YOU have to at least admire the creativity of it.
After decades of self-confessed benefit from appearing on the cover of one of the most seminal albums ever made, the Nirvana Nevermind baby is suing those involved in the creation of the famous photograph. You know the one: a chubby infant, arms outstretched, bobs naked underwater, his gaze trained on a dollar bill suspended on a fish hook.
It was designed to generate controversy and what a success – 30 years on the debate persists.
Lawyers acting for Spencer Elden have filed a federal lawsuit against the estate of Kurt Cobain, his widow, Courtney Love, and his former bandmates, David Grohl and Krist Novoselic, among others.
Mr Elden, who was four months old when the photograph was taken, alleges that the parties involved “produced, possessed, and advertised commercial child pornography” from which they profited.
In previous interviews, the photographer who took the picture has spoken of having a good and long standing relationship with his subject – what a shock for him to be accused of creating child porn. The suit alleges that the image likens the baby Spencer to “a sex worker” due to the addition of a dollar bill.
Unclothed and innocent, the baby swims instinctively towards the cash, and here, three decades on, the adult makes a straight line right for the same.
On social media, Elden has had very little sympathy. Over the years he had willingly recreated the Nirvana album front – albeit always in shorts. Detractors say he has spent a lifetime cashing in on his easy fame: using it to meet “hot chicks” (his words, not mine); to meet celebrities; as a foothold into his career as an artist.
With the very specific lack of empathy society reserves for the rich and/or famous the law suit has been allowed very little truck indeed.
Over the year, though, Elden has expressed mixed feelings about the picture. In 2016 he said: “Recently I’ve been thinking, ‘What if I wasn’t OK with my freaking penis being shown to everybody?’ I didn’t really have a choice.”
In the same year, to the New York Post, he said: “It’d be nice to have a quarter for every person that has seen my baby penis.”
That conflict – from “Yay! Hot chicks!” on one hand, to “The world has seen me naked”, on the other – is entirely understandable.
Elden’s father once said he had received $200 for the photoshoot but didn’t know what it would be used for until he saw his baby son blown up to unnatural proportions on the wall of Tower Records in Los Angeles.
Mr Elden seems to have little beef with his parents for their part in his fame. But the situation sounds a salutory warning to others who use their children as a revenue stream.
With the rise of social media came endless debates about whether it was right to share children’s photographs on Facebook or Instagram or the like.
A snappy portmanteau was coined: “sharenting”. And the debate became so heated that journalists would even stretch so far as to drag in French law as a way to scare off the grown ups from child posting. A few years ago there was a spate of cautionary articles about French parents leaving themselves open to £35,000 fines and a year in prison for posting pictures of kids online due to the country’s strict privacy laws.
Would that happen here? Would hundreds of proud mums, merely keen to show off their wean’s hilarious attempt to use a spoon, end up in Corntonvale.
Of course not, but perhaps more’s the pity. Those fretful days seem such innocent times in comparison to the homespun stars of the modern age.
Family vlogs are an untrammelled money-spinner. Parents and their children make cute or funny videos of their home life and post them on a personal YouTube channel, gaining followers and, if all goes well, advertising money.
Those with a distinct USP – food vloggers or Mormons or parents with 12 kids – can earn thousands of pounds a month from the videos. Most are wholesome larks, but there have been some appalling situations.
There was a craze for “cake smash” videos, where wee ones celebrating their first birthday are given a cake to literally smash up. Toddlers reacting to cakes – so sweet, so relatable. But a craze also developed for pranking children and filming it.
One vlog, DaddyOFive, saw the children involved placed under emergency custody after the children’s father and step-mother were deemed to be abusing the children for the sake of engaging videos.
The appeal of a family vlog is obvious. Parents are paid for the task of raising their children. Children receive free toys and days out in return for enjoying themselves on camera.
There’s a food-based family vlog I find myself watching when the videos appear on my Facebook feed. The couple vlogged before having a child and, when the baby was born, they joined the family business. It’s bizarre how invested you become in seeing the child grow and learn.
It’s self-directed and controlled reality television with parents giving absolute permission to watch their child – and if the parents are ok with it, then shouldn’t the viewer be?
But what does the child want? I feel increasingly uncomfortable watching the toddler, who now has standalone videos without their parents, who cannot consent meaningfully to taking part.
Reading the comments under the video is extremely discomfiting. It isn’t the critical posts that make for the most dismaying reading, it’s those that idolise this little baby and project all manner of motivations and thoughts on to her. It shows a complete lack of understanding of the child’s autonomy.
How will this little person feel when they grow up and realise all their childhood milestones were made public so their parents can profit? Parents should be protectors, not employers, and children who are having a lark about on camera now may end up feeling exploited once they reach an age where they can understand what happened to them.
Plenty will have slick video editing skills and a healthy bank balance. Others will feel conflicted – like Mr Eldon – at best, or grubbily manipulated at worst.
His lawsuit might be thrown out or it may be successful but the scorn with which it has been met shows a worrying lack of understanding of children’s autonomy and how natural it is for young people to have mixed emotions towards a complex situation.
When the Nevermind photograph was taken, no one could have predicted that self-filmed living room life would be the way to fame and fortune but the future of family vlogging three decades hence is easier to see: a legion of grown babies with vengeance on their minds and lawyers by their side.