(Belated) comment on the Henson photographs furore

The controversy surrounding the Bill Henson photographs coincided almost precisely with when this blog was offline. There has been extensive and often very interesting debate on a range of blogs, which I found more stimulating than most of what occurred in the mainstream media, which seemed to mostly reflect the extremes of the debate without much acknowledgement or engagement with the complexities of the issues raised. I had a piece published in Crikey on the matter at the end of May, which I had to shorten more than I would have liked. The debate has moved on now, and I’d change some of the emphasis of what I wrote then, but for the sake of posterity (and so I can find it easily if I want to look at it in the future), I’m posting here the full version of the shorter piece I submitted to Crikey.
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May 29th, 2008: 
The furore surrounding Bill Henson’s photographs provides a valuable opportunity for public debate on some complex but very important issues. That opportunity will be wasted if the debate just becomes another rendition of the age-old and moribund ‘art versus pornography’ discussion.

Apart from anything else, this isn’t a black and white issue. Turning it into one will ensure people focus all their energy and attention on putting the case for their ‘side’, preventing us from identifying the many areas where there is common ground and the ways we as a society can more effectively achieve the things we all support.

This issue involves competing principles.  Principles rarely apply absolutely without eventually coming into conflict with other principles.  In such circumstances, we often have to decide how to adequately accommodate both. Sometimes one principle or the other has to take priority.

In this case, the principle of freedom of expression (artistic or otherwise) is coming into conflict with the principle of the protection of children.  I believe freedom of expression is enormously important, but if there is a clear risk of harming children as a consequence, then the protection of children should take priority.

I think most of society would agree with this. The widely supported prohibition on child pornography shows that we already recognise that freedom of speech is not absolute. While I don’t think that Bill Henson’s photos qualify at all as child pornography in their original context, art doesn’t exist in isolation from wider social contexts. 

But there is plenty of middle ground that exists beneath the current sound and fury, and that is where we should focus.

Art does not exist outside our laws or fundamental community standards, especially once it moves into the public and commercial realm. Indeed, much art specifically seeks to connect with people, not sit above them in some sort of ethereal space beyond the ken of the average person.

Art can be about pushing boundaries, as can politics, commerce and many other things. When boundaries are pushed, it often creates a backlash from those who believe the boundaries are being not just pushed, but crossed – or even destroyed.  There is nothing surprising, or even wrong, with controversy erupting. If we can somehow make the ensuing debate constructive and intellectually honest, it can be immensely valuable.

But when dealing with sensitive topics, some sensitivity is needed. Context is very important. A photo hanging in an art gallery context is very different from a photo taken out of that context and spread around the internet, just as a photo of a child swimming is very different in a family album compared to one on an internet page targeted at paedophiles. It can be the same photo, but in one context can be a treasured family memory, and in another at best a gross invasion of privacy.

I believe the gallery made a mistake in putting all of these images online, and even in putting one of the more explicit shots on its publicity material. Of course, far more people have now seen the more explicit of these images courtesy of a multitude of other websites, including many mainstream media outlets who simultaneously decry the exploitation of a child while continuing to publish her picture.

I will leave the lawyers to argue whether or not a breach of the law has occurred, but I do believe the public interest would not be served by any charges being laid. Surely if Henson or the gallery are to be charged, every media outlet which has published the images must also be charged.

In my view, court cases would divert our attention away from where it needs to be focused, and allow us to continue to kid ourselves that somehow the sexual exploitation and abuse of children is the fault of a few bad people, rather than a problem which is deeply entrenched in our society. The majority of people who sexually or physically assault children are not grubby perverts pawing sweatily through children’s underwear catalogues. They are the family, relatives or other adults known to the child who have some power or authority over them.

The heart of concerns about early and excessive sexualisation of children has not focused on pornography per se – whether of children or adults – but rather on the growing frequency to portray young children as sexualised or to expose young children to sexual imagery and concepts. There are also legitimate concerns about sending messages to adults that children can be considered as sexually available, although the aspect of the debate that is being given most consideration is the psychological and developmental impacts on the children, whether as participants in modelling or as media consumers.

