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Eye of the beholder: Cute, naked photos of tots pose dilemma for parents

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When Nicole Saupe’s son was about 18 months old, the Cincinnati-based photographer snapped a picture of him sitting in a big, rattan chair shaped like a wok. He was too cute to resist in his jammies, his spread legs revealing his diaper, his belly poking out from under his shirt. And so Saupe uploaded the image onto a new online gallery she had created.

“Before I knew it, it had been downloaded three times. That had me very unsettled,” Saupe recalled. “It did freak me out so much that somebody downloaded these pictures.” She doesn’t know why somebody downloaded the images – maybe he or she just thought it was a cute picture. But Saupe kept envisioning a pedophile and “it made me so ill.”

Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, it’s not hard to find pictures of children, some in varying degrees of undress, some naked, being shown off by proud parents. But others on mommy sites and blogs question the practice, warning that child sexual predators can see, too. Some warn it may be dangerous for another reason: that parents themselves can be viewed as suspect — and even arrested — for taking what they see as cute pictures of their kids but others may misinterpret as compromising.

As a result, the question of how, where and whether to show what formerly seemed the most innocent of pictures, like tots playing in a bathtub, has parents in knots.

“What [parents] might think are normal pictures could be seen the wrong way,” says Amy Adler, the Emily Kempin professor of law at New York University. “As a legal matter parents should be extremely cautious. I hate that. I think it is a shame.”

The days when parents breezily photographed toddlers at the beach or young kids running naked through the back yard sprinkler on a hot summer day may be over, she says.

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“People could be arrested for [what we used to regard as] normal pictures,” says Adler.

Indeed they could. This spring, Alma Vasquez, a 22-year-old Utah mom, was charged with two counts of sexual exploitation of a minor after, police said, she took photos of the child’s father, 34-year-old Sergio Diaz-Palomino, sexually abusing their infant son.

But charges were later dropped because police determined Diaz-Palomino did not assault the baby. Instead, the couple was giving the boy a bath and after the bath, while the baby was still wet and laughing and the father happily kissed the infant’s body, Vasquez documented the scene as family memorabilia. She took the film to Walgreens for processing into prints, and a technician alerted the police. Arrests, jail, indictments, the child’s removal from Vasquez’s home by the state, followed. Diaz-Palomino, who was in the country illegally, was deported.

There have been a handful of such cases over the past few years and though most of the charges were eventually dropped, a lot of damage has been done.

We now live in a culture in which any nude photo — and some non-nude images, too — of a child is seen as potentially pornographic. Thanks to new laws, legal decisions that redefined what can constitute child pornography, and near-constant pop culture coverage of potential and real sex crimes against children, even innocent pictures of our own kids are often viewed with what Adler calls “the pedophilic gaze.”

As Betsy Schneider, a photographer and Arizona State University arts professor who sometimes uses her own naked children as photo subjects, told me, “once you suggest that it is pornographic, once they are painted in a certain light, it is hard to get that out of your head. Then we are all trapped.”

Back when those of us over the age of 35 were little, parents wouldn’t dream they could be arrested for taking such photos. But we weren’t as afraid then. Now fear drives everything from our politics to our diets to how we raise our children. And it is fear, Judith Levine, author of the book “Harmful to Minors,” believes, that turned innocent pictures of children into crimes.

Starting in the late 1980s, she said, as the government cracked down on child porn, which was then relatively rare, and child sexual abuse, arrests for child porn rose. As arrests rose, “the public said ‘Gosh we have a problem and so we have to get even tougher,'” Levine said. “That’s how panics start.”

In response to the outcry, federal and state laws were toughened and judicial decisions narrowed — but sometimes the definitions of those laws only raised new questions because they called for interpretations of terms like "lascivious." But in the context of a picture of a child, what is lascivious? To whose eyes? A parent? A pedophile? Could it include the cover the Nevermind, the 1991 Nirvana album that depicted a naked baby boy in a pool?

Schneider, the arts professor, said she has been forced to self-censor due to the way an adult could view her children’s photos. “I have a picture of my son. He is about 4 and he his totally naked and he’s holding this gun made of Legos and wearing a police hat and nothing else. He has a campy pose.”

Even though she loves the image, even though her son, now 8, is so proud of it he has hung it on his wall, she doesn't show it publicly.

Just as we aim to protect the photos of our children from being misappropriated, we find ourselves looking at images with new eyes.

No rational person questions the repulsiveness of true child sexual exploitation. But the other day a friend of mine told me about a vacation photo she found of her little boy. He was standing in her pair of cowboy boots, which came up past his knees. He was naked and laughing and when she saw this photo again, after having forgotten taking it, she laughed, too. Then she started to worry. What if somebody found this?

She hit the delete button, turning a precious memory into digital dust.

Brian Alexander is the author of the book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction," now in paperback.