Photographer Renowned for Child Portraits Is Criticized for Sexualizing Her Subjects in New Images

Photographer Renowned for Child Portraits Is Criticized for Sexualizing Her Subjects in New Images

Meg Bitton, a photographer renowned for her portraits of children, is receiving backlash online for posting images of youngsters — some allegedly aged 11 — wearing revealing outfits, smoking, and in t-shirts supporting cannabis. In an age of children growing up and being sexualized too fast, how far is too far?

Bitton is widely regarded as a respected children's photographer, with tens of thousands of followers across various social media pages. Over the last few days, though, a number of photographs have been circulating the Internet for all the wrong reasons. Many are deeming that some of her recent work is highly inappropriate, largely due to the overtly sexual nature, despite her subjects being children.

In one, two young girls are seen pressing themselves against each other, while one has her hand on some money that is tucked into the other's shorts. In a second, Bitton has positioned her child subject in the front seat of a van, wearing barely-there underwear and smoking on a cigarette. Another sees a child so young that she’s likely not even in double digits, bearing a top promoting the legalization of marijuana.

It’s an increasing trend, treating children like adults. Earlier this year, "Lil Tay" gained notoriety online and was giving TV interviews for simply behaving outrageously on Instagram at the age of nine. Meanwhile, celebrities like the Kardashians parade their offspring around in outfits tailored by high-end fashion houses. But these images feel incredibly distasteful and a step too far. Bitton’s subjects are likely old enough to be consciously aware of many of the themes portrayed in the photos. However, positioning them as the subjects within them is in poor taste. It risks putting incredible pressure on these children to be or behave a certain way before they’ve had a chance to figure out who they are as people or the consequences of such behavior. It blurs the lines of how it is or isn't acceptable to behave in front of a minor.  And it certainly calls into question the legality of such images; many online are calling it gross at best and pedophilic at worst.

Setting aside the sexual aspect of such images, there is nothing realistic about these photos. They aren’t artistic, documentary style images that capture the livelihood of innocent children. They depict something unrealistic and forced. When was the last time you witnessed 11-year-olds in such pants, gallivanting in the streets, and leaning close to each other in a provocative manner? Never, I hope.

Bitton’s response, written within the comment section on Facebook, was:

Too young for what? To be embracing each other in shorts and tops? Too young to be out at night? Too young to explore? Too young to feel? What are they too young for? What is disgusting?

She claims she is simply depicting a normal child’s evolution into adulthood. Thankfully, the Internet disagrees. Sexualizing children is never justified.

At the time of writing, her Instagram is set to private.

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Previous comments
Erin B.'s picture

If she were all about the "art" she would have cast those shoots with appropriate aged women -or men for that matter. That she chose underage girls only proves that she sought the shock value.

amy kiley's picture

Erin not necessarily. I am not a Bitten supporter at all - but one thing we know for sure is that Meg herself does not see it the ways the masses here do. There is however something that has been revealed here about Meg Bitten as an artist and those that defend her with no listening ear to the thoughts of others. What her actions show is her value system as a mother, a woman and an artist. She does not see the need to preserve the innocence of children in images this we know. I would guess living in the world we live in now she is well aware of how exploitation of children this way is a very real phenomena unless she is living under a rock. Her actions show that she personally has no problem dressing and posing children in adultified ways, and that whatever negative effects this might have either to the subjects personally or to the welfare of children overall are not a concern to Meg. The words and responses of some of her supporters here are also telling about what values those people hold both as photographers as well as humans. I personally don't want to be around people who are not acting in ways that demonstrate a social consciousness and responsibility when it comes to children. In the end it is her choice - and that means for me it's time to stop promoting her art. Simple as that.

John Ohle's picture

Jack Alexander This is a disgraceful article. First of all, if there is an issue with the photographs then make a complaint to the police yourself. Don't just wright about it and think your job is done.
Secondly, if you are looking to start a "debate" about the photographs, did you look for Meg Bitton to put her side forward?

All you have done is demonised a photographer with the most evocative subject, exploiting kids. You did not offer any proof. Describing a photo is not proof. At least some of the respondents did show photos and yes I do agree some are in bad taste, (Why were they looking at those photos in the first place). So why give Meg publicity? All you have done is stir up a mob mentality with 495 comments at time of writing. Plus you have also give Meg publicity and potentially more customers. Well done you.

As I said, if you have an issue – Go To The Police! Don't just troll.

