Controversial works use kids to depict world tragedies

The Canadian Press
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Ottawa-based artist Jonathan Hobin is photographed with pieces from his exhibit “In The Playroom” at the Ottawa Art Gallery on April 19. — Photo by The Canadian Press

For Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, it was the German bombing of a Spanish town. For Ottawa art photographer Jonathan Hobin’s Twins, it was 9-11.

Current events have always inspired art and Hobin’s latest instalment in his controversial series “In the Playroom” is an arresting modern example.

Each of his photos depicts children at play re-enacting tragic public events.

Hobin, 33, has portrayed familiar stories, such as a Halloween-inspired Abu Ghraib prison scene, a portrait of the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong il, and JonBenet Ramsay dressed in a pageant gown, among others.

He says the child models in his photographs are unpaid volunteers, and are either the children of friends and family, or models from agencies.

“I definitely would never have photographed a child unless I fully communicated what I was going to do,” he said in an interview.

Parents “had to believe in what I was doing if I was going to photograph their child.”

The idea for the series came after Hobin witnessed the repeated and unforgettable images of the planes striking the World Trade Center towers on 9-11.

“I started to think: ‘I’m an adult and I can kind of handle what that means,’” he said.

“But with someone who is not as equipped as I am with problem-solving or just life experiences, how are they going to see that sort of thing? How are they going to comprehend what that means?”

By portraying children acting out headline-grabbing news events, Hobin explores how young minds deal with the unsettling side of the modern mediascape.

“It goes back to this whole notion that children always have incorporated things they see in popular culture into their play,” he said.

“In fact, science shows that children need to physically re-enact things in order to process them. There’s a tactile nature to their minds.”

In one of Hobin’s newest photographs, “GOT HIM!,” a marine with a toy gun shoots Osama Bin Laden in a messy ketchup-blood scene beside a kitchen fridge.

Hobin says his work has been polarizing.

In between critical praise and gifts from fans, he’s received death threats and accusations of pedophilia.

“It was quite a surprise, but I’d rather have people be excited and energetic about what I’m doing than really blasé about the whole thing.”

Asked whether he would depict the recent Boston Marathon bombings, Hobin said such events need time to play out in the culture before he can consider reflecting the stories visually.

“It took probably about six or seven years before I did the 9-11 attacks. You kind of let the dust settle and see how it plays out,” he said.

He says that while kids use play as a tool to process, it also reflects their emotional resilience versus the fragility of adulthood.

“They might be better equipped to survive the emotional side of what’s happening at this age than we are as adults.”

Starting Thursday, 17 of Hobin’s images from “In the Playroom” will be released as a feature exhibition in Toronto’s Contact photography festival at the Gladstone Hotel, in partnership with the Patrick Mikhail Gallery.

Organizations: World Trade Center, Boston Marathon

Geographic location: Ottawa, Toronto

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