Jonathan Hobin is a Canadian photographer whose series In the Playroom features a range of children reenacting some of the most brutal news stories of our generation, from Jonbenet Ramsey’s death and the Siegfried and Roy tiger mauling to 9/11 and the threat of nuclear war. At first glance it’s hard to tell if the children in the photos understand the horror they’re conveying or if they’re just having a lot of fun. Regardless, many people have reacted strongly. The photos have been described as sick, pure shock, and tasteless, self-indulgent masturbation. Even the children’s parents have been vilified for their involvement.
If you’re in Canada this week, In the Playroom is coming to Toronto for an exhibition at the Gladstone. I gave Jonathan a call at his home in Ottawa to talk about the criticism he’s received, the way kids absorb the news, how his entire series is a criticism of Western media, and whether or not we’re all giant kids playing adults. Oh, and he was nice enough to give us some photos that have not yet been shown anywhere online. So take a look for yourself.
VICE: What kind of feedback have you been getting from the kids in these photos?
Jonathan Hobin: For the most part they just have a lot of fun. They are given permission to do what they are often scolded for doing—acting as crazy as they want. The funny thing is, kids play games where they kill each other all the time. Whenever a kid plays with a water pistol they’re pretending to kill someone. It’s something we see constantly. I’m directly referencing where kids might be learning to do those things and that makes people very uncomfortable
What do the parents think, generally?
I have never photographed a kid without having a clear dialogue with the parents about what the intention is and what I expect the images to be. Some people seem to think that these parents are making money off this in some way, or that they’re fame-seekers. I have yet to really encounter a stage mom. I don’t know if that’s an American anomaly… I’m not sure. I feel like maybe that’s a stereotype and those things aren’t necessarily a factor in Canada. Most of these parents, they’re well-educated, they get the arguments, and they think the photos portray a valid point that they want to participate in.
There was one circumstance with the Jonbenet Ramsey photograph where the girl is, essentially, imitating a child murder victim after a sexual attack. We were very cautious in moving forward with that one. The girl was unfazed, but the mother was clearly concerned and clearly cautious about moving forward. But I think any healthy parent would be very cautious with something like that.
Do the kids understand the scenes they’re portraying?
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. They are so ingrained in our culture, and they’re instantly recognizable. On the other hand, one of the new images is about acid attacks. With those kids, you’d say, “You’re fighting. To hurt that person you pour something that will sting on them.” You talk to them in terms they’re going to understand. And they understand it’s one person hurting another person—that’s the big picture. To start talking about specifics, like bringing in culture, religion… things like that, I think that’s just too big for them to handle. They get the broad strokes. I’m sure it makes for some very interesting conversations on the way home from the photo shoot.
Do you think that the photos are shocking?
No, I don’t. I’ve been shocked at how strongly people have reacted to it. I’ve had some interesting responses, like I’ve had people send me gifts, I’ve had people write hate mail to me or send death threats. I’m pretty close to it and so it’s hard for me to judge. I’m just doing what I’m doing.
It seems to me that the photos are viewed through an American news media lens. You’re Canadian—the closest any of the images come to a Canadian story is the seal clubbing. Did you choose to focus mostly on American media content?
It’s interesting that you say “American lens,” but I think you could also say that it’s a Canadian commentary on the American media being force-fed to us. American media in particular is creating sensationalized imagery in news stories. The way that they give us the news almost plays out like a movie trailer, as if the news story is fiction. So they take something like the Natalee Holloway story and they’re putting it together and creating the narrative so it has these elements where you have the villain, the victim, and maybe an exotic location. It’s like they’re looking at the news story, checking all the boxes that could easily be a made-for-TV movie, and they’re presenting those stories back to us. There is very much a blurry line about what is entertainment and what is news. I think it’s more a commentary on that.
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