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Child’s play VAC exhibit reminds us of our lost youth

Kids need to be kids.

A walk through Sam Hughes’ exhibit “A Photographic Exploration of Today’s Children” at the Visual Arts Center conveys that message in a twofold manner – via whimsical images of children at play and by a series of photos of lonely playground equipment seemingly begging to be used.

The exhibit is the final project completed by Hughes, earning him a Master of Fine Arts from Norfolk State University. Hughes, a longtime photography instructor at Tidewater Community College, says the process of working toward his MFA allowed him to define himself as an artist.

“Going back to school was a real eye opener,” he says. “Trained as a photojournalist and not coming from an art background, going into the MFA program really helped expose who I am as an artist.”

The exhibit centers around this premise: We aren’t allowing our children to be kids anymore.

“Through experiences with my young son, I have come to realize that today’s society is creating a world of anxiety for our children,” Hughes says. “At an early age, adults burden them with who they are to become. Through my photographs I portray children being children.”

Hughes photographed more than two dozen children asking each to show him who they are. The individual photos are all children at play. One is a ballerina. Another showed up in full Norfolk Admirals gear. Two identical twins play tug-of-war. One boy is surrounded by paper airplanes that he tosses about.

At the entrance to the exhibit is Hughes’ personal favorite and the inspiration for the project: his 10-year-old son, Maddox, shirtless with jeans, wearing a Darth Vader mask and carrying a toy light saber.

Each photo makes use of a hand-sewn burlap backdrop and is framed in an antique window. A digitally added compass rose embedded in each image is faint and represents the direction of the child. Stainless steel sheeting on the outside of the frame represents the constraints of society.

The other component of Hughes’ project is playground equipment photographed at night.  Hughes used a LED flashlight when he took multiple exposures, incorporating a technique called painting by light that makes for a brilliant final product. Included in the mix are a lonely clown swing bound for the garbage, a play set with yellow police tape blocking entry and a rusty old fashioned merry-go-round. Each image is framed in actual chain-link fencing, indicating a “keep out” quality.

“Perhaps we should take a look at how we nurture our children today,” Hughes says.

The exhibit is on display at the Visual Arts Center through June 21.