The Marina Experiment: reclaiming images of child abuse

Marina Lutz turned the lens in on her voyeur photographer father, but what did it achieve?

In 1996 Marina Lutz, a reformed heroin user, was tasked with cleaning out her dead parents' garage. She stumbled upon a vast archive of photographs, thousands of images taken by her photographer father Abbot Lutz which chronicled the first 16 years of her life. Some were sexually suggestive, while others hinted at an unsavoury obsession with his child. Lutz spent the following ten years sifting through the archive to compile a short film called The Marina Experiment "chronicling his view of me through my own digital video microphone," she told the Observer last weekend.

The 18-minute film has won nine awards worldwide -- everything from best documentary to best taboo film -- but it has divided opinion. Some see The Marina Experiment as compelling insight into her long-suffered abuse, others as a perversion of her father's art -- that in reversing the lens, Lutz portrays only the most controversial of images and without their context. But surely that there are so many photos is protest to Lutz's suffering.
Brutally cut, she lays bare the secrets of her abuse, denouncing her father through her own mortification. There are pictures of Lutz as child in her pants, on the toilet, and one where she's innocently touching her genitals.

The images are vulnerable, uncomfortably raw and captivating. By contrast, Lutz's edit and voiceover is brash, bordering on crude. The trailer for The Marina Experiment II -- the second installment of her film -- opens with Hollywood action movie music. "When it came to leaving behind 16 years of evidence you picked the wrong gal," Lutz intones, as though she's moments from unveiling a lethal dose of retribution -- which, of course, is her intention.

She lists a string of charges for which she believes her father is guilty: from "routine spanking" to "latent paedophilia". Lutz narrates the images with a quiet, restrained fury that makes her voice seem lethargic: Marina in the bathroom, in a bikini by the pool -- her bottom jiggling and played on a loop as she prepares to leap off a diving board. There were 10,000 photos to choose from, buried in the "rats' nest" of her parents' garage. So why does Lutz pick only a handful and show them over and over? Does she revisit the worst of her ordeal out of catharsis? Or is she trying to make the most of the archive's suggestive nature, pulling together those stray shots, captured in the indiscriminate flutter of the lens?

Lutz told the Observer she wanted to evoke the sensation of returning to the pain she felt when she began to sift through the vast archive. "I used the repetition because that's how it felt going through the archive. I kept finding the same thing and it kept hurting and hurting me. It felt right." It's a disturbing collection. It's not the images' content that build a case against a predatory father, it's the sheer number of them, sexually suggestive or otherwise. It's "the way you feel when someone's standing too close to you" as Lutz puts it: Abbot invading her space, her privacy and chalking his own daughter up to an art installation.

Lutz has been applauded for her debut film making efforts, and yet I wonder if it's enough. The work of art might be held together by her words and edit but the evidence is of his making and it comes highly acclaimed. We're not enthralled by the music or the PowerPoint fonts: it's the awful voyeurism, the concept that someone might have violated his daughter's privacy so fervently. Is it her father's cruel ambition realised?

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt