Quiet as kept there is a world where grown men are allowed to regress, to release themselves from business of being an adult and return to a time so long ago, the memories may not even exist, a time when they first came upon the earth and were the responsibility of somebody else.
Adult baby syndrome, more formally known as paraphiltic infantilism or autonepiophilia, is a sexual fetish that involves role-playing to an infant-like state. Those who can afford it may visit sex workers skilled in this particular specialty, where they nurse, drink from bottles, wear diapers, play in groups—basically all the things infants and small toddlers do. Yet they do not follow a set pattern. Each adult baby has their own individual preference for pleasure and practice.
Photographer Polly Borland began documenting babies in 1994 after doing a feature on the phenomenon for a story published by The Independent. She started at the Hush-a-Bye-Baby Club in Kent, England, and began to discover how far-reaching the practice went. Borland estimates there are tens of thousands of adult babies around the world, everywhere from Israel to South Africa, defying the confines of socioeconomic distinctions and sexual orientations.
For five years, Borland photographed the babies, and was given unprecedented access to their world. She traveled the globe, visiting nurseries in the United States, the UK, France, and Australia, to produce a body of work that was first curated for exhibition by Nick Cave in 1999. A year later, the photographs were published as The Babies (powerHouse Books). The book notably featured a foreword by Susan Sontag, who memorably asked, “Are Borland’s pictures shocking?”
You may find out for yourself, as the photographs are being shown in full for the first time since 1999 in an exhibition opening on July 22 at Mier Gallery, Los Angeles. The show, simply titled Polly Borland, features The Babies and Tapestries, a selection of works woven by prisoners as part of Fine Cell Work, an arts advocacy organization in England. The tapestries are knit interpretations of Borland’s 2001 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. The exhibition will be on view through August 19, 2017.
“I for one don’t find these pictures shocking or upsetting,” Sontag wrote. “Shock—which then dilates into aggressive disapproval—seems to me a somewhat pointless reaction to adults who have so dramatically embraced the role of being helpless.”
Ahh, but that primal desire to find sexual agency in powerlessness can come as quite a surprise in a culture exalts strength and punishes weakness. A predilection to find arousal in a state that has been consistently made taboo can be rather scandalous in light of their position at the top of the political hierarchy in the West.
But perhaps it is lonely at the top. Perhaps the expectations are too high and the possibilities are too vast. Perhaps regression is the logical solution to this irrational premise. Without the words of the babies themselves, we cannot know. All that we can do is gaze upon their acts of character and wonder to ourselves.
Borland’s photographs are curious scenes, alternately dark and moody, bright and playful, lonely and isolated, quirky and communal. The babies’ behavior is so curious it might take you a moment to realize how many men are choosing to be baby girls. Does it matter? It’s impossible to know, but compelling to conjecture where gender falls into scheme of things. Babies of either gender are pre-sexual, and yet, here they are represented in the form of adults self-sexualizing.
“The force of these pictures depends on our trusting the photographer that nothing was devised for the camera,” Sontag writes. “That something was being revealed.”
But that something, whatever it is, asks more questions than it could ever hope to answer. But question are always the first line of exploration, allowing us to delve beneath the surface of things in search of new levels of knowledge and wisdom about the meaning of life.
“In the five years of doing this project the most common story I heard was that the Babies felt unloved as children. Some had even recognized their need for acting out these baby rituals as early as the age of seven. They kept their desire to dress or act as babies a secret, which in turn led to isolation and alienation, reinforcing their childhood feelings of neglect,” Borland wrote. “My collaboration with the Babies for this book is based on trust and a desire to bring their world into the public arena. Hopefully it will lead to further acceptance and a greater understanding that diversity and vulnerability is at the core of human nature.”
All photos: © Polly Borland, courtesy of Mier Gallery.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.