Photographer Profile - Julia Fullerton-Batten: "It was so shocking I thought, 'Surely this can't be true'"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday October 13, 2015

The story Marina Chapman tells about her childhood can seem to be as much fiction as fact. To comprehend it, once is forced to used one’s imagination, because the reality is nearly incomprehensible.

Fittingly, in takes place in Colombia, the home of magical realism.

In her 2013 book The Girl With No Name, Chapman, who now lives in the UK, describes being kidnapped from her home in Colombia at age five and left alone in the jungle. She writes of surviving by copying the behavior of capuchin monkeys, living a feral existence for five years before she was rescued.

“I read the book about a year and a half ago, and I thought, ‘What an incredible story.’ I immediately wanted to learn more about feral children,” says the acclaimed London-based fine-art photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten. “So I started googling like crazy and found all these amazing cases which were totally and utterly amazing to me.”

The result is Fullerton-Batten’s most recent project, “Feral Children,” in which she has visualized 15 of the stories about feral children that she turned up. Among them is the tale of Sujit Kumar, the so-called Chicken Boy of Fiji, whose parents locked him in a chicken coop as a young child in the late 1970s. At age eight he was found in the middle of a road, behaving, it is said, like a chicken.

Another story focuses on an American girl named Genie, who was a toddler when her father tied her to a child’s toilet seat. She lived alone in confinement for more than 10 years, even sleeping in the chair. There is also Oxana Malaya, a Russian girl who was found living with dogs in a kennel in 1991. When discovered, notes Fullerton-Batten, she ran on all fours, panted with her tongue out, bared her teeth and barked.

“When I was doing the research, it was so shocking I thought, ‘Surely this can’t be true,’” says Fullerton-Batten. “I would have to close my computer and go get fresh air. It was haunting me for a while, and I started having nightmares.”

The images she ended up creating are startling vignettes, shot in the compelling visual style Fullerton-Batten is known for: richly detailed and meticulously staged, cinematically lit and narrative in nature.

“I thought, ‘How can I recreate these stories? My style isn’t reportage. How can I tell these stories and make them as believable as possible?'” she says.

The pictures are a mix of fact and fantasy, an act of imagination, or artistry, if you will. “I didn’t want to take just fairytale images of Tarzan,” Fullerton-Batten says. “I wanted to recreate stories in a way that I imagined how it could have been, in my mind.”

The Boundaries of Comprehension

The goal of the series, she says, is to raise awareness of these stories and point people to charities that help recovered children. Among them: Hope & Homes for Children, the Molly and Paul Child Care Foundation in Uganda, the Sujit Kumar Happy Home Trust, and, for more information on the topic, the website of Mary-Ann Ochota, an anthropologist and broadcaster who has studied cases of feral children.

In her artist’s statement for the series, Fullerton-Batten notes that there are only a few instances where feral children have completely adjusted to a normal life — speaking, reading, writing, and communicating.

“Documented cases of feral children are geographically spread over four continents, and vary in age from babies taken by wild animals up to eight year olds,” she notes. “Of course, these cases are only known of because the child survived. It is not difficult to think that there are probably untold cases where the outcome was less favorable.”

Her series also raises broader questions:

“Life is complex, for some more than others, even when we are considering a normal human life. Its complexity varies from one part of the globe to the other,” she writes. “In considering feral children, who are fully human, at least at the start of their lives, how can we not look at my images and question and wonder about the tenacious survival instincts of these 15 human beings?”

In one sense, the feral children series represents a new direction for Fullerton-Batten, who burst onto the art scene in 2005 with her book Teenage Stories, an evocation of the lives of teenage girls as they grow into womanhood. That was followed by similar projects inspired by her own life, including “In Between” and “Awkward” and her 2012 series “Mothers and Daughters,” based on her relationship with her mother.

More recently, she has worked on projects focused on social issues, including “Unadorned” (2012), a series of nudes done in the style of Old Masters painting that examined ideas about body image, and “Blind,” featuring portraits and interviews with blind people.

“For a long time, I concentrated on my own past, and I had enough of that,” she says. “So I started with these projects looking outward at the world, which I find more interesting.”

Nonetheless, in the project on feral children there is a subtext about the relationship between parents and children — about love, caring and common expectations of security — that is quite personal.

“I’ve got two young boys, and I couldn’t believe that these things had happened to children,” she says.

Again, from her artist’s statement:

“My initial reaction was to think how parents could either neglect or lose their child. My maternal instinct goes into overdrive when I consider these young people experiencing their lives alone or in the company of wild animals. Then I consider and admire the fortitude they must have shown to survive such isolation and extreme circumstances. In any of the circumstances that I have read about, it completely overwhelms the boundaries of my comprehension.”

Cinematic Approach

Fullerton-Batten worked on the self-funded project for more than a year, in between high-profile commissions — for instance, shooting the 2015 Campari Calendar  with actress Eva Green. The new series, shot in a number of places around the world, involved a considerable production. “I go and scout locations three of four times before I shoot there, so I know exactly the right time of day to shoot and the angles I want to shoot from,” she says.

To create her cinematic look, Fullerton-Batten works with a movie-sized crew and kit. “I have stylists, stylists assistants, hair and makeup artists,” she says. “There’s enough lighting gear to fill two large vans, so I have about seven or eight photo assistants as well.”

One crucial aspect of the project was casting. “I spent months casting children for their acting ability and their physicality and their looks,” she says. “Some of the actors I chose were a little older than the actual children they were portraying, because their acting abilities were better.”

Several the scenes called for animals, including wolves and leopards, and here again Fullterton-Batten aimed for as much realism as possible. “For the leopard, at first I thought about taxidermy animals, but they really looked like crap, so I realized I was just going to have to hire a real leopard,” she says.

Realism is not reality, of course. Fullerton-Batten uses realism as an effect — a way of approaching stories that challenge our ideas about what can really happen in the world. She creates nightmarish visions and reminds us that they are not just the stuff of nightmares.


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