In 1999, Cynthia Stewart, an amateur photographer and school bus driver in Oberlin, Ohio, was arrested on two felony charges for photographs she’d taken of her 8-year-old daughter, which she had developed at a nearby drugstore. The charges were eventually dropped as the result of negotiations between her lawyers and the county prosecutor.
The saga is the subject of a new book by Lynn Powell, a poet, educator and resident of Oberlin (and, for full disclosure, a personal acquaintance of mine, both a former teacher and the mother of a friend).
“Framing Innocence,” released in October, evaluates the case against Stewart in its legal and social complexity. It also examines the bigger questions her arrest posed over the legal system’s interference in a family’s private domestic life and the responsibility of the average citizen when the law fails a community.
Stewart, a graduate of Oberlin College who had lived in the town for decades, was a familiar community figure. She brought an uncommon dedication to her job as school bus driver, creating seating charts and posting a sign at the front of the bus that read: “Racist, Sexist, Homophobic comments will not be tolerated. Thanks.”
The birth of her only daughter, Nora, transformed her into a passionate photographer. She was intent on capturing her daughter’s growth and routines, and the pattern of their family life together, hoping to create a photographic memory of Nora’s childhood.
The photographs that troubled the police and county prosecutor — images of her daughter rinsing herself in the shower — were snapped as part of that normal photographic activity.
“Photographs became her way of keeping a diary,” Powell says. “It was not some secret archive that she was hiding in her basement.”
The case itself was unconventional in several senses. Stewart had been indicted by a secret grand jury, without communication between the county prosecutor and the lawyers she’d contacted after a first encounter with the police. There was limited investigation by the county into the matter. The criminal case was founded on Ohio statutes stating that one cannot photograph a child if that child is naked and there is a lewd or graphic focus on the genitals, and that one cannot photograph a child in a sexual performance — a charge that interpreted the photograph of Nora rinsing in the shower as her masturbating.
The questions the case raised were abstract: “What makes a photograph indecent?” Powell asks. “Is it the situation in which it was shot? Or is it what you can imagine looking at the photograph? How you can interpret or misinterpret that photograph? And if you can look at a photograph and see something obscene, no matter who you are…is it obscene? Or is it only obscene of the photographer meant it to be obscene?”
Lorain County Child Services brought a second case, one introducing new arguments under obscenity laws. Particularly difficult to establish, community standards determine obscenity in a courtroom. Many of Stewart’s defenders, while they would not have taken similar photographs of their children, felt that the context of Stewart’s family was unique: The camera was always present, and Cynthia and Nora had a distinct relationship as both mother and daughter and as photographer and subject. None were alarmed by the photographs.
The case took a turn when the prosecutor argued that the decency of the photos depended solely on the magistrate’s ability to conceive of the images as obscene. Most of the 30 character witnesses who had been called to establish community standards of decency (including Powell) did not have the chance to testify.
“If it could be seen by this one person, the magistrate, as obscene, then Nora was by law, an abused child. That argument, to us, felt, you know, profoundly wrong,” Powell says. “That’s when the community began to galvanize, began to take action, because we felt that the justice system was not doing what it was supposed to do, which was establish the truth of the situation and to figure out what was in the well-being of the child.”
Powell, a neighbor of Stewart’s who became instrumental in organizing a community response against the county prosecutor who brought the case, is careful both to establish the limits of her own objectivity and her own hesitance to become politically involved.
She also expressed lingering doubts not about Stewart’s intentions, but perhaps her judgment.
“It’s unsettling when someone you know suddenly has this charge,” she says. “If you’ve never had anything to do with the legal system, and most of us hadn’t, you think, ‘Well, the legal system is all about justice, where there’s smoke there’s fire.’ I think, pretty quickly we thought, ‘I don’t think Cynthia would have done anything intentionally to harm her child, or exploit her child, but could she have had bad judgment? Could she have really crossed some line that we ourselves would never cross?’”
The absence of the actual photographs throughout the story is one of its striking details. The prosecution protects the photographs, few witnesses view them, and Stewart never reclaims them. In one of the most memorable passages in the book, Powell recalls finally seeing photocopies of the images, and the certainty of Stewart’s innocence that she felt upon seeing them. She describes one photo in particular, of Nora lying in a drained bathtub and gazing at the camera, as “a riveting photograph — a private homage, I thought, to the glistening beauty of a daughter’s body and to the pleasure a mother takes in the miracle of her own child.”
But she goes on to imagine “a stranger looking at that photograph: a film developer, a policeman, a prosecutor — someone trained to look for the sordid beneath the guise of innocence — or worse, a pedophile who might feel a dark thrill looking down at the glistening child. For a sickening moment, the image in my hands distorted into a sexual invitation.”
This passage embodies the difficulty of the subject matter, and Powell’s commitment to both a point of view and to being honest with her reader within that point of view.
Another figure in the book who rejects the allegations of pornography is the guardian ad litem appointed to the case by Children’s Services, a woman who was a Christian fundamentalist who had dedicated herself to combating child pornography.
“She turned this town upside down investigating the family, she spent time with the family, and she marched down to the police station and demanded to see the photographs. And when she looked at those photographs, even though her ideology and her lifestyle was fundamentally different from Cynthia’s, she looked at those photographs and she said, ‘Wait a minute. That’s not child pornography, that’s a little girl taking a bath,’” says Powell.
“She did a 180-degree turnaround and became that family’s strongest advocate.”
Stewart’s case began to gain regional (and then national) media attention through the efforts of community residents who organized on her behalf. After stories appeared in USA Today and on NPR, the prosecutor began negotiations with Stewart’s lawyers and eventually dropped the charges against her.
Powell, a poet, took years evaluating the interviews, court transcripts and personal notes taken by members of Stewart’s family and legal defense. It also took years to revise the work, her first book of prose.
“The facts themselves don’t make the story,” she says. “It was writing sentence by sentence, learning to write sentence by sentence, prose that feels just as crafted, sentence by sentence, as a poem of mine feels line by line. That was very humbling, and very hard work.”
Most importantly, the time allowed her some distance from the experience.
“I had to get some perspective,” she says. “I was too close to the events to see clearly the story and also perhaps to see clearly the other side. And I wanted this book to be as fair as it could be, within my own point of view. I could let the reader see my own qualms, my own hesitations. And I also felt that because I had let enough years go by, that I could let the community be seen in its complexity, that people would be more willing to let our own struggles…be seen.”