This article appeared in the Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on 3/30/01
Page A1, News; Copyright 2001 by Beth David

Nude portraits raise controversy at UMass
By Beth David, Standard-Times correspondent

DARTMOUTH -- Powerful. Disturbing. Freeing. Perverse. Beautiful. Disgusting. Healing. Offensive.

The exhibit entitled "Century" has been called all of these things and more.

Photographer Frank Cordelle's portraits of nude girls and women, from birth through age 100, attempt to capture the essence of being female in the modern age. They were meant to expose the frailty and the strength of the body and the spirit by laying bare physical scars, haunting looks, and pure, unadulterated exuberance.

The exhibit is in its last day at the UMass Dartmouth Campus Center, where it has inspired both praise and criticism from those who have viewed it.

Mr. Cordelle has spent more than 15 years working on the project, which includes a picture of his mother at age 87.

The portraits were born out of a trip to Europe, where Mr. Cordelle spent some time "bumming around" after college.

"I wound up at a spa in Germany and half the people had no clothes on," Mr. Cordelle said. "It didn't make any difference to anyone, except me. It was real obvious that their society has a more healthy attitude towards nudity than we do here."

Not everyone shares his sentiment.

In a letter to The Standard Times, UMass senior Brock Cordeiro of Dartmouth wrote: "I must take grave offense at the disgusting, perverse and I dare say, obscene display of 'art' at the university.

"If these pictures had been developed at any local photo shop, the police and Department of Social Services would undoubtedly be notified as being pornographic," he wrote. "Child pornography has no place in this community."

Jeri Behling, 29, a junior majoring in electrical engineering, also said she found the display offensive.

Ms. Behling said the display creates a hostile work environment for the cafeteria workers who have to listen to the young male students laughing and joking about the photos.

"They look at naked pictures and laugh about it. It's hypocritical. That's my biggest problem with it," she said.

In a prepared statement to The Standard-Times, UMass spokeswoman Maeve Hickok said, "Universities are places where free expression is protected, even revered. This is most true for those ideas and attitudes which are troubling, even controversial."

Ms. Behling said the display angers her not only because of the nudity and the location of the display, but because of the hypocrisy she sees as obvious.

"The liberals pushed sensitivity issues," Ms. Behling said. "They pushed sexual harassment, racial harassment. I've been to all the training sessions. And then, to walk in and find out it's these same people who are pushing this stuff? But if one of the guys did this at his own desk, he'd be strung up."

The university spokeswoman, however, said the project "is the sensitive photographic portrayal of the female form and the spirit within. It is supposed to challenge the viewer to reflect upon attitudes about the female form."

Juli Parker, director of the Women's Resource Center and a prime mover in getting the exhibit to the university, said the display fits in with the spirit of Women's History Month. Ms. Parker said the overwhelming response has been positive.

"People have thanked us," said Ms. Parker, who teaches "Introduction to Women's Studies" at UMass Dartmouth. "Plus, we like to shake things up around here."

Ms. Behling said that people are afraid to complain to the organizers. "They're only hearing one side of it. I'm getting the other people," she said.

When asked about the people who take offense to the nudity, Ms. Parker said they haven't taken the time to really look at the photos and read the stories that go with them. She said the biggest issue is women who equate nudity with pornography.

Mr. Cordelle said that calling his exhibit pornography is a "knee-jerk reaction to nudity."

"It's not a reasoned response to the pictures that are here," he said.

A handout by Mr. Cordelle emphasizes the healing impact of the photos, especially among women who have been abused.

He said it surprised him that being male made it easier for many abuse survivors to pose naked for his camera. He said he chose his subjects to make a difference through awareness

"Social issues are largely women's issues," Mr. Cordelle said. "Sexual violence as adults is a women's issue. Men don't have that Barbie doll, cover-girl image to live up to.

"To a degree, this exhibit is sharing my experience at the spa in Germany with everyone else," Mr. Cordelle said. "We're saying (nudity) is OK, but it's important to see what women experience and have to go through. There's a lot that both men and women can learn from this."

The exhibit also is presented on the Internet.

Many of the photos portray women who write about rape or who have been scarred by violence, surgery or disease. But mostly, it's triumph over the adversity that Mr. Cordelle and Ms. Parker want people to see.

They believe that the photos show the strength of women because they starkly show the many difficulties that women have to endure: from an anorexic's attempt to become what she thinks society expects of her, to the many women with scars where breasts used to be.

"I see the value in that," Ms. Behling said. "But I think it's women's issues and it belongs in a health center or women's center or art center."

Reaction from many students, however, was mostly positive. According to Mr. Cordelle, nearly 1,000 people have seen the exhibit, and he has heard only a handful of negative comments.

"I love this!" said Michelle deSousa, 18, a freshman. "So many people are into body image and how everyone looks. But everyone has their own look, and we're all women."

Sophomore Mohammad Marzuq, 23, and junior Brian Thorley, 22, took the time to study the photos and read some of the comments surrounding them.

"I like the stories behind it," Mr. Marzuq said. "There's nothing pornographic about it. They show more in the movies."

"I was shocked a little bit to see nude pictures," Mr. Thorley said. "No, it's not pornography. It's done tastefully."