The naked newborn baby who appeared on the cover of Nirvana’s iconic 1991 album, Nevermind, is now a 30-year-old man who is suing the band, record labels, and photographer for commercial child sexual exploitation.
In an age where parents habitually share images on social media of their children, the case raises a discussion about how children may feel in the future about having photos shared publicly without consent.
The photo shoot
Nevermind was the sophomore album by grunge trailblazers, Nirvana, garnering unexpected mainstream success. The album has sold over 30 million copies and is a defining album of the nineties, with Billboard calling the artwork one of best covers of all time. But up until the album became wildly popular, Nirvana were just another up-and-coming Seattle-based garage band.
The band, led by the late frontman Kurt Cobain, wanted a submerged swimming baby on the cover. Geffen Records, the band’s label, were unwilling to pay $7500 for a stock photo of a swimming baby. And of the swimming baby photos none were quite what they were looking for, so they hired underwater photographer, Kirt Weddle, to head to the local pool and shoot the photo.
Initially, Weddle tried to photograph babies at a swimming class, but none fit the bill. Spencer Elden was four-months old when his father, Rick Elden, a movie-prop maker who was friends with Weddle, was contacted by the photographer.
‘[He] calls us up and was like, “Hey Rick, wanna make 200 bucks and throw your kid in the drink?”,’ Elden’s father, Rick told NPR. ‘I was like, “What’s up?” And he’s like, “Well, I’m shooting kids all this week, why don’t you meet me at the Rose Bowl?” And we just had a big party at the pool, and no one had any idea what was going on!’
The Eldens didn’t sign a contract or model release and were paid only US$200. The shoot was quick, with Weddle capturing five images of Elden before calling it a day. A fishing line and hook with a dollar bill attached to it was added in post-processing, to make it look like the baby was swimming towards it.
‘It was a great concept—a baby underwater, unable to breathe, going after money on a fishhook,’ said Weddle to Time in 2015. ‘After Nevermind was a big hit, they came back to me to shoot the band underwater.’
Geffen Records were hesitant to show young Elden’s genitals on the cover, but Cobain refused to have it removed. Eventually the band reached a compromise to have a sticker covering the baby’s privates, and Cobain insisted the sticker say ‘If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet paedophile’. In the end they didn’t bother with the sticker.
Three months after the album was released, Elden’s parents were driving down Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard and were surprised to see their naked son on a nine foot billboard at Tower Records. As noted by NPR, before Spencer Elden could speak millions of people had not only seen him fully naked, but owned a picture of it.
A very famous naked baby
Since growing up, Elden has struggled to make sense of it all.
‘Looking back, it feels kind of stupid doing interviews about it, because I had nothing to do with it, but a lot to do with it all at the same time, said Spencer Elden to Time in 2016. ‘It’s a really weird feeling being a part of someone else’s momentum—being caught up in this wake of stuff.’
While Elden has the word ‘Nevermind‘ tattooed across his chest to pay hommage to the album, he has a conflicted relationship with his contribution to one of the biggest albums of all time.
‘I got a little upset for a bit. I was trying to reach out to these people. I never met anybody. I didn’t get a call or email,’ he said to Time. ‘I just woke up already being a part of this huge project. It’s pretty difficult—you feel like you’re famous for nothing, but you didn’t really do anything but their album.’
Back in 2016, Elden toyed with pursuing legal action against the record label. Considering millions of dollars has exchanged hands, the paltry $200 his parents has paid, and the fact that he can’t go out in public without knowing that almost everyone has ‘seen my little baby penis’, I feel like I got part of my human rights revoked’.
In a GQ interview he said ‘everyone thinks you’re making money from it’, and random people think you’re cool ‘because you’re the Nirvana baby’. Now he’s looking to be compensated for it, and is seeking US$150,000 in damages from each defendant, including the members of the band, Kurt Cobain’s estate, Weddle, Universal Music, Geffen Records, Warner Records and MCA Music.
Despite non-sexualised photos of infants generally not being considered child pornography under US law, Elden’s lawyer is arguing that the dollar bill makes the minor seem ‘like a sex worker’. And therefore the image is ‘sexually graphic’.
‘The images exposed Spencer’s intimate body part and lasciviously displayed Spencer’s genitals from the time he was an infant to the present day,’ legal papers filed in California claim. ‘The lawsuit claims Elden’s identity and name are ‘forever tied to the commercial sexual exploitation he experienced as a minor which has been distributed and sold worldwide from the time he was a baby to the present day’.
The upcoming generation will be the first to grow up in the social media age, and many will have had their parents broadcast moments of their life without consent. While some parents exercise discretion by keeping photos private or not sharing certain intimate moments, other parents seem comfortable with sharing it all to a public audience.
Like Elden, it’s possible that some children will have to make sense of how they feel about it when they reach adulthood.