The word surreal comes from combining the French words for “on” and “real” to signify something that is more than real or beyond mundane life. It also connotes paradox, the concurrence of two or more contradictory realities that can produce disorientation, confusion, nausea.
The dramatic images of child brides in the Bronx Documentary Center’s current exhibit, Too Young to Wed, impart some of those effects. The photos confront viewers with the combination of two incompatible things — the innocence of childhood and the burdens of sex and marriage — and the result is a surrealistic nightmare.
However, photographer Stephanie Sinclair gives us more than an exposé of horrors.
By capturing the complexity of her subjects’ situations, she breaks down the static genus of victim and humanizes the girls living in developing areas from Yemen to India. The girls do not ask us for our help, and we would be fooling ourselves to think our pity changes anything for them, but Ms. Sinclair’s photos also contain an implicit call to action.
A close-up photo of an Ethiopian sex worker that Ms. Sinclair took after the girl suffered a beating arouses a strong sense of sympathy. As a caption describes it, the girl, named China, is stunned as she looks down and holds her face in her hand while fresh wounds on her eyes and forehead swell. Viewing the photo makes us wonder what she suffered, and why — maybe something like the very thought process the girl herself underwent at the time.
Among Ms. Sinclair’s mix of staged portraits and candid shots, she sometimes seems to spare us from a direct confrontation with her subjects. In a portrait of a beautiful, cruelly disfigured young Afghan woman named Bibi Aisha, an out-of-focus curtain both frames the composition and distances us from the person at the center of it, whose family members cut off her ears and nose for trying to run away.
Similarly, a picture of an engagement party for an 8-year-old Afghan girl focuses more on the ritual than the child bride. Light shines on a woman at the center of a fire while the girl herself, Roshan, stands to the side, half-hidden in shadow.