Tom Weis's picture

If we're going down this rabbit hole with Meg Bitton, then why stop there... Jock Sturges? Sally Mann? ...anyone? hello?

amy kiley's picture

Jock Surges was never found guilty of anything. Sally Mann neither. The difference between them and Meg is that both Sturges and Mann were absolutely producing art. And there was no use of internet to promote themselves. Jock was taken to court and nothing came of it. Mann was photographing her own children in their yard and while she did pose them, she was documenting their childhood as a mother. She did not use other people's children nor were her photos about glamorizing or adultifying children.

amy kiley's picture

Mann's photos are the opposite of Bitten's - they are full of dirt, blood, and nudity to document that which she as a mother finds most precious of childhood. There are pictures of her daughter playing dress up and one in particular where her daughter is holding a candy cigarette that absolutely brings back memories of ones childhood (mind included) but the feel of the image is 100% documentary in feel, it does not suggest or imply exploitation for the means of a gain to the photographer.

amy kiley's picture

and the last thing Mann wanted to do was use editing to perfect her children - if anything she loved and cherished the blemishes, the dirt, the sweat, the black eyes, etc., she would be completely and utterly disinterested in Bitten's images ...

amy kiley's picture

and both Sturges and Mann are able to remain constant in their assessment of their own work - when criticized they don't disappear - they speak to it. I can not say for sure how Sturges has handled criticisms of his work, but he has not retreated from conversation about it, I know this for a fact. Mann also is not collecting thousands of followers on facebook and in social media and advertising by self promoting her images. She has taken the opposite approach - this is how you know the art is about the art, not about a self made photographer wanting to gain popularity or status from it....

Tom Weis's picture

"...not about a self made photographer wanting to gain popularity or status from it.."

OK so Sturges and Mann are real artists and Meg is a glutton for attention... I don't see how that matters (besides there was no social media and barely an internet in 1992 when Immediate Family was published), and I don't think it's relevant in the eyes of the law. Kiddie porn & child abuse is kiddie porn & child abuse whether it's out there on social media, or kept hidden on a single computer.

I own a copy of Immediate Family so I'm familiar with Mann's photographs. I mentioned Mann because I know her work touched a nerve in the nineties.
Her images were carefully constructed because using an 8x10 view camera sort of demands that. They are haunting images.
However, now many years since 1992 I'm the father of two daughters. I would never photograph my girls unclothed or in skimpy clothes & in suggestive poses, and certainly never put those types of images in a book or online to be sold and seen by the public.

So the question - for me anyway - is whether or not Bitton did something illegal. Child pornography? Or (distasteful) free speech?

amy kiley's picture

Tom I appreciate your candor and I like where you are coming from with this as well as the fact that you are familiar with Mann and able to reference some real names when it comes to photo history. I don't think Bitton's work is pornography. My understanding is that in order to meet the criteria of an image being pornographic has to do with the intent of the photographer. I don't think Bitton is trying to create photos with an intent to sexually arouse. I do think she is putting her child subjects in highly evocative poses and costumes with the intent being to gain attention and or evoke emotion. I do believe that she is demonstrating not only poor judgement, but also a blatant disregard for not only the subjects she is using but also those who have actually lived through the real life situations she is contextually using/referencing in her attempts to evoke. She is not interested in how her work affects others, but is highly invested in how she will profit from it.

Mauro Scattolini's picture

Don't mean to offend anyone here, but this article is one of those 'politically correct' western world - mostly north america - type of thing, wrote by someone (don't mean to offend or judge) but that lack knowledge of what happens in the surrounding countries and of what cross kids at that age. Yes, children are being made a sexual type of object, maybe not in your neighborhood, but probably one of your neighbor might have gone in one of those countries for that specific reason. Thailand is the most famous, but it's pretty common to find child prostitutes in Mexico, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Columbia, Laos, Cambodia, etc... We can also discuss about the fact that you can 'prostitute' yourself in many ways, how about the child pageant contest/shows? How about children or pre-teen models? You wouldn't call that sexual? or just because it doesn't involve a 'sexual act', everything is fine?

If you also want a more 'objective' point of view, got my hands with plenty of them: we can start with anorexia which is a disease that involves not just family relationships, but also how people perceive their bodies, and now you can find child affect by it, as low as 10 years old, and that's a western thing. The pageant contest thing is intended as a beauty contest and beauty never ever refers (in that context) to personality or intelligence, but body. In our culture body is strongly attached to the sexual aspects of it (if you want to find more about this, send me a message and I'll provide you all the sources - books - research papers...) and when it's done at the age of 6, that's sexual, it's not what you think but what your brain perceive (also have lot of stuff about this topic).

So please before going down the politically correct road, make sure you've done the proper research, cause kids are being sexually exploited all over the world. In some countries literally, in other with more subtle ways.

This is the same type of thing as 'Muslim women have to wear a Hijab', well nuns do too and none ever bothered to say something about that.

amy kiley's picture

the problem with Meg's photos are that they are not real. Kids who are prostituting themselves are deeply in pain. It is VERY real. But they aren't wearing impeccable, expensive brand new clothing nor do they have perfect hair and make up..they are pimping themselves. It is a painful and very destructive existence and it has lethal consequences. Meg's subjects are from middle to upper class homes obviously and they are wearing make up and designer clothing made for advertising clothes lines. It risks glamorizing to the young girl, and to the world, situations that are absolutely anything but glamorous. That is where the pain comes from in those that have spoken out. It is not a beautiful thing - it is anything but.

amy kiley's picture

same with drug dealing, sexual abuse, domestic violence, etc - it is absolutely igniting to dress models up, children in fact, to look perfect and then propping them up to look like they are in any of these situations in order to create a popular image....if you do, then you have to be prepared as a photographer for the emotions coming at you from those who have had real life experienced with those things, and you need to be able to answer to it....

Mauro Scattolini's picture

Well I see this argumentation can also apply to movies, which are fake and not real even though they speak about it. We can attach to those photos a critique to western culture and society, beauty contests, glamorous fashion shows for children clothing and personally don't even see this as an extreme version of reality. You should see what family do in south of Italy for their communion, look for 'nemo nessuno escluso sposa bambina' on youtube, it's in Italian, but trust me, you don't need the audio. People are making a big deal out of nothing. If you want to make noise, start by writing articles about children that are really exploited.

amy kiley's picture

Mauro I don't understand what you are saying. No one is going to take issue with a real presentation of what is. Photojournalism and photo documentary cover just about every life issue out there. No noise is going to come out of that. What is creating noise here is that Meg has selected a very real and painful life scene, a dark alley, to position and prop children up in what appears to be a very real life situation not to make a statement about this very real situation, but to sell an image. Just because it happens all the time doesn't mean it's okay. And it will continue to happen as long as the masses continue to be consumers to it. If she wants to make a statement about these very real life circumstances why is she not explaining it? If you are using people (minors at that) to make a statement about something whether in videos, movies or photos then you need be able to explain it so that your voice is being heard and in essence there is an actual reason to what you are doing. If you don't then people will draw their own conclusions about your motivation as they have here. The last time I checked most people who make movies, create fashion shows, and the likes can explain what they are doing and why. Whether we agree with it or not there is a thought process there and an end result.

Mauro Scattolini's picture

Have you asked her about the why? an email? a message? And of course you are free to draw your own conclusion, theory and explanations, but this article is not trying to draw any kind of explanation, just a judgmental point of view. I guess that most artist, once they create the statement, they sell it, otherwise how are they going to eat? There are movie out there, totally masterpiece, but most of the people find those disturbing, 120 days of sodoma - by Pier Paolo Pasolini, is one of them. Has also been censored in the 78'. If you want the explanation, you have to dig, dig a lot, read and study the artist, and there is a lot inside that movie. Still most of the viewer do not even scratch the surface. Not mad at you Amy or anything else, just found this article a tasteless nonconstructive criticism, one of those personal point of view that do not add a dime to the discussion.

amy kiley's picture

I am a mother with an 8 year old daughter. I want to protect my 8 year old daughter's image both on line and in life. It is her image not mine. I won't hand her over to any photographer who wants to use her image to express their needs and wants, certainly not with suggestive and exploitative themes. Images form thoughts, impressions, and help to shape the society we live in. I want nothing to do with anyone taking the most precious human in my life as a mother and using her appearance in whatever way they want before she as a human has even had a chance to know who she is and what she believes in. Whether right or wrong the argument could go on forever, for me the answer is and always will be the same. I can't wait to see how my daughter presents herself to the world but it will be over my dead body that I hand her over to someone else to decide that.

amy kiley's picture

perhaps other mothers don't feel this way, so then go for it as you apparently have. Let your 10 year old daughter be the model with the make up, the heels, the cigarettes, it's your call. For me, no way. I love that little girl more than anything and there is no way I would want to have someone use her to portray what is being portrayed. Once an image is out there it is out there and you can't get it back - no way, not now, not ever. Could care less how popular an image might be, what I care about is my daughter.

Gina K's picture

There was also an image of hers in this thread of a topless little girl blindfolded on a bed with a hand over her mouth and another of a little girl with a flogger in a mask. They were highly disturbing (rightfully so) and quickly reported when they showed up in her personal group.

Stacy Swon's picture

I consider myself to be an amateur photographer at best; my real job is as a pediatric sexual assault nurse examiner. Professionally and personally, I find these photos to be very disturbing for a number of reasons. While I feel the photographer is "attempting" to create an artistic representation of children moving into adolescence and all of the elements of that occurred during that process, the end outcome is inappropriate.

The normalization of child sexuality is a slippery slope for all who view it. This includes other children who may view these photos, they may internalize these images and feel that this is how they should be acting. This creates additional opportunities for pedophiles to manipulate and groom children. Juvenile offenders of other children account for almost 1/3 of all the victims that I see; these images that are attempting to normalize sexual behaviors in children will validate their already misguided feelings and misconceptions of normal sexual activity. Regardless of the intent, it is never appropriate to photograph children in a sexual manner; children do not have the intellectual capacity to understand that one situation may be safe and monitored and the next situation may not be safe at all. While in this particular situation, other adults were most likely involved with this "artistic" process so the children were in theory safe, but those who view it do not have a complete and total understanding of what safety measures were in place. This could potentially create an environment where children feel that it is okay for others to take pictures of them in a sexual nature. This type of thinking is never okay, nor should it ever be betrayed as being acceptable within society. Children need to be taught their bodies are their own and it's never okay for them to be placed into a more compromising sexual situation.

We as adults can see this is not pornographic photos, but children do not have the intellectual ability to discern that for themselves. In and my professional and personal opinion this is a dangerous situation that no child should ever be exposed to.

There is more appropriate and constructive way to convey a message, it should never entail exploiting children in a sexual nature. Children do as they see, and unfortunately for some children they may feel that it is acceptable to behave in this manner because an adult asks them to.

Brady Barrineau's picture

Some of those photos by her that were taken down - if any man took those they'd be in some deep shit.

Moira Neale's picture

It is so interesting to me that as I look through her Facebook page now she is very cleverly posting images of pretty young innocent looking girls in big feminine dresses. Some of her old stuff is being posted and she even threw a family image in there for good measure. If you scroll through her page you will not find any of these sexulised images. They have all been weeded out. Lots of new starry-eyed followers adoring her non disturbing images. She has changed from not caring F... Off if you don't like it to this lovely well mannered women who is so pleasant in answering questions. The switch is so weird but so disturbing. Biggest ever sale coming up next. Rinse and repeat.

amy kiley's picture

facebook removed many of them.......bottom line; they were inappropriate and needed come down. Her artistic voice should not be more important than the safety and well being of the child subject. I would guess she will be a bit more careful now to think about the photos she takes and why. I wouldn't want to be her in a million years at this point.

andfireflies's picture

Guess she's all better now since she posted this 8 minutes ago . Looks like the rinse and repeat continues

amy kiley's picture

what the heck is she trying to say for God's sake? Can she explain it? I have no connection to the story here at all...what is the story? Wondering if her point is that you can use photos to tell a story and that will make them more personal and appealing to the viewer. However, I can't find anything personal to grab onto in this story......does that matter? Can anyone who related to this explain to me how it speaks to them? What is the story you see? I don't see one at all so I am genuinely wanting to hear from those who understand Meg's work what it speaks to you.

brittany Ravi's picture

I was very active in her Facebook group for a while. These photos and others made me very uncomfortable, but I was learning from other photographers. The thing I noticed is she uses her FB group to perpuate her views - like she posted a photo of a marijuana leaf and said "legalize it" - what does this have to do with photography? and other things. Every single comment under it was basically the same - you can't tell me in a group of thinking adults there aren't any that disagree, but curiously no - one viewpoint. I posted a comment (later) that was not angry at all, basically "there is a lot of drama in this group, and we are here to talk about photography, not politics" and was kicked out. So to be in the group you must drink the Koolaid, you cannot express any dissent, you must agree with Meg's views or put duct tape over your mouth.

Enufz Enuf's picture

Every image is the same. Same model. Same pose. Same scene. Same slutty clothes on young girls. Same foul mouth comments. Calls people out for copying her, unless you have paid $500 for one of her sessions and then she’s made you an artistic genius. Not a genuine bone in her body. Modesty is a foreign concept. Ugly ugly person on the Inside . She is a joke. Classless trash with an expensive camera and lenses. You can’t change ugly. Wise up folks.