The suspended exhibition of Bill Henson’s photographs of pubescent nudes provoked an excellent discussion over at LP. I haven’t written about the matter here until now because I’ve had to sort out my feelings on this one: as someone who grew up in the social nudist movement I hate the way that nudity in any context has come to be automatically associated with pornography, and yet I see the necessity of ensuring that minors are not exploited for sexual imagery as well.
At this point it should be emphasised that none of the photos display genitalia, so no charges of pornography can possibly be laid (although charges of “indecency” may be, despite the opinions of the NSW Law Society), and indeed only a few of the images show nipples on an undeveloped breast. I have to wonder whether being interviewed by the police, and the inevitable revelations at school about having modelled for Henson’s photos and the consequent marginalisation, are not going to be far more traumatic than the experience of posing for photos exploring the sense of bodily transition during puberty could ever have been. In the normal run of events the exhibition’s short run at small Paddington gallery would not have led to such broad publicity: Henson has had exhibitions for years which have only received art press, and indeed a major retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW a few years ago, of work with very similar themes, brought no howls of protest whatsoever. The artistic community, including now-adults who modelled for Henson as minors, is very strongly defensive of the artistic merits of his work, especially in light of PM Rudd’s denunciation, while at least one psychologist claims that any image of naked teens will encourage paedophilia.
Ms Lamble says that although she believes Mr Henson is not a pedophile, his photographs still send the wrong message about the sexualisation of children.
“We’ve got mixed messages going around. We are trying to tell society that it is wrong to sexualise our young people, we are up in arms about push-up bras and make-up and all this clothing for young people, but then we say it’s OK to hang photos in a gallery and call it art.
“Even if they are beautiful, even if the mood and lighting and the composition is beautiful and it’s a very talented artist, it’s still giving the wrong messages because you don’t know who’s viewing them,” she says.
The latest outcry demonstrates that society has become more sensitive to any hint of the sexual exploitation of minors: the question is, have we become too sensitive? The gallery owner is receiving threats to both herself and the gallery in the wake of the publicity, and Hetty Johnson of Bravehearts is contending that any nude images of children are obviously pornography even if the law says that only photos that include genitalia can possibly meet that definition. