Dina Goldstein: Once Upon a Time

Musée Magazine’s “Controversy” issue is out! Below is my story on Dina Goldstein’s photographic series “Fallen Princesses” that you can check out in the magazine itself on page 67. 

Controversy and art are by no means strangers. As a photographer, it is difficult to avoid it, especially since most subjects worth photographing are by nature controversial, or reveal a provocative narrative. The challenge in undertaking a touchy subject then, is to present it tastefully without censorship. Although, whose taste is the artist serving ultimately… and who determines what is “tasteful”?

On June 3, 2015, a Catholic monthly newspaper published an article about family and faith, using one of the images from Dina Goldstein’s series “Fallen Princesses” on the cover.


The photograph portrayed a not so happily-ever-after scenario for Snow White in which she looks miserable and overwhelmed with her four children, while her husband lies around watching TV. Besides the cover image, the publication included another image from the series—Rapunzel undergoing chemotherapy— in order to challenge Goldstein’s message about reality:

“It was inevitable that people who lost sight of God would eventually turn against fairy tale endings in the name of “realism”.

While the publication’s intention was to disapprove of the series, to which it had a right, it was using the copyrighted images without permission. Now the question is, what is more controversial: the unlicensed use of images in a publication or the images themselves? Unintentionally, the Catholic publication may have just provided great free press for Goldstein!

This wouldn’t be the first time photography has struck a nerve with the Catholic community with unintended — and beneficial— consequences for the photographer; Andres Serrano’s photograph “Piss Christ” immediately comes to mind for example:

Andres Serrano: "Piss Christ" 1987, Archival print on paper
Andres Serrano: “Piss Christ” 1987, Archival print on paper

Those offended by Goldstein’s photographs may not realize that they have made a case for the series’ success; the images have effectively provoked conversations about numerous topics including innocence, reality, cynicism, and faith. It is easy to forget that most Disney fairy tales we have grown up with are versions of Grimm’s original stories which, if anyone has read them, are usually a little more complicated; The little mermaid Ariel sacrifices herself, Rapunzel gets pregnant in the tower, and the wicked queen in Snow White dances to her death in glowing-hot iron shoes. Considering the number of variations, one wonders, “what is more disturbing, reality or fiction?”

SNOWY 2008 Pigment on Archival Paper
“Snowy” 2008, Pigment on Archival Paper
RED RIDING HOOD 2008 Pigment on Archival Paper
“Red Riding Hood” 2008, Pigment on Archival Paper
RAPUNZEL 2008 Pigment on Archival Paper
“Rapunzel” 2008, Pigment on Archival Paper
CINDER 2007 Pigment on Archival Paper
“Cinder” 2007, Pigment on Archival Paper
SLEEPING BEAUTY 2008 Pigment on Archival Paper
“Sleeping Beauty” 2008, Pigment on Archival Paper

Goldstein’s series are particularly relevant now that there is a growing trend towards reimagining fairy tales (i.e. Wicked) or creating more surprising endings (Frozen). However, the concept of a grim (pun-intended) alternative to the traditional “happily ever after” ending visualized in a still image, has produced a torrent of emotional critics as well as supporters. Below are a sample of letters and articles that Goldstein has collected since she first revealed her series to the public:

Who knew fairy tales could be so controversial? It’s clear from these letters and articles that the series “Fallen Princesses” represents more than an alternative to childhood stories. These images are not published in children’s books or promoted for children, which indicates that it’s a conversation Goldstein is having with a mostly adult audience. Perhaps the reason they evoke such passionate responses is that the subject is a recognizable part of most people’s childhood memories. Conjuring up childhood memories is a delicate territory. It is a delicate and vulnerable area, and it is ripe with controversial possibilities.

Interview with Dina Goldstein:

SABRINA WIRTH: What was your inspiration behind the Fallen Princesses?

DINA GOLDSTEIN: When my daughter Jordan was 3 yrs. she began to be enamored with Disney Princesses.  At the same time my mother was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and these two events colliding made me think about the realities and hardships of life: as opposed to the ‘happily ever after’ scenarios spoon-fed to us by popular culture.  I began to imagine these perfect Princesses with troubles of their own and then conceived narratives that placed them in modern times.

SW: Did you imagine all the reactions you would receive for this series?

DG: I could never have imagined the massive response that I would receive from this series.  When the Fallen Princesses first went ‘viral’ in 2009 I was inundated with press requests and personal letters.  Mostly the reaction was positive and many thanked me for confronting the mythology around the Princess culture.  Mothers wrote about their experiences with their daughters who have been enchantment by these characters and their displeasure with Disney, who appropriated the Princesses and have inserted a fluffy version of the original parable into the hearts and minds young children throughout the world.  I heard from young woman who have grown up imagining a life where they would be ‘saved’ by a man who would provide and protect them, only to be disillusioned and left without the tools to deal with the realities of the world today.  I was confronted with some negative feedback from those that had their own interpretation of the work, specifically Red Riding Hood and Jasmine.

With Red the conversation revolves around fast food and obesity. Jasmine, a Middle Eastern character garnishes discussion about discrimination and completely misses the mark about woman at war, my main theme in this piece. Also much of the criticism comes from those that don’t fully understand the underlying social critic that I offer within my work. Despite the many international publications and web sites that have featured the Fallen Princesses in the past, the series continues to go viral, and attract new eyes and much discourse.

SW: Rapunzel is particularly a touchy image for a lot of people. Can you give a little background on this photograph please?

DG: Rapunzel was the first piece that I conceived because it was inspired by my mother’s Breast Cancer.  I wanted to speak to the fact that Cancer is so prominent in our society and that regardless of age, social standing etc.. no one is immune.  Also hair is so cherished in o and beauty standards today dictate what is sexy and what is not.  Rapunzel’s hair is essential to her narrative and I wanted to investigate how would she fair with the loss of it.

SW: Do you get offended by the negative letters you receive in response to the series?

DG: I try not to get offended but actually the opposite happens…I am excited by any response that my art creates.  In fact discourse within my art is essential and welcomed.

SW: How would you like to respond to all the critics?

DG: There will always be critics out there making their positive or negative opinions known.  I am all about free speech and I try to stay open to all views.  I rarely respond to comments because the artist interfering in conversation diverts the whole point of art as a means of discussion and interpretation.  I will however respond if my art is misrepresented and used for propaganda that I do not subscribe to.

To view the published article and read the rest of Musée Magazine’s “Controversy” issue. Click here.

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