The issue of child pornography, while related, is not at the heart of this, in part because no one in the community supports child pornography. An obsession with issues like nudity or over-idealising the innocence of youth leads to distorted attitudes. Young teenagers do explore their developing sexuality and we do not serve them or society well by trying to pretend otherwise. But they should be able to do so privately and ideally alongside family or friends, not have distorted versions of it force fed to them through mass media or left exposed in situations where they are vulnerable to adult exploitation.

Changes to regulation and laws may or may not be part of the answer, but in my view unless there is stronger community acceptance of the basic right of children to grow into adulthood in a safe and nurturing environment, no laws will work. We must focus our efforts on making that environment safer both at the local family level, and at societal level, which is why mass media portrayal of children and the targeting of overly sexual imagery and concepts at children are the fundamental issues. If we all accept that basic right for our children, then the debate can be about how best to ensure that happens and what sorts of behaviour and activities are unacceptable on the grounds that they compromise that right.

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18 Comments

  1. I found it problematic that Henson was facing charges for the gallery photography whilst Russh Australia published a topless photograph of 16 year old model and the magazine continued to be available for sale during and after the Henson incident.

    One was a commercial publication using a topless under age model to sell a fashion magazine. The other was an exhibit at an art gallery. Why the art gallery had the police at the door and the magazine continued unabated would be something I’d love to see explained.

  2. I’ll assume the naievty is genuine Dr Dan, one becasue a screaming morlalist nutter squelaed long and loud and police and scared politicans reacetd accordnignly and two beasue no one complained.

  3. I have a few concerns about this issue, and a couple of automatic questions that haven’t been answered.

    Why does a male person feel the need to take the same type of photos of a pre-pubescent girl over a period of about 20 years?Why isn’t he interested in photos of boys of the same age?

    What would the response have been, if the photos were of a boy of the same age?

    Just because the young girl in question had the permission of her parents, why was it deemed OK. She’s under age?

    Why do artists have their works shown via exhibition? isn’t it to hopefully sell the art?

    If these images of this young girl are going to be sold for money, why is it automatically OK because he’s an artist, but another male would be charged with a serious offence?

    Shouldn’t everyone be treated in the same manner before the law, regardless of their occupation? A plumber with such photos in his/her possession would possibly/probably be viewed in a different light?

    Why can’t people understand, that the main problem is her age. 3 more years, preferabley 5, different situation – she can please herself!

    Is a 13 year old girl mature enough to make a decision of this nature, when she’s deemed not to be old enough, to live on her own without adult care & supervision; drink alchohol, participate in a sexual relationship or stay away from school among a myriad of other experiences?

    Not every person in the ‘art world’ agreed that this was OK. I heard a woman who’s apparently a well respected art critic assert, that this discussion about this artist’s ‘photography’ should have taken place years ago.

    How will this young girl feel in future,about nude photos of her being in different parts of the world, knowing they were exchanged for money? They’re not being given away are they?

    I am passionate about the protection of all children. I believe in the notion, that it takes a community to raise a child. I’m most concerned at the sexualizing of children in order to sell ???

  4. Question: Why do we introduce very strict laws (anti-terrorist, anto-paedophile, etc. with a zero tolerance policy) which cannot be implemented or do not apply to everybody? These laws do not make sense. Liberals were quite quick to introduce unworkable hate-laws and this is one of them. But dura lex sed lex. (Tough law is still the law) . Children under 18 should not be photographed naked and displayed in public, and definitely not for money. How many computers have been confiscated for much lesser reasons?.
    As to the arts and the opinion about it , let me remind that very famous artists very often have very low regard for their colleagues as to the quality of their ‘masterpieces’ accusing each other of plagiarism, lack of talent or morality. ( Braque v. Picasso) Photography, (particularly digital) in our modern times is skills rather than arts.
    The fact that Henson’s photos of naked youth are flashed all over the world does not necessary make him a great artist. There are plenty very talented fine artists, many of them migrants, who graduated from best Fine Arts academies, in Australia, who will never be ‘famous’ because of two reasons: lack of social network and money for a P/R which have become condition sine qua non for being a great artist. The rest is snobbery and money made on ignorant audience. Pablo Picasso was quite adamant that whatever bulshit he doubs he will still get big money because people are so stupid..
    Does it mean that every paedophile trying to get on the Internet now will just make ‘an artistic nude act’ of a child and get away with it? Who can judge a quality of ‘art’. What is the definition of it.? Why the law cannot apply to Mr. Henson?

