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Social Text 21.1 (2003) 83-109

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Photographs Of "Waiting Children"
the Transnational Adoption Market

Lisa Cartwright


This essay considers the place of visual media, specifically child portrait photography, in the culture of international adoption. In 1999 my husband and I began to research transnational adoption for what was to be a personal process: adoption of a toddler-aged child into our family, which included a three-year-old biological son. 1 I found myself immersed in a visual culture in which portraits of institutionalized children available for adoption circulated with surprising ease. Images of "waiting children" performed multiple functions in the adoption process. 2 Brochures enclosed with agency mailings displayed child images captioned with brief biographical or medical data. Agency Web sites offered photolisting links that in some cases facilitated the sorting of children by sex and region for ease of selection. These images functioned initially as lures, drawing prospective clients 3 into the adoption market, helping them to imagine "their" child or themselves as parents of children "like these." Beyond this, some individual images became, for some clients, a coveted family photograph, representing an imagined future family member much as a fetal sonogram might do. Waiting child images also served as tools in medical screening. Many agencies advised clients to submit photographs or video footage they provided, along with the child's sometimes sketchy medical records, for evaluation to one of a handful of practices specializing in adoption medicine before making a commitment to one child. In this use, the image functions somewhat like prenatal test data, in that it is screened for possible empirical signs of pathology. A physician's reading of the photograph or video thus could factor into a client's decision to accept or reject a referred child.

Discussions among foreign officials, agency representatives, child advocates, prospective parents, and parents about child image circulation have impacted positions, policies, and practice among the agencies and countries involved in transnational adoption. Concerns have included the problematic nature of a system where children of poor countries become commodities and their images become advertisements in a global market, the enhanced potential for racial and esthetic discrimination in image-based child selection, and the child's right to privacy. Transnational adoption raises these and other problems deserving critical attention. This essay contributes to these discussions by addressing the function of image classification [End Page 83] relative to client perceptions of a child's cultural identity and health. First, I consider how child images are categorized by agencies in brochures and computer data banks, to demonstrate how visual classification gives shape to children's histories, identities, and futures relative to race, ethnicity, health, and ability. Second, I discuss the special needs classification and the problem of discerning medical or developmental information from pictures. Screening and diagnosis of children at a distance is a challenge: the child's body cannot be accessed, and language and cultural differences make interpreting records difficult. Interpreting casual portraits for medical information has become a common practice in transnational adoption. My specific example is the screening of child portraits for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). This medical technique is beset, I will argue, with the historical problem of pathologizing signifiers of cultural difference. I will consider some problems in the analysis of "racially mixed" and "Asian" faces. Accommodating for racial or ethnic differences in the establishment of bodily norms, or discriminating between visual markers that are believed to signify identity and those that are believed to indicate pathology, are the impossible tasks of FAS image analysis. 4

I should be clear about my stakes in this essay. I write as a participant critic in the transnational adoption world, occupying the roles of agency client, adoptive parent, and volunteer adoption coordinator. I did not shy away from the use of child images in any of these roles. My place firmly inside the world of adoption has done little to diminish my initial and ongoing concerns, as a scholar of visual media, about the troubling dynamics of this image culture. The material I reference could easily be used to support...


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pp. 83-109
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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