Sally Mann: At Twelve/Immediate Family

I like to make people a little uncomfortable. It encourages them to examine who they are and why they think the way they do.
— Sally Mann, quoted in American Suburb X (2013)

I first encountered Sally Mann’s images in 2010 at a retrospective of her work entitled The Family and the Land at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, and they had the same lingering impact on me then as when I explored them again now as part of the EYV 4 coursework. The two series that particularly struck me this time around are At Twelve and Immediate Family, which raise fundamental questions about trust, lifestyle and sexuality.

In sharing with us these intensely personal moments, Mann passes us the baton of profound trust that her subjects have extended to her, allowing us to step into her place and become an intimate insider in the scenes she captures. We understand that the images were made in a different era, before internet paedophilia rings and long before #metoo, but inevitably we wonder about her motivation in doing so. Is she unaware of the way the images could be seen and used? Is she exploiting the trust placed in her? Or is her sharing of the images simply an outward expression of the mutual trust and openness that is so evident within them?

The images also raise important questions about lifestyle. The children they portray are confident and comfortable with themselves, with each other, with the adults around them and with their environment. They seem to live in a prelapsarian paradise, in close contact with the natural world and without a corporate logo or other branding device in sight. We are made acutely aware of the contrast with the commodified world of today’s children, a significant proportion of whom are caught up in a pandemic of obesity, self-harming and social anxiety (The Guardian, 2016 and 2017, Psychology Today 2016).

And they inevitably raise questions about sex and sexuality. Would the children (and/or their parents) have consented to take part in the photographs if they had known that they might be used by paedophiles? Would paedophilia be even more prevalent than reports suggest it is (Knapton, 2015) if the whole world were as open as Sally Mann and her family, or does it thrive in an atmosphere of repression and furtiveness? Should teens and even pre-teens be able to express and show their sensuality? Have we been in the habit of “victim-shaming” them by making it socially unacceptable for them to do so?

None of these questions are answered by Mann’s work, but they are important issues that go to the heart of how we live and express ourselves, and – together with their haunting beauty – are why the images stick in the mind so strongly after encountering them.

From Sally Mann (1988)

From Sally Mann (1992)

References and resources

American Suburb X (2013) ‘An exclusive interview with Sally Mann’. Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2013/01/interview-sally-mann-the-touch-of-an-angel-2010.html [accessed 02/03/18]
The Guardian (2016) ‘NHS figures show shocking rise in self-harm among young’. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/23/nhs-figures-show-shocking-rise-self-harm-young-people [accessed 02/03/18]
The Guardian (2017) ‘Obesity among children starting primary school continues to rise’. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/19/obesity-primary-school-reception-children-nhs-digital-figures [accessed 02/03/18]
Knapton, S. (2015) ‘Number of paedophiles in Britain will shock public, warns Deputy Children’s Commissioner for England’. Available from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/hay-festival/11641096/Number-of-paedophiles-in-Britain-will-shock-public-warns-Deputy-Childrens-Commissioner-for-England.html [accessed 02/03/18]
Mann, S. (2018) Sally Mann. Available from: http://sallymann.com [accessed 02/03/18]
Mann, S. (1988) At Twelve. USA: Aperture Foundation
Mann, S. (1992) Immediate Family. USA: Aperture Foundation
Psychology Today (2016) ‘The Rising Epidemic of Anxiety in Children and Teens’. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/liking-the-child-you-love/201601/the-rising-epidemic-anxiety-in-children-and-teens [accessed 02/03/18]