Heights Nannies are Being Watched Anew

This column orginally appeared in Brooklyn Paper on May 26, 2007:

Great art elicits an emotional response from its viewer. If John Barnard’s photo exhibit at St. Francis College, “Nannies of Brooklyn Heights,” was meant to provoke feelings about a number of issues including race and class relations, it’s a resounding success. (See photo in “Nine Days in Brooklyn” on page 2.)

One would expect a show entitled “Nannies of Brooklyn Heights” to pay homage to the hard-working women who partner in raising the offspring of their affluent employers. Instead, Barnard places focus on the children who are being cared for by using titles that make them the center of attention (i.e. “Six Toes and Looking for Candy”).

Whether Barnard is using his titles as a sleight of hand is up to the individual. But what appears to be an accounting of neighborhood caregivers documents far more than that — a huge racial divide. Every nanny is black and all of the children are white. That, along with the way the pictures are composed, recalls the turn-of-the-century work of photographers Henry P. Moore and Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr.

Both men were known for their historic photos of freed slaves. Moore’s photos are regarded today as staged events attempting to showcase a new racial harmony in America that did not exist.

It was Eickemeyer’s mission to show that freed slaves had assimilated into mainstream America. He traveled the South and snapped his most-famous picture, Uncle Essick, in Alabama: a man posed to look like the quintessential American farmer — right down to his corn-cob pipe.

The St. Francis College exhibit transports some of that cognitive dissonance to 21st-century Brooklyn Heights. The combination of titles, staging and the disconnection seen in the nannies eyes makes the viewer feel that the people in the pictures are slightly out of sync with each other.

While a study of nannies with and without their charges might have been another option for Barnard, the path he chose should foster productive social dialogue.

One place where productive dialogue is not happening is the hopelessly class-ist Web site, “ISawYourNanny.com.” It’s by far one of the worst examples of Bloggers Gone Wild.

“I Saw Your Nanny” flies in the face of everything a freshman learns in Ethics 101. It’s basic premise is to publish user reports — mostly anonymous — of angry, indifferent, incompetent or just plain loony nannies.

While some of the tipsters might think they’re well intentioned, they are little more than fear-mongers. After all, a truly helpful person, upon seeing a horrific encounter, would intervene — not worry about running home to fire up the laptop.

Since the alleged incidents are vague, it’s impossible to track down the nanny (or Mommy for that matter) who committed the act, making the site nothing more than a forum for self-congratulation.

That’s, of course, if you can get through the ham-fisted, judgemental prose that is a hallmark of the site, like this excerpt, which allegedly took place at the Court Street Barnes & Noble:

“I witnessed a nanny yesterday who lost her temper with a little boy. She was not watching him that closely and I don’t think his behavior was good. But if she had been minding him more carefully, he would not have had the opportunity to pick up a book and hold it over the ledge and drop it from the second floor down to the first floor. He was only about 2 years old. A fury rose to the nanny’s face and she smacked the c—p out of his hand. She slammed him in the stroller and looked at him with this evil face. Her harsh reaction to such a small child caused myself and the people in our party to be a bit speechless.”

And so it goes. Even your friendly neighborhood Spiderman knows that “with great power comes great responsibility” — a point clearly missed by “I Saw Your Nanny.”


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