Can Your Family Photos Land You in Hot Water?

It just takes one bad apple: After a single complaint, mom and professional photographer Heather Whitten found herself in the eye of a storm of controversy. She posted what she thought was a touching photo of her sick son, Fox, and nurturing husband, Thomas, in the shower together. It shows the toddler, who was stricken with salmonella, and his dad cradling the boy as the soothing shower steam washed over them.

“This was November of 2014,” said Heather in a Facebook comment (she posted the pic in May of 2015). “Fox would be hospitalized that night for salmonella poisoning. Thomas had spent hours in the shower with him, trying to keep his fever down and letting the vomit and diarrhea rinse off of them both as it came. It was a powerful moment for us as parents.

“I stepped out and grabbed my camera and came back to snap a few images of it and, of course, shared them,” she continued. “I was taken aback by how many people missed the story or didn’t even look past the nudity.” Heather is a part-time birth photographer, and her images, she says, are meant to capture the reality of parenting.

After viewing the photo, a single individual sent in a complaint to the local authorities, which then lead to a full investigation by Arizona’s Department of Child Safety. For the next few months, Whitten was portrayed as an “immodest, neglectful, and abusive mother.” According to Whitten, this was largely due to the fact that she elected to breastfeed one of her twins during the interview with DCS without covering her breast.

If found guilty, Whitten risked being listed on Arizona’s Central Registry for 25 years. She would no longer be able to foster or adopt children, or to hold a position working with children or vulnerable adults – not just in Arizona but, throughout the country. 

Lacking important evidence, DCS has since closed their case.

However, the picture, accompanied by the hashtag #anylovingfather, became the subject of a debate about social media guidelines on nudity, and the appropriateness of showering or bathing with a child. Facebook removed Heather’s picture twice after deeming it ‘inappropriate.’ But supportive comments in favor of Heather’s family read: “The only thing inappropriate about this picture is the way people are twisting it in their own heads,” and “For those whose brains go to a negative of find a violation or see something sexual, get some help. This is the real world. Kids get sick, violently ill and as their parent you’ll do anything.”

In an online poll run by the Telegraph newspaper 94% of the more than 7,000 people who responded indicated they didn’t think the photo was inappropriate.

After Facebook removed the image, they faced the wrath of backlash from the other side until they reversed their decision, telling New York Magazine and other news outlets that the picture should not have been taken down in the first place. “This photo was mistakenly removed by our team and does not violate our Community Standards,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “We are sorry for this mistake and have restored the photo to the page.”

For now, Heather remains “committed to finding a creative voice that speaks to the celebration of the struggles and triumphs, big and small, of motherhood.”

Every since the rise of mass media, we’ve been bombarded with contrived images of parenthood that are more Leave It to Beaver than anything resembling reality. Have we become so ingrained with falsified images that a raw photo of family life can be considered offensive?

What do you think of Heather’s photo? Weigh in here!

Cover image: Heather Whitten

Tags : parenting   motherhood   parenthood   social media   

Alissa Hamadey
Just... wow. There's nothing wrong with that photo at all.
Camille Aud
Lindsey Velasco
That's such a great photo. People love to be offended – especially in that hellohole Facebook.