Houston-based photographer Brittany Bentine makes a living turning children into zombies. Bentine is the owner of Locked Illusions, which bills itself as "America's First Goth/Alt and fantasy themed photographic art for maternity, babies, kids, families, and teens." At the photo studio-turned-fantasyland, kids are splattered with fake blood, smudged with dark makeup, and made to look like they've risen from the dead.
Her hauntingly gory photographs of children seem to have struck a nerve as of late. Several people have populated Bentine's Facebook page with nasty comments more or less likening what she does to child abuse. Her work has been called "very disturbing," "demonic," and "sick." One forum post succinctly remarked: "wtf Kill the parents." Even Telemundo did a story on the "controversy" surrounding Bentine's work. Despite the negative reactions, Bentine still has enough clients to make a livelihood. I reached out to find out a little more about her work and what inspires parents to commission these ghastly photoshoots.
VICE: Where did the idea to combine macabre imagery with children originate?
Brittany Bentine: I started with shooting more of the "normal" stuff and grew bored kind of quickly with that. I always wanted to do darker imagery. I have my own children and they actually enjoyed it. So I started with them and I expanded out and shooting more of it. Honestly, I didn't think at first that people would pick up on it, but I figured it was worth a shot.
I have always been drawn to darker things, since childhood. Working with children is something I did with my previous work and thought I would continue with the darker looks. There wasn't much [darker photography with children], so I thought it would be an interesting spin.
How long have you been doing it?
Three to four years of the darker stuff, and about six or seven years of photography in total. It's a full-time thing now.
Do the ideas come mostly from you or from the clients?
I do have a few clients that come to me with a basic idea and I'll expand on that and give ideas for clothing and makeup. Rarely, there's a client that comes up with an all-packed idea already. Nine times out of ten, I come up with the complete concept individualized to each person.
How much manipulation do you do for your pictures?
If there's a prop that I just can't get a hold of, I would manipulate that in. But that's really rare. Usually the only major manipulations for the zombie looks especially are the eyes. I never use contacts on children. For adults, sometimes contacts won't look as good as the actual manipulations do for whatever reason. And sometimes the contacts are awesome. It really is case by case—but there's only so many contact choices out there anyway.
And the blood?
All the makeup and the blood and stuff we use is Blood Gel. There's this one called Bloody Scab—I like it because it's nice and thick in texture. It comes off very easily and it doesn't stain. Though I have used the liquid stuff as well.
Were you surprised by the negative reactions to your work?
I wasn't super surprised. I kind of expected some of it. I guess maybe in a photography forum it's different, but we've been dealing with zombie children for a very, very long time in the entertainment industry—in Hollywood movies and things like that. It's not something brand new in terms of the concept. We have The Omen, we have Children of the Corn, and these are horror films with children characters.
What are your thoughts on the objections about children being models for this type of thing?
Everybody has a right to their opinion. Nobody is going to like the same two things. Some people like landscape paintings and some do not. It's really up in the air—everyone likes something different. The kids are having a lot of fun. No one's being tortured, nobody's being tormented. I've said this so many times: If a child [is] not having fun then that's it. And I have had this happen one time. If they are in distress, if it's not something they want to do, if they become frightened then that shoot would not be happening. I would cut the shoot short. We wouldn't do it. Usually the parents are really good with letting me know: "Hey, my kid's a little shy and a little timid" or "I'm not sure if this is right for my child and this is why." When they start talking to me about that sort of thing, that's when I proceed to tell them if this is not something you are certain about with your child, then it's probably not something you should pursue.
What do the kids say when they see the pictures?
I've had a girl that shot with me a year ago and still to this day she loves it. She's very proud of it, she's very excited. Because they kind of look at it as helping create a piece of art. They know that it's fake, they know that it's fantasy, and whenever they see the final project they're very excited.
Do you have a "typical" customer? I'm sure you have more clients during Halloween; what are other types of occasions you do shoots for?
I get some that come to me because it's Halloween season, but I book all year round. Some of them just really are horror fans and they want this for their living room. Simply stated, they love the look of it. They're very involved in the horror scene and it's a family tradition. One woman may decorate her house in ocean themes and daisies, but the next family may decorate with something more dark and macabre—and that's totally fine. Everybody has their right to preference.
The original editions of many well-known fairy tales were much darker than their current popular versions, no doubt due to the concerns of many parents over exposing younger readers to this subject matter. Do you think people's objections to children participating in zombie or horror themed photo shoots is indicative of the same attitude?
Oh, most certainly. I've read about those things, too. I know that we are very sheltered as a society when it comes to death and the rituals of death. People in this day and age really shy away from that topic when death actually can become a very healthy topic to be had. I've had death in my life, I've lost family members and things. And we're not really prepared as a society for the talk. Back in the day in Victorian times that was something openly discussed. That was something that was not shied away from. And in some aspects, I kind of feel like they might've had a healthier outlook on everything as far as that goes. I've known people that have lost a loved one and it's very hard to talk about things that they really wish to discuss and they don't know who to turn to about certain matters because the discussion would be very taboo. So a lot of times they keep to themselves. But at the end of the day, we're all different and who's to say what's truly right and what's truly wrong?
How do you respond to people who call your work sick or disturbing?
Just because something is not right for you, doesn't mean it's not right for somebody else. Nobody deserves to be treated badly for decisions that they make for their own families. I get people that have said bad things about me or my art. Fortunately for me, I have a thick skin, so it's not soul-crushing. But what does bother me is when people express love for my art and then you have people attacking them and their character. I don't find that very tactful or cool at all. But as far as my artwork goes, if somebody doesn't like it, they have a right to their opinion, and that's fine.
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