  5. Re: “a screaming morlalist nutter squelaed long and loud and police and scared politicans reacetd accordnignly”

    Ken: (I think I get it), but I’d not previously had you pegged as amoral, and by the way, you forgot to mention the groundswell of public opinion.

    Naomi Cartledge: What’s with this “new look” Andrew Bartlett blog; I actually agree with most of your points.

    I would have thought the reasons “he isn’t interested in photos of boys” was obvious, but perhaps not in these gay times. To generalise, men are attracted to the feminine form.

  6. GZG – ha fooled you too. However I’m nothing if not literal – I was answering the question posed by the good doctor Dan, a point lost on the techno-legalistic approach by Clifton. The “law’ is broken daily in almost every life situation, sometimes it is enforced sometimes not it is never a black and white issue.

    Not necessarily reflecting my own view of morality. My own view is that the work is little more than adolescent titillation (no pun intended0 and reflection more on the nature of the individuals lauding it and partaking in it than on any merit. However others will see it different and maybe that is the point. Of art in the first place. How that difference may change and grow ones perception of the worls or understanding of the nature of life or for whatever purported intentionj the art is aiming to arrive at is problematic.

    Certainly on this one the saddle sore Bartlett replete with burrs and unable to offer a view other than the gallery should not have shown it after 3,000 words shows the value of years in the Senate.

  7. I think we should err on the side of caution in these matters. I agree with Naomi.

    When boundaries are pushed often enough, it desensitises the society, and then the boundaries can be more easily broken.

    If it were otherwise, we would not now have courts which let men get away with screwing their own children – or middle aged men getting away with having sex with 14-year-olds, with the legal system not even interested.

  8. Gee! Its boring getting old.Sometimes the wisdom teeth just dont fit.Every parent and onlooker of a certain age rightfully allows themselves to feel some matters are being irresponsible.If some perve with a camera,went after the Senator’s daughter,and photoed some like the artwork mentioned here and ,some camera angles from the untied shoe laces angle on a be-dressed daughter,apart from probably laughing at said idiot,would get angry too.Having a larger range of emotional and intellectual responses is not necessarily always the role of artists to explore for others,but seems to be real for our present existences. So whilst I didn’t think it porn,I had another problem with it,about missing persons from NZ in Australia. In fact I have a problem that disturbs me everyday,and ,I could easily go off subject.The disappointing thing about the Henson matter,was there was no indication wether the daughter had been paid or not,and had assisted the family in some way financially! Or in fact,she saw herself as just a mode!? I am making a easy assumption,that in fact,the model has got a good grasp on matters even pedophilia! And now that nothing legal has occurred to the photographer etc.I will apologise to the woman who set the initial complaint!? After all,was she entirely without motivation!?And if met the model,parents and photographer that they couldn’t find a lot in common!? Think about it,they could be a useful team,in escalating times of matters they all feel pretty strong about,I would say. Then there is the other side.The songs of the 60s with sixteen being mentioned.Whose age group… looked on over that age then,with some kindled effect!? Morality has been a shifting target going back to the so-called permissive era..and frankly it stinks!

  9. GZG – Unless I missed something, didn’t you turn my question about Bill Hansen’s preoccupation with pre-pubescent girls – “he isn’t interested in photos of boys”. I asked, “Why isn’t he interested…” I asked that question as I heard some critics waffle on about the sensitivities of adolescence as being his motive for these selection of photos. I’ve heard men speak of their experiences during this time, and they’re pretty ‘fragile’ too! Alluding to the artist’s presumed hetrosexuality, and therefore no interest in taking photos of boys, doesn’t this infer the sexualization of this girl? I have 3 beautiful grand daughters, and I can’t imagine their parents allowing this situation in question. I’d be most surprised & disturbed if it occurred!

