Visual Resonances

by Karin Bareman

English Essays

Spinning a Photographic Yarn: Sarah Moon’ and Ata Kando’s Interpretations of Myths and Fairytales

Sometimes a photograph just grabs you by the throat. It throttles you, and shakes you and will not let you go. Sarah Moon’s image of a young girl is doing exactly that. She is positioned against a backdrop depicting trees in an otherwise empty street. Her surroundings look stark, desolate, dilapidated. A sense of impending doom pervades the picture. This is amplified by another photo in the series showing an old-fashioned standing clock. Time is running out. But back to the girl. She looks like she has been crucified. Her eyes are closed, her head is thrown back. The questions the series raises are perturbing.

But the denouement arrives when we see the shadow of the wolf threatening the little girl in the final image of the series. Suddenly it all falls into place. This is a modern interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood. And what an adaptation it is. It has such a guttural feel to it. The visuals are so harsh, so brutal, it hurts. They depart so sharply from Moon’s usual modus operandi that they almost seem to be produced by a completely different photographer. After all, Moon normally shoots pictures for fashion designers showing models in an impressionistic and dreamy way. Unsurprisingly, when these photographs were first published in the early 1980s, it caused quite a stir. Because in this series Moon returns to an older interpretation of the fairy tale, one that is filled with darkness and sexual violence, but she positions it in a thoroughly modern urban setting. Where the wolf in other versions of the story may have only obliquely referred to stranger danger, in Moon’ depiction it is quite obvious that the girl has become the victim of sexual abuse.

Because in this series Moon returns to an older interpretation of the fairy tale, one that is filled with darkness and sexual violence, but she positions it in a thoroughly modern urban setting.

Moon’s Little Red Riding Hood has a lot in common with a beautiful series produced by Ata Kando. The latter has spent a significant part of her career practicising socially engaged photography. But she really seems to have put her heart and soul into her visual interpretation of Kalypso and Nausikaa, two distinctive parts of the Odyssee. Kando had her twin daughters play the roles of the Greek goddesses Kalypso, Athena and Ino and that of the princess Nausikaa. Her son acted out the role of Ulysses. The series is stunning in its effective simplicity, just like Moon’s fairytale. During one holiday in the south of Italy in the 1950s, Kando photographed her children on the beach, in the forest, in ancient ruins. She had them use simple props like sticks and vases, and dressed them in white sheets and lace. Close-ups of statues and paintings were occasionally used when extra characters were needed for the story line. All visual elements imply a setting in the classical Antiquity. Each photograph succinctly and cleverly shows a new plot development. There is an image of Ulysses pining away daily on his rock, as he is being kept prisoner for seven years by Kalypso to be her lover. Then there is a view of Kalypso gathering food and drink for Ulysses to take on his journey back to Ithaca.

And then there is the absolutely stunning picture of the screaming face of Ulysses rising from the waves. It refers to how in the story he floated around for seventeen days after having incurred the wrath of Poseidon. But it also shows the frustration and despair of his long journey. The beauty of this series is that the viewer will catch the drift of the story even without knowing the Odyssee by heart. But the inclusion of the Dutch translation of the texts by Homer prove that the pictures are incredibly complex and layered. And just like Little Red Riding Hood, this tale is far from innocent. The images of the three adolescents are tender and respectful, but there is no escaping their budding sexuality. And they are very good in acting out the required emotions. In a very real way, Ata Kando preceded and preempted Sally Man’s Immediate Family by several decades.

Interpreting any form of literature photographically can be a really risky and difficult thing to do. In the case of Little Red Riding Hood, Moon could have ended up shooting tacky images of girls in red capes in snowy forests. Kando could have produced pictures that were similarly cliché. Moon could have made a bowdlerised version of the fairy tale, safe for consumption by viewers of all ages. Kando could have decided not to take photos of her children at all, or she could have opted to let her children act out other parts of the Odyssee. Both photographers could have simply stuck with capturing their usual topics and in their preferred styles. It takes some real gumption to depart from the beaten path, but in both cases the gamble has paid off. In doing so, they have both spun a photographic yarn that is fully capable of punching the viewer in the gut.


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