boston Bombing shows how morbid our every day life has become. For God’s sake, many media outlets had uncensored photographs of people with their legs blown off on the Homepage–let alone when they started pointing out the poor little boy who lost his life, in relation to the placement of the bomb, just moments before the blast–or how about the released photo of Tsaneav’s body that was “leaked” but the circulated EVERYWHERE. Being in the Boston area we couldn’t escape the footage (even though for most of the coverage it was the same videos and information over and over again).
      These photos are unsettling and disturbing–and while I do think they are a little unnecessary–I have to say that just like the A & F Controversy–they’ve got people thinking, talking and passionate about their views.

      • Very well said. I agree that these photos do get us thinking about this world children grow up in today. That is what should be disturbing to us-not the fact that kids play to make sense of all that is around us and that they may reanact it. I think if we all think long and hard we know that we at some point did the same. His photography reminds me of Sally Mann who also utilized children (her own) to make statements about our world and society.

      • Right. I feel like that is what we should be taking away from this…the essential conversations about the implications of these photographs.

  4. I think that was an outstanding statement and well put. After seeing the photographer’s work, I have to say it is very moving. I was surprised at his use of children to enforce his message and I feel that the fact that people are calling Hobin a “pedophile” is completely off topic and without merit. I agree that the images can reveal a shocking imagery for the viewer but I think that his purpose to say that we are, as a society, no longer immune to the concept of ignoring violence and traumatic events in the media because that is exactly what the media is mainly reporting on.

    I completely agree with your thoughts about how we grew up with certain events like the John Bonney Ramsey trial, OJ Simpson trial, or even the Oklahoma Bombing, we were still children that would have an innocence to playing games based on different games such as your reference to Cowboys and Indians. There is also an innocence to children, regardless of how “violent” the original nature of the premise of a game being played. But the statement here is that in the past few years we have seen our society thrive and obsess with the bad and the ugly. With social media outlets pushing the horrors of disgusting trials that should not be giving people like Scott Peterson or Jodi Arias their spotlight, it is appalling to think that these disgusting acts are getting the media’s attention. Even our “NEWS” stations are no longer just reporting news, it has become a frenzy of ratings and obsession with obtaining the most viewership.

    I’d rather open a paper and read one positive message than ten horrible problems we are facing. And that in my mind is not disillusionment, it is a balance of news and information. BTW yes, my response is all over the place. But, I think that Hobin’s message is actually very unique and responsive and I think that whether you admire his outgoing artistic vision or condemn it, you have to admit that it is a successful artistic statement that can spark a conversation that should be discussed in our society.

    • Yeah…the pedophile thing seems way off base…but you know when people get angry they grasp at straws! It is true, as a culture, we are obsessed with the grotesque, morbid and horrific…I too would prefer to open a newspaper and see something GOOD for once. In fact, when we see a “good” story we often remark–must have been a slow news day. Sad isn’t it? And yes, his work does spark an essential conversation for our world today.

  5. Wow. To start, I’d like to say that I don’t believe these photos are tasteless. They are brilliantly staged and succeed in gaining a reaction from their audience, which ultimately is the goal that all artists aim to achieve. I assume that the photographer gained the parents’ consent to photograph their children in this way, so there is no foul there. I am also going to believe that the photos themselves, or the art exhibit, is not meant to be seen by a child audience. Therefore I must give kudos to Jonathan Hobin for accomplishing what he set out to do… Make people think and get people talking.
    Audience is, in fact, the message that I will take away from this article. Ours is a culture based on fear. That is why the media portrays these tragedies from every possible angle, over and over again. During the recent tragedy in Boston, I immediately took to the internet to make sure my runner and Boston friends were alright. Luckily, everyone I know personally who was close to this event came out okay. Then the manhunt ensued and for the first time in my entire life, I wished that I owned a gun. It pains me to say that. I was home alone with my two children and thought, “God, Boston is only an hour from here. What if he shows up in my backyard? How will I protect us?”
    Protection is the only answer to our culture nowadays. How do we protect our children? My seven year old daughter, a first grader, still does not know about (and hopefully never will) the Newtown tragedy. On the day it happened, we were on the Polar Express singing Christmas Carols with Santa and drinking hot chocolate. That is the childhood I want for my children. I came home after our magical train ride to learn about the latest American horror story, also too close for comfort. I put the television on the twenty-four hour kids channel and never spoke of Newtown in front of them. The elementary school in our town chose not to discuss it with the younger students for obvious reasons. School is supposed to be a safe place for our children to learn, grow, and play. There is no need or room for that terrifying event in my daughter’s school routine. Even still, when I put her on the bus every morning I kiss her, tell her I love her, and think about Newtown.
    She attends the same elementary school that I did when I was a kid. After school, my mother would send my siblings (there are five of us) and me out to play in the neighborhood. There were no bad guys, or strangers, or bombers, shooters, or terrorists. My childhood was carefree, innocent, and fun, the way a childhood should be. Now, play-dates are elaborately organized events that happen only after the parents have met each other and ran background checks (sarcasm). When my children want to play outside, I go with them. They can’t be left alone to their own devices, to experiment with nature and the world around them. After all, there are killers out there. But haven’t there always been? At what point did being a child become so complicated?
    Children in America aren’t safe… They need to stay inside and be supervised. Wait, I know! They can play video games, watch television, and use facebook to have social interactions. They suffer from childhood obesity… Take them outside, let them run around and play. This is an endless cycle that will only continue to grow until we stop fearing things beyond our control. Choose what you want for your children and then do your best to make sure they get there.
    I was in high school during Columbine. I feel that the teachers and staff at my school did a fine job helping and protecting us through that tragedy. 9/11 happened after I was done with school. My daughter now learns about it in history in her first grade class. The fact is we are a country, a generation, at war. War is a very real thing in my household. My brother, the uncle of my children, is currently serving in Afghanistan. My children know about the war, his job, and the implications that war has on our everyday life. What it all boils down to is this: My children know what I teach them and what I choose to tell them about in the context that I allow them to. Did the children in these photographs know what they were doing? For many of these photos the answer is, probably not. Do my children role-play as terrorists to cope with these ever present situations? No. But if I ever caught them doing so, then I would explain to them that it is wrong and disrespectful and why. Our children are what we mold them to be.

    • Carole,
      Thanks for commenting! You hit it right on the head when you say that our culture is one based in fear. And during the Boston Bombings, I too wish I owned a gun (also the only time ever in my life I have had that thought)–but I was scared shitless (not to mention an emotional wreck) and thankfully my husband was home during the manhunt (his office closed at the governor’s urging).

      I agree that children need to be supervised and the parent should be vigilant–I am not suggesting being a helicopter parent (I am sure you feel the same) but certainly being very present and aware.

      As art, these photos are unsettling and DO get people talking–which is the most important thing! Perhaps you saw in my previous comment-responses that I (at 26) had to research some of the events indicated in the pictures, so I do think it’s safe to say that the actual kids in the photos were probably unaffected and not scarred for life (however, the girl in the JonBenet photo must have had some questions. No?)

      Please thank your brother for his service and your family for their sacrifice…I am so thankful we have amazing men and women willing to stand up and protect our country and our children.


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