Is There Really Nothing Left to Say About Purity Ball Photos?

by Jillian Steinhauer on June 11, 2014

David Magnusson, photo from the 'Purity' series (© David Magnusson)

David Magnusson, photo from the ‘Purity’ series (© David Magnusson)

Considering they’ve been making the internet rounds for over a month, I did not want to write about David Magnusson‘s photographs of fathers and daughters who attend purity balls. The pictures have been featured on the Huffington Post; they’ve been shown on Flavorwire; they’ve been on BuzzFeed and Slate — hell, Time‘s LightBox blog beat everyone and wrote about them last year. There wasn’t anything left to say, I figured, and so I didn’t need to write about them.

But see, that’s just it: there’s so much left to say, because barely anyone has said anything. In the bland, mindless reposting of Magnusson’s Purity photos, we have a prime example of the vapid virality of the internet. Which would generally be fine if the photos weren’t also bound up with patriarchy and sexism in troubling ways that pretty much no one is interested in talking about.

Let’s start with the phenomenon itself. Purity balls are formal dances at which girls and young women pledge to abstain from sex until they’re married, while their fathers pledge to protect their purity. The first one was organized by a couple in Colorado because (according to Wikipedia) they were concerned that fathers didn’t have enough of a place in their daughters’ lives. So, you know, logically they should become protectors of their daughters’ virginity. Because that’s how everyone fills a family gap … with sex.

Magnusson, a Swedish photographer, heard about and became fascinated by purity balls, and he decided he wanted to photograph some of the participants. After making contact with and securing the participation of a number of families in Louisiana, Colorado, and Arizona, he flew out a number of times to interview and photograph the father-and-daughter pairs. The resulting portraits and texts make up his Purity project.

David Magnusson, photo from the 'Purity' series (© David Magnusson)

David Magnusson, photo from the ‘Purity’ series (© David Magnusson)

Here is how Magnusson frames the project in part of his statement (which he emailed to me):

When I first heard about the Purity Balls I imagined angry American fathers terrified of anything that might hurt their daughters or their honor. But as I learnt more, I understood that the fathers, like all parents, simply wanted to protect the ones that they love — in the best way they know how. It was also often the girls themselves that had taken the initiative to attend the balls. They had made their decisions out of their own conviction and faith, in many cases with fathers who didn’t know what a Purity Ball was before being invited by their daughters.

The more I learned, the more I was surprised that I had been so quick to judge people I knew so little about. I was struck by the idea that what set us apart wasn’t anything more than how we had been influenced by the culture we grew up in and the values it had instilled in us. …

Magnusson’s acceptance of purity balls and their participants is sort of touching and admirable, but it’s also deeply problematic. First of all, there’s no mention of the glaringly gendered nature of the phenomenon (where are the purity balls for young men?). But more importantly, with a quick rhetorical trick, Magnusson shifts the responsibility onto the girls’ shoulders. It was also often the girls themselves that had taken the initiative to attend the balls. Where’s the part explaining that some of these girls are five years old — far too young to having their “initiative” treated as adult decisions?

David Magnusson, photo from the 'Purity' series (© David Magnusson)

David Magnusson, photo from the ‘Purity’ series (© David Magnusson)

Even for the young women who are 18, there’s an entire culture that’s groomed them to make these decisions, a culture that’s brought them up to believe in a “distinctly American story … wherein a girl’s virginity is held up as a moral ideal above all else, a story in which the most important characteristic of a young woman is whether or not she is sexually active,” as Jessica Valenti wrote in the Guardian. Magnusson vaguely alludes to “how we had been influenced by the culture we grew up in,” but his bland acceptance of the sexism and patriarchy of the culture in question is disturbing.

But, you know what? Fine. Magnusson doesn’t necessarily have a responsibility to give us all the context. If we ignore his writing and look at his photographs, we see that he’s achieved an impressive level of ambiguity in these unflinchingly creepy portraits. Bathed in a pale, ethereal blue light, the fathers hold onto their daughters the way they would brides or prom dates, which is to say, in vaguely sexual poses. The girls wear white dresses. Some of them close their eyes and look deeply, uncomfortably reverential. Magnusson writes:

In Purity I wanted to create portraits so beautiful that the girls and their fathers could be proud of the pictures in the same way they are proud of their decisions — while someone from a different background might see an entirely different story in the very same photographs.

He has most certainly achieved that.

And so, here is where the blogs and magazines and websites come in; it’s our job, as writers, to contextualize things — to explain, analyze, critique, maybe praise the photographs while calling out Magnusson on his blithe acceptance of purity balls. Or at least explain the issues surrounding the balls, obvious though they may be to some of us. Maybe?

But no, all David Rosenberg, the editor of Slate’s photo blog Behold, can muster to describe the photos is the non-descriptor “striking,” followed by cheery quotes from Magnusson, and, well … that’s it. Alan White, at BuzzFeed, does the same thing in list form. Lily Rothman, at LightBox, is properly and journalistically objective, allowing only that “the movement is controversial.”

David Magnusson, photo from the 'Purity' series (© David Magnusson) (click to enlarge)

David Magnusson, photo from the ‘Purity’ series (© David Magnusson) (click to enlarge)

Then we have the attack of the adjectives. At the Huffington Post, Priscilla Frank cites some criticism of the photos but then frames them as “beautiful or bizarre.” She also calls the purity ball tradition itself “bizarre” — as if it were akin to, say, a unicycling parade, rather than a troubling sexist practice. At Refinery29, Matthew Zuras also brings in some of the critiques but counters them with ones of those gushing adjectival onslaughts so unique to the web, dramatically calling the photos “beautiful but haunting, powerful, and unsettling.” Like the latest film in the Twilight saga. Only Tom Hawking at Flavorwire is honest enough to call them “frankly terrifying.”

Look, I know how it goes: you need material for the blog, so you find some “striking” photographs, get a quote or two from the artist, and throw together a post that’s sure to bring in lots of traffic. I’m on board with this base level of work when we’re dealing with pictures of cats. But when they’re pictures that are basically stand-ins for the patriarchal culture that condones physical and emotional violence against women in this country every day, can we all try just a little bit harder?

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