Because of our personal cultures, understandings, knowledge and beliefs, the way that we interpret signs, words, messages and images differs from person to person. These misinterpretations can cause problems. Throughout history, artists have provoked controversy through their creative works because of misinterpretations or misunderstood messages.
I have chosen to examine Erik Ravelo’s shock photograph series “Los Intocable” (The Untouchables). The series of photographs were highly controversial when first released in late 2013 because they depict children hung on crosses, similar to crucifixion, to represent some of the controversial issues affecting children all over the world and voice the loss of innocence that is being forced upon these children. These issues are childhood obesity, gun violence in schools, child sex tourism, black market trafficking of children’s organs, paedophilia in the church and war in countries, like Syria.
For the remainder of this post I will be talking in detail about the photograph that represents child sex tourism and prostitution.
When you look at the signifiers in the photo, you see a man in a hawaiian shirt and bright hat, with a camera hanging off his wrist, and a young girl who has her face blurred, positioned as if hanging on a cross against his back. To figure out the signified, the viewer needs to have some understanding of certain things. For example, you need to recognise that the child is in a position that resembles that of being crucified. This notion of crucifiction has a number of connotations attached, mainly, Jesus being nailed to a cross to atone for everyone’s sins.The cross is now used as a symbol for sin (amongst other things). You need to recognise that the Hawaiian shirt and camera that belong to the man represent the stereotype of tourists.
When you look at the photo with these connotations in mind, the meaning of the photograph develops to a deeper level. The little girl is representing young children in countries like Thailand that have a rampant child sex industry, that is mainly used by tourists to the country. The man is representing one of these patrons that engages in the activity, and is the embodiment of the evil that this child faces. The face of the girl (and of all the children in the photograph series) is blurred to obscure her identity, and she is showing the act of child prostitution as a cross (injustice, burden, threat,experience) she has to carry.
The photographs are considered to be controversial because people have misconstrued the images as “pornographic” and of a dark nature because some of the children are only in underwear and some of the issues being explored in the works involve sex with children (the priest and the tourism photo in particular). This reading of the photos is not what the artist was aiming for, showing that the photos can be seen in a way that was not intended. He was hoping to show a visual representation of the injustices that children around the world face, but should not have too.
“I still don’t understand why some people are mad at me, but they’re not mad about those problems. Some people get offended by the photos but not by the problems the photos wants to talk about.” – Erik Ravelo