— by Laura Walters MFA ’23
"The Neverlands" Laura Walters on a gallery wall with two black and white photographs next to it

As a mother of two sons, 11 and 9, I am constantly thinking about how they see the world and the challenges they face growing up in these complicated and often scary times. I think of how best to protect them from forces both seen and unseen. In the spring of 2020 I was forced to confront these fears in a very real way, as were most parents, as we navigated the Covid lockdowns of that “silent spring” and the year that followed. While I was pushed to the brink of sanity, having to simultaneously be parent, teacher, protector, healthcare worker and caregiver for my sons, I watched how their lives became drastically altered and how isolated they became from friends, family, school and social life. I documented those long months at home, turning the camera on my children, and later their friends, in a whole new way rather than as just a loving mother. I began to make images of them on reflective surfaces showing the budding spring outside and their lonely interior lives separate from that world. What culminated in the fall of 2021 was a body of work that linked their experience to that of other children also composed within the frames, windows, screens and doorways of their homes. Those places of refuge now represented gilded cages for these children whose growth had somehow become stunted. 

Photograph of a young boy reflected in a window

During the summer of 2022, Moore MFA students had the opportunity to research an area of interest. Since the lockdowns had abated and most people were vaccinated, society had emerged ready to return to the world and pick up where we had left off, but for me something was missing. Our children’s carefree lives had been, in a sense, disrupted, permeated by worry and adult fear. I was delighted to be able to travel again and used my funding to go to London, England. While there, I was looking for inspiration to help me figure out what to do next with these images of children and how to guide the work into the next stages. The exhibition Fashioning Masculinities at the Victoria and Albert Museum inspired my next move.

Alessandro Michele, the creative director for Gucci, stated in an excerpt from his 2020 autumn/winter menswear collection: “In a patriarchal society, masculine gender identity is often molded by violent, toxic stereotypes. A dominant, winning, oppressive masculinity model imposed on babies at birth. Attitudes, languages and actions end up progressively conforming to a macho virility ideal that removes vulnerability and dependence.” The work that was in the show was a glorious historical timeline of men’s fashion that in its day challenged the conventional narrative of menswear and what it means to be a man.

I began to think about this idea and the narratives that boys are told when they are very young. Stories about heroes loom large but also the tales of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, Robinson Crusoe, The Jungle Book, Lord of the Flies, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; boys who, through nature, find something at the very core of themselves—though not fully aware of it at the time. These moments in childhood are fleeting and after the age of 13, the idea of play and hero worship becomes very different. 

A young boy wading in a body of water

I chose to cast my sons and their band of friends as these lost boys, discovering the woods in play. As for myself, I attempted to transfer my role as loving mother photographer, to a Wendy or Tinkerbell figure, witnessing these moments as an outsider, unable to intervene as they climbed tall trees or waded into murky creek beds. 

During the remainder of my time at Moore I plan to continue to explore these ideas while reading J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, for clues into his worlds. Neverland describes the liminal space between being a boy and becoming a teenager, of relishing the earth as an Eden before the fall.  

Silhouette of a young boy whose features are obscured by a reflection of trees outside

In my written thesis work I plan to think about these narratives of masculine and feminine as I think about teenagers and “selfie” culture as I investigate new modes of self-portraiture in the digital and social media age.

All images courtesy of the artist, Laura Walters.