Heather Whitten, from Arizona, is a documentary photographer and mother of four children. She struggled with infertility, fostering, and adoption to get to the place she is at today, and it’s because of that struggle that she enjoys photographing scenes that document the downfalls and triumphs of motherhood.
One day, her son Fox fell ill, so her husband Thomas took him into the shower with him to provide him with comfort and relaxation. He helped the little boy bathe and that was it. Heather found nothing strange about it. She snapped a photograph of the two in the shower and posted it. “It was just beautiful. It was not surprising or anything out of the ordinary; it’s how he has always been with the kids,” she said.
Fox got over his illness a few days later. A few days was all it took for the photo to stir up a lot of commotion on the internet. It had been shared 32,000 times and 140,000 people reacted to it, before Facebook banned it twice. This all took place in May of 2016.
Most people loved the raw image, which portrayed raw parenthood. Parenthood isn’t always glamorous, or what some would consider “appropriate.” Sometimes you eat slobbery, discarded banana mush off of your baby’s cheek and sometimes you accidentally wipe their diarrhea on your forehead when changing a diaper. What is so different about a shower or bath with a child that is too young to even find nakedness inappropriate yet?
Regardless, people have a right to their own opinions. And one individual felt compelled to write a letter of complaint to the Sahuarita Police Department. When the police dismissed the letter without taking action, an investigator from Arizona’s Department of Child Safety spent the next few months dedicated to portraying Heather as an abusive mother, even neglectful. The investigator apparently had only a single interview with Heather about the photo, and that was the only interaction and background she had.
Heather admitted that she breastfed one of her children during the entire interview, without covering herself, which she was certain bothered the investigator. However, breastfeeding is protected by law, whether it be public or private, covered or uncovered.
The investigator’s only claim was that Heather neglected to supervise her children by allowing images of them to be online, therefore putting them at an avoidable risk of harm. But Heather argued that as an artist, she has the right to share her work with the public. Heather felt there was not enough evidence, other than the investigator’s bias against her, to put her in an unfavorable position. However, if the claim was substantiated, Heather would be added to Arizona’s Central Registry for the next 25 years. She would no longer be able to foster or adopt children, or hold a position working with children.
The hearing was on February 3, 2017. On March 8, 2017, Heather posted the verdict to her Facebook with a creative photograph she took herself.
She wrote, “All claims unsubstantiated! Thank you for your time and your patience and your support! You showed up for me through shares and comments and emails and donations and letters and signatures. It’s overwhelming and illuminating. Being able to bring my lawyer on board and to have such a big show of support behind me made all the difference! This case has shaped me, my family and my photography in ways that I can’t even begin to explain. But, this part is over and we could not be more thrilled to put it all behind us! Thank you, thank you, thank you!”