    It was ironic that during the public debate about this issue, tens of people(males from all accounts) were arrested for having paedophile images on their computers. If they had downloaded the Bill Hansen phots during the short time they were on the ‘net, would they be used as evidence in a future trial? I’m intrigued by the argument of the arts industry (mostly male I must say, and this includes the responses to ABC 702 Talkback) that as a well known artist, he was incapable of ulterior motives. Why?

    I must add, that I do feel sorry for those men who are decent, caring & compassionate people who feel intimidated and scared, that their genuine loving & affectionate overtures could be misconstrued. It’s this tragedy that turns young men from teaching for example. I feel very sorry about this. Some schools for example, don’t allow visitors at their assembly or other school activities, to take photos – not even of their own child, and the children have all their clothes on. Why do Principals take these precautions, in a community environment like a school, but ‘the art world’ thinks nude photos of a young girl in a public place, with the aim of selling them for money is all right? It doesn’t make any sense.

  10. That’s right, Naomi. We live in a mad world full of contradictions, mostly designed to destabilise the society so that people with hidden agendas can do whatever they like.

  11. Lorikeet,I don’t follow your logic! I don’t believe that those with hidden agendas actually wait for society to destabilize before these sort of situations occur. I really think it’s the opposite, or at best a chicken and egg situation. Did the practice of sexualizing children happen because of the society being destabilized, or did the sexualization of children cause destabilization? If we think the instability causes these negative things to occur, doesn’t that ‘let us off the hook’ re being diligent, caring, compassionate about looking after those who are vulnerable for abuse?

    I have to admit to having a real problem with the philosophy, that artists have the artistic right to engage in activities, that the ordinary bloke down the road would at best be given very suspicious glances. It’s like saying, that bank managers would never rob a bank, or be complicit with those who’d like to plan thus. I don’t go along with the stand of many in the ‘arts industry’ mostly males I must add, that these nude photos of a 13 yr old are different to those of almost identical pose, that could appear on a pedophiles home computer? I’d welcome another argument to the contrary, if only to allow me to think of a innocent rationale?

    My over-riding problem is agreeing with the theory, that these sort of images of a young girl, without the ‘worldly knowledge or understanding’ that people her age can be exploited for ‘the best of reasons or intent’? Perhaps someone can explain where my thinking perhaps ‘falls down’ on this issue.Goodness knows, I’ve been engaged in a ? weeks disagreement with a male person about this! Perhaps there’s more to this Mars versus Venus philosophy that I’m aware of?

  12. Naomi:
    I don’t go along with the stand of many in the ‘arts industry’ mostly males I must add
    As usual, a feminist; generalising and without substantiation. Certainly my own straw poll of (aghast) friends does not lend support to your gender slur (though I confess, I travel in neither your feminist nor the arty circles).

    If factual, your earlier reference to school visitors not being allowed to take photos is an example of ludicrous knee jerk over reaction.

    Has your male friend got any children, daughters in particular?

  13. Naomi:

    My point was that it is the people with hidden agendas who destabilise a society for their own gain.

    The empowerment of children is a case in point. Sometimes indulgence is the very cause of abuse.

    Now to your question about the sexualization of children – not an easy one to answer. It is partly caused by the dip in society’s moral standards, which I think is largely the result of the introduction of the contraceptive pill and the legalisation of abortion – which have both taken away sexual responsibility – also acceptance of pornography.

    Ever since children have been taught in homes and schools that they may make all of their own choices, they have considered themselves much older and wiser.

    They have also been encouraged to dress as adults from a fairly early age, copying the dress of rock stars.

    Parents seem to show very little leadership these days. That’s why fairly young children are verbally and physically abusing their parents – threatening to sue adults – and attacking one another.

    I think a natural progression has allowed men to get away with screwing their own children, and middle-aged men to commence relationships with 14-year-olds.

    Empowerment, destabilisation and sexualisation work together in a complex destructive interactive mix.

    GZG:

    I can assure you that Naomi’s reference to school visitors taking photographs is factual.

    Last night we had the “King of Childraising Expertise” on TV advising parents on what to do if they were aware of bullying taking place in a school.

    Unfortunately the man is very naive as to what a school principal (particularly primary school) is likely to do when approached.

    Education Queensland works primarily in damage control mode, protecting teachers and its own legal back. Schools are legally responsible for all that goes on when our children are in attendance, and as such, if the bully’s parents threaten to sue, you can be sure that very little discipline will follow.

  14. ALL:

    This could not be any more open and shut. Gender has no place in this. We should not be distracted by it, because it does not matter what gender the child or photographer are. This person took photos of a naked underage child. That’s it, end of story. That is not up for debate because no one can deny this is what occured. That is fact. What is being debated is intention, and if you ask any decent, reasonable and responsible persont what the intention of any adult who wants to take nude photos of a child is, you are sure to get the same response from any decent, reasonable and responsible parent. That is that the intention of such a person, for whatever reason or purpose is neither reasonable nor decent.

    The lure of money or other incentives can often be a powerful reason for anyone to do things that they are not otherwise comfortable being a part of or consenting to. This is the reason that the law exists, to protect those who cannot protect themselves from those with ways and means to abuse and use them for their own personal gain.

    As for it being art, anyone who believes it’s art should take a long walk off a short pier because this type of “art” and person is not needed nor wanted in any decent, modern and moral society, and is only wanted by, and produced for, those with ill-intention towards children and therefore SHOULD be sort after and prosecuted by the police.

    Society is already on a downward spiral of moral values and decency and certainly does not need any further encouragement from the “arts”. Sexualisation of children is leading the charge towards this new and continuing low in decency and should be condemned wherever and whenever it is seen.

    NO IF’S.
    NO BUT’S.
    END OF STORY.

  15. GZG “I don’t go along with the stand of many in the ‘arts industry’ mostly males I must add”. Richard Glover had discussion about this on 702 several weeks ago. The majority of callers disagreeing with these photos being ‘art’ were females; those who thought it OK were predominantly male. The same happened on ABC TV News, 7.30 Report and Lateline. The male I was referring to has adult children, one is a woman. I haven’t sought her opinion yet. My friend probably thinks it’s innocent as he’d have no ‘ulterior motives’ himself.
    Even if I thought it was ‘art’ I still would have concerns about these photos being sold, while the young girl may not be able to think of future repercussions. In 2 or more yrs she may be mortified, embarrassed? We don’t know, and that is also the point.

    Lorikeet, I don’t believe that the contraceptive pill or abortion has anything to do with this. Contraception is the best friend woman have; and removes many situations of unwanted pregnancy. Males & females have always engaged in sexual activities, but it was the woman who paid the biggest price. As for a downward spiral in moral standards, what about in Henry V111’s era (before and after)- young poor girls were used & sexually abused as a part of life.What about all the sexual abuse by priests and other ‘uplifting members of society’? Pornagraphy has always been around too, either in the ‘paper medium’ or having slaves doing erotic dances etc for the males. Aboriginal girls & women were raped & sexually abused by the colonialists, pastoralists,pearl divers etc. Only a week or so ago, the UN was talking about the evils of rape in war. None of it is new – we just hear about it more these days!

    A woman dies in Australia every 4 days as a result of domestic violence. There’s almost 100 men arrested (Aust)to date for having revolting images of children-part of a global network. We need to have some serious guidelines I feel. I agree with Matthew. We must protect children.

  16. Oh, Dear!

    You have all missed the fundamental problem; that of religious, commercial and political manipulation through the distortion of community perceptions of what is decent and just; destabilising the psyches of all of us and leaving us confused and disoriented.
    I’m not going to enlarge on this statement: If you can’t see the rationality of it you are not about to be convinced by rational argument.

  17. More recently we have had the naked photograph of a little girl on the front cover of a magazine. She and her quite eccentric and very peculiarly dressed father (to say the least!) defended the photograph on TV.

    I don’t like it when an 11-year-old girl is allowed to open her mouth and have a large say on an issue that should only be discussed between, and decided upon, by adults.

    I agree with Matthew, but it upsets me that some people cannot see a connection between the empowerment of children and paedophilia (see paragraph above as but one example) – or a connection between the moral decay of our society with the contraceptive pill and abortion.

    Rolly:

    I don’t think it’s fair to assume that everyone else doesn’t understand what you’re saying. Not all of us are confused or disoriented by it.

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