Happy Father’s Day: Portraits from America’s Purity Balls

David Magnusson
David Magnusson
Rose and Randall Smoak
Dixie, Louisiana

When the Swedish photographer David Magnusson created the pictures for his series Purity — now on view at the Malmö Museer as part of his first solo show — he followed the same procedure every time. One hour with a large-format camera. Sixteen pictures taken; one used. In front of the lens, a father and his daughter(s).

“I want to see your relationship as a father and a daughter,” Magnusson says he would tell his subjects, “in light of the decisions you have made.”

Those decisions were very particular ones. The subjects of Magnusson’s series are participants in Purity Balls, an American phenomenon in which girls promise to remain virgins until marriage and their fathers pledge to help them do so. The photographer spent three years—and four trips to the U.S. for a total of five months—capturing these images. Magnusson first heard about Purity Balls when he stumbled across a short magazine story about them, and was fascinated: although Sweden is a Christian country, he says the culture is generally very secular and the idea of religion so affecting one’s life seemed unusual.

But, by spending time with Purity Ball participants, he learned that maybe they weren’t so different from him after all. Each person in front of the camera was his or her own person with his or her own reasons, but the core motivation was something Magnusson could understand, even though he has no children of his own.

“I found out that the fathers participated out of the best intentions. They had been taught this is the best thing for their children, and a lot of the young girls had themselves taken the initiative to attend the purity balls,” he says. “I got the idea that maybe the difference between us wasn’t more than the culture of how we grew up.”

And though the movement is controversial, he strives to present the images without commentary. His aesthetic goal was to make the portraits beautiful and his subjects proud, while still allowing people coming from other perspectives to reach their own interpretations.

“I’ve done a lot of photojournalism in the past and I was at a point with my photography where I felt that I presented a lot of answers. My pictures were being read quickly – you could see, oh, this is sad, then you move on – and I was a bit fed up,” he says. “I had wanted to do something with the goal of passing along a lot of questions and information, letting the viewer make up their own mind.”

And sometimes that information was beyond his control. Though he did give each of his subjects the same instructions, the details each brought — the pose of their hands, how close they stood to each other — were impossible for him to predict. “That,” he says, speaking of the father-daughter relationship, “can’t be directed.”


David Magnusson is a Stockholm-based photographer. His series Purity is on view at Malmö Museer in Malmö, Sweden, through Sept. 8, after which it will tour. The work will be published in book format by Max Ström this winter.

Lily Rothman is a reporter for TIME.com.


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