Editor’s note: The following story contains a photograph depicting violence against a child and has been deemed offensive by some viewers.
Few question the talent of young photographer Jackson Potts II, but the image that the homeschooled fifth-grader snapped depicting a scene from Jesus Christ’s Passion put his Texas church in an awkward and controversial position.
Potts was the only child among 15 artists invited by Ecclesia Church in Houston to participate in an art exhibit depicting the Stations of the Cross in the church’s Xnihilo Gallery, which also serves as the congregation’s sanctuary.
But when Potts presented his image depicting the seventh Station, where Jesus fell for the second time while carrying the cross to the site of his crucifixion, the church’s leaders told the 10-year-old artist his modern-day scene of a police officer beating a bloodied child would not be displayed.
For Potts, who devised, organized and created the scene himself, the actors in the photo were intentionally chosen as symbolic figures:
“I thought about how innocent Jesus was, like a kid,” Jackson said. “I thought a police officer was sort of like a Roman guard.”
The photo itself is below:
Photo by Jackson Potts II
Gallery Curator Marc Brubaker confessed in a blog post that he was “struck by [the photo's] power and Jackson’s prowess.”
“It is a heavy photograph that causes a visceral reaction to develop in
many viewers, and I believe that it sincerely fulfills its intent,”
Brubaker wrote. “The Stations of the Cross are supposed to make viewers
reflect on the gravity of the moments before Jesus was crucified, and
I’m very proud of Jackson for accomplishing that.”
But the elders of the church, Brubaker wrote, “had determined it could traumatize small children.”
“I see their point, as well,” Brubaker admitted. “To little kids policemen and firefighters are heroes, incapable of wrongdoing, and to see such a striking and powerful image could, in theory, cause them unnecessary trauma. Small children … often are not capable of comprehending the symbolism behind complex and very realistic depictions; it is difficult for them to separate the allegory from the reality of what they are beholding.”
Potts, in turn, provided a summary of his thoughts behind creating the controversial photograph: “When I came up with this idea for my piece, one of the things that I wanted to show was that Jesus was innocent, and the crowd still wanted him to die. So I used a child (my brother Dietrich) to show the innocence of Jesus and how wrong it was for him to be treated that way. The police officer was just doing his job, as was the guard that was escorting Jesus to Skull Hill. The crowd was angry and violent except the one girl in the blue dress, who represents the people who loved Jesus.”
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The leaders of the church, however, had some serious concerns about displaying the photo, particularly since a congregation member’s mentally impaired son had been fatally shot by police last spring, ironically, by an officer named Jesus.
“Certainly we don’t want to be censoring art or anything like that,” Jeremy Wells, a gallery board member, church elder and artist told the Associated Press. “Artwork being provocative in nature can be beneficial to the church if it’s provocative in the right way.
“We felt it was provocative in the wrong way,” Wells said. “The image, being as graphic as it is, did not draw people closer to the risen Christ.”
Wells further told the Houston Chronicle, “It’s one thing for a child to understand a story of great sacrifice such as that. … It’s another thing for a child to understand symbolism of this sort. Especially with child abuse, and it’s not just child abuse, it’s police brutality.”
The decision, however, created a significant controversy, both within the church – two of the gallery’s seven board members reportedly resigned in protest – and within the community at large
Jessica Martin-Weber, former curator of the gallery, thought the church should have trusted parents to make the decision for their own children, rather than remove the art from the exhibit. A curtain veiling the photograph, she argued in a blog post, should have been sufficient to protect small children while enabling access for those that still wished to see the picture.
“The Christian faith is controversial; indeed, the cross and empty tomb are one of the greatest controversies of all time,” Martin-Weber writes. “Anyone that would claim that the cross is not offensive, that the death of one innocent man for all of human kind is not offensive, does not understand the implications of such conviction.”
“I’m not oblivious to the fact that a police officer beating a child might cause people concern,” Jack Potts, the boy’s father and a photographer himself, told the Chronicle. “But the offensive image is appropriate for the Stations of the Cross.”
Eventually, the church leadership allowed Jackson’s original piece to be shown, but only during the exhibit’s opening reception. The young photographer was invited to create an alternative piece for the remainder of the exhibit.
“Jackson took the news like a champion – I know it must have been very hard for him to hear – and handled it with the grace of a man thrice his age,” Brubaker commented. “All of us stressed how talented we think Jackson is, and that we know he will be creating amazing work for ages to come.”
The Associated Press reports the youngster has been apprenticed by his father through more than a 100 photo shoots in recent years, though the show at the church was to be his first public exhibition.
The photo, however, has since been purchased for $350 and a copy is now hanging in another Houston gallery.