Unsettling Pictures of Kids Recreating the News

Family Matters on 05.25.11

"The Twins." Credit: Jonathan Hobin

Artist Jonathan Hobin grabbed the attention of media outlets around the world with the release of his In the Playroom series, which recreates some of the most powerful events of the last two decades -- including 9/11, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the car accident that killed Princess Diana -- using children as the front-and-center subjects.

The images are undeniably uncomfortable: A pretty blond wearing a beauty pageant sash, surrounded by images of JonBenet Ramsey, with a nylon stocking around her neck. A girl holding a pitcher of Kool-Aid with dozens of closed-eyed dolls lying on the floor around her. A girl in a cheerleading uniform, half-buried in the sand with three boys sitting around her, wearing t-shirts from Aruba. And while Hobin says the images were developed and produced as part of a series aimed at adults, they also offer a look at the darker side of the events and stories that are part of a generation's coming-of-age.

"As much as we like to believe that childhood is wonderful and whimsical, it's not," he says. "Don't think there weren't kids in Katrina or affected by 9/11. This is the reality of the world that these kids are going to be facing."



"Spring Break." Credit: Jonathan Hobin

Many of the children in the pictures are experienced models -- although not all: The little ones in "The Saints" are his cousin's kids -- but regardless of their background, Hobin says, the kids didn't impose the same feelings on the scene set-ups that adults do: The boys in "The Twins," for example, who were both born after September 11, 2001, walked into the room and recognized the scenario ("This is when that plane hit the buildings," Hobin remembers one saying casually) -- to the surprise of their parents. "Kids are seeing these images but what kids aren't bringing to the table is what that means," Hobin says. "Those boys in 9-11 -- they aren't affected by that. And in one sense, their lack of empathy while playing out those scenarios is what makes people uncomfortable. To those kids, they're just playing blocks...they don't have the context for the emotions associated with it."

It's also not a coincidence that the kids in the photos are adorable; that just makes the photos even more unsettling. "I wanted the kids to look as cute and as young as possible," he says. "It's meant to be an exaggeration -- a lot of times people don't want to see kids as anything beyond being cute."

But while terrorism and natural disasters are world-changing news events, Hobin also wanted to draw attention to the more lurid stories that spend years on tabloid news shows: brutal murders, unsolved missing child cases, celebrity obsession. "It brings up this really interesting question about, what are these stories that we're sensationalizing?" he says. A previous collection of Hobin's, Mother Goose, illustrated the darker side of nursery rhymes and fairy tales like "Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater" and "Jack and Jill", and he brings up the story of Princess Diana in comparison. "It sounds like a fantasy -- a princess who died because someone wanted to take her picture," he says. "I feel like the news stories of the day and these cultural stories become like the modern day fairy tales. You can see kids's heads turning, and then they just extract these bits and pieces."

So what's the takeaway for parents? "Don't take lightly what you think childhood is to your child. There's so much more happening in their mind than you realize," says Hobin. "Childhood is more difficult than any of us remember, and it's important to stay connected with your kids."

See In the Playroom at the White Water Gallery in North Bay, Ontario, from July 29-September 11 and as part of Art Mûr's 15th Anniversary group show: "Please Lie to Me"  in Montreal, Quebec, November 5 – December 17.