photographing virgins at america’s purity balls
David Magnusson entered the white-dress world of Christian chastity ceremonies and talks to i-D about trying to remain objective.
In 2011, Swedish photographer David Magnusson stood on a stage at the Ark La Tex Purity Ball in Shreveport, Louisiana and convinced its attendees to let him take their photographs. Magnusson, like many of the men in the room, wore a rental tux from a nearby Al's Formal Wear; the girls in the audience (most aged 11 to 13) wore puffy white dresses and had their hair piled high on their heads. They looked like they were at prom, except that their dates weren't teens in braces. Earlier that evening, each girl had stood with her father and made a pledge of abstinence. And her father in turn had pledged to help her keep that vow until marriage.
This was the beginning of Purity, Magnusson's series of portraits of girls and their fathers who participated in Purity Balls across America — in Louisiana, Arizona and Colorado — in 2011 and 2012. Last year, a selection of 28 images were published in a book by Bokförlaget Max Ström in Sweden and soon went viral. This year, they were shown at the Hyères festival in France and earlier this month at Paris Photo in Los Angeles.
We spoke to David about meeting America's teen virgins and the controversy his images have provoked.
How did you first hear about Purity Balls?
I read a short blurb in a Swedish magazine. At first, I was terrified by these fathers who would panic about anything that might hurt their daughters or damage their family honour. But at the same time, I was fascinated by the phenomenon and its dramatic symbolism, which includes using clothing from marriage ceremonies. The more I read in interviews with the girls and their fathers, the more I understood that they were just doing what they were taught by their religion. I was also struck by my own prejudices, because I was so quick to judge these people that I knew so little about. I wanted to create a project that would let viewers make up their own minds.
How did you end up in Louisiana later that year?
It took at least six months of sending emails and making phone calls before I finally found an organiser who was willing to listen to what I wanted to do.
Why do you think the girls and their fathers eventually wanted to be involved?
It's a difficult question. For me, this project was partly about shooting portraits that were so beautiful the participants could be proud of the pictures, while the exact same portrait could tell a very different story for a viewer coming from a different cultural background.
I also wanted to focus on the individuals. That's why I included interviews in the book — to give the girls and their fathers voices of their own. I tried very hard to keep any personal opinions out of it. And I think that was one of the keys to why they accepted being a part of my work. They put so much trust in me. These are girls who are 11, 12 and 13, and they spoke with me about their views on family and sexuality.
You mentioned that it's often the daughters who volunteer first to participate in the balls.
Some of the girls I met were incredibly strong and independent. For them, the basis of their decision is rooted in their faith and their interpretation of the Bible. But the diversity of reasons was really striking. One girl said that she wanted to get an education and have a career and, for her, dating was something you did before you got married, and she wanted to wait until she was married. And most of the fathers were just trying to be the best parents they could be.
What role do the girls' mothers play in all of this?
I was surprised when I came to the US, because 80 or 90 percent of the balls' organisers are the girls' mothers. But the reason the fathers actually participate in the ceremony has to do with the foundation of the balls. It's quite a new phenomenon. The first purity ball was organised in 98 in Colorado Springs by a reverend named Randy Wilson and his wife Lisa. They spoke about the commercialisation of sexuality and how they perceived that putting an undue pressure on teenagers to date and be sexually active before they were ready.
They chose to create this specific father-daughter Purity Ball format because they thought that a lot of fathers didn't take a big enough role in their daughters' lives. Obviously, this is something that comes from very Christian, conservative circles, where in many cases the father is the one working and has a lot of mouths to feed, and I think they wanted to use the ceremony as a way to help create a stronger father-daughter relationship.
What happens in the actual ceremony?
There are different kinds of Purity Balls. In Colorado, it starts with a formal dinner, while speakers talk on stage about marriage and purity, then the girls and their fathers make vows to each other. After that, they hold a ceremony in which the girls pick up a white rose and place it at the foot of a cross as a symbol of their promise to God. Then basically it turns into a big party.
Were there times when you couldn't suspend your own judgement?
Of course, it was a challenge. But the Purity Balls are much, much more complicated that what I'd thought. It's so easy to generalize. But during the time I was working on this project, I met about 50 pairs of fathers and daughters. And just the diversity of their reasons was astounding. Usually, of course, it comes back to their religious ideals. But they're all individuals with their experiences and hopes and dreams.
What's been the most interesting thing about the reaction to the series?
When Purity was first shown in Stockholm last year, people were so provoked they called to boycott it. In Sweden, we consider ourselves to be one of the most open countries to different cultures. So it's interesting when these kind of instantaneous, very strong emotional reactions happen.
Right after the book was released, there was a lot of harsh media attention — I mean the internet can be a dark place. There was one blog post that had 5,800 comments in 24 hours. It was crazy. After that, the most interesting email I received was from David Clampitt, who's on the cover of the book with his daughter, Jamie. He told me that they'd followed the debate online and that while they knew that this would be something very provocative for a lot of people, they are proud of what they believe in and they are happy to have their voices heard. To me, that meant quite a lot. Especially with the internet, I can only be responsible for the work to a certain point, then it takes on a life of its own.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography David Magnusson