David Magnusson: Purity

In certain States of the US, Louisiana for instance, it’s not uncommon for young girls to pledge to their fathers, and to God, that they will remain ‘pure’ until they marry. Over the past few years the Swedish photographer David Magnusson has been travelling to the ‘Purity Balls’ where this pledging takes place, and making somewhat troubling portraits of the young girls and fathers who attend them. Gregory Barker caught up with David ahead of the launch of his new book to find out more. 

Gregory Barker: Could you talk me through what happens at a Purity Ball? 

David Magnusson: A Purity Ball is a ceremony where young girls promise to “live pure lives before God,” and to remain virgins until marriage. In return, their fathers sign a commitment promising to protect their daughters’ chastity. Sometimes rings are exchanged as a symbol of their vows.

The ceremonies differ depending on the organizers, but many of them are held at a formal location like in hotel or a ballroom. The evening starts with a formal dinner with speakers sharing their thoughts on Purity. After this, the father’s sign a covenant pledging to protect their daughter in her choice of purity, and to be an example of purity to her. In Louisiana where the girls are at least twelve to thirteen years old, they sign a covenant with their pledge of purity. At the ceremony in Colorado Springs where many of the girls are younger, the daughter signs as a witness to her fathers promise and if she chooses, she can take a white rose and place it at the foot of a cross as a symbol of her commitment. The girls and their fathers then join a procession and walk up to a stage where they again make their promises to God, themselves, their family and each other.

After that the night continues with dancing. Usually formal at first, later on it turns more into a party, including Christian rap songs like a remix of the Sir-Mix-A-Lot classic Baby Got Back but where they sing “I Like Big Books” instead of what’s sung in the original. It was much more of a party at the end than what I expected, they all just seemed to have a blast. 

GB:  How did you first become interested in the Balls? 

DM: When I first heard about the Purity Balls I imagined angry American fathers terrified of anything that might hurt their daughters or their honour. But the more I learned I understood that these fathers, like all parents, only wanted the absolute best for their children, they were simply doing what they had been taught in their culture and through their religion to be the best parents and role models as they could be. They just wanted to protect the ones they love – in the best way they knew how. 

In many cases it was also the girls themselves that had taken the initiative to attend the ball. This was for me a very interesting aspect of the entire project – and it shed light on my own preconceived notions about the “Purity Balls”. They had made their decisions out of their own convictions and their faith, often with fathers who didn’t even know what a Purity Ball was before first being invited by their daughters. The more I learnt, the more I was surprised that my initial reaction had been so strong and that I had been so quick to judge people I knew so little about. The idea struck me that what set us apart perhaps wasn’t anything more than how we had been influenced by the culture we grew up in and the values it has instilled in us.

In Purity I wanted to create portraits of the girls and their dads that are so beautiful that they can look at the pictures with pride – while someone from a different background might see an entirely different story in the very same photographs. My intension has always been to raise questions then give answers. Whether it is a question about faith, culture, sexuality, differences or similarities, and especially how the way we view the world is shaped by the culture we grow up in and the values this gives us. For me the project has raised more questions than it has answered and I hope this tells us something about our own ideas and preconceptions of other cultures. 

GB:  As a European making images in the US, what is it you think that Purity Balls say about the American culture at large? 

DM: To be honest, that’s quite hard for me to say. I had never set foot in the U.S. before arriving in Shreveport, Louisiana when I started to work on “Purity”, and there I met a society much more religious than I’m used to in Sweden, but what really astonished me was the level of openness and the trust that people were ready to afford in me. At the same time, the diversity of the American culture is just striking. The different expressions of culture and religion are much stronger than I’ve encountered back home in Sweden. 

GB:  Before being filled in on the back story of the images, the first thing that springs to mind are unavoidably paedophilia and child-brides. Was leaving this ambiguity in place an intentional device? 

DM: I think the ambiguity in the interpretation that you’re speaking of has much to do with how the way we see and interpret the world around us is shaped by our cultural backgrounds and the values we have embraced as our own. In Purity I wanted to photograph portraits so beautiful that the girls and fathers I photographed would be proud of the portraits, in the same way as they are proud of their decisions. At the same time I realize that a viewer with a different background might interpret the very same pictures in a completely different way. The interpretation is all up to the viewer, and that is a key part of my work. To me it’s interesting that the exact same photograph can tell such separate stories depending on who’s viewing it – at that moment the photograph also tells you much about the viewer, and I hope to challenge the viewers to reflect on the origins of their own values in their reactions to Purity.

Also, to fully answer your question, I have met extremely loving fathers who I’m absolutely convinced wants only the very best for their children, who doing what they have been taught through their culture and religious beliefs to be the best parents they can be. I have absolutely not seen any indications of anything inappropriate. These parents simply want to protect the ones they love, in the best way they know how.

GB: The photographs are obviously quite unsettling. How did the father and daughters react to the photographs? 

DM: All reactions I’ve received so far have been really positive. They are so proud of their portraits, posting them on Facebook and I’ve had loads of emails asking when they are going to be able to get the book (which was just released in Sweden and will be availiable in the U.S. soon). To me it’s important that they feel comfortable with their portraits, both because the different ways the pictures can be interpreted is an important part of the project, but also since I’ve been given so much trust by these young girls who have taken time off from school, getting their hair and make up done, standing in front of my camera, just to be part of my project. It’s extremely important for me to respect their trust and treat them with the respect and dignity that they deserve.

GB: Why did you choose to make the portraits on agricultural land?

DM: This was something that grew as the project evolved. I first started photographing the participants of the Purity Ball in Shreveport, Louisiana, and immediately became fascinated with the character of the surroundings. Many of the portraits are shot right behind the homes of the fathers and their daughters, but the backgrounds are also a way for me to show my picture of the U.S. where I see this phenomenon happening. It also has to do with a visual aspect, I wanted to keep the backgrounds as clean and calm as possible so that you would be able to focus on the details of the way the young girls and fathers interact with each other.

GB:  Mothers it would seem, are also involved in the balls, why did you decide not to include them? 

DM: The mothers do not participate in the Purity Ball, since it’s a ceremony focused on the relationship between the fathers and daughters, and my project is about the participants of the Purity Balls and the reasons of their decisions. The mothers are, however, often actively involved in organizing the ceremonies.

GB:  Did the fathers or daughters talk to you about their reasoning behind pledging to remain virgins? 

DM: After the photo shoots I always did interviews with the girls and their fathers about the reasons behind their decisions, what Purity meant to them and their views on faith, family and love. The interviews are presented as texts in the book and played back as audio during the exhibition. And to me, it was striking to hear the diversity of the reasons behind their decisions. Of course, their choices are rooted in a strong faith, but at the same time, they are all individuals with their own backgrounds, feelings and hopes for their lives to come. The texts are a really important part of my work, since they give the girls and fathers a voice of their own and emphasize the fact that they are individuals with their own hopes and dreams, which I think that’s a very important thing to remember.

The book Purity was published by Bokförlaget Max Ström in 2014 during the exhibition at Fotografiska: The Swedish Museum of Photography in Stockholm. More about David Magnusson at www.davidmagnusson.se


— Gregory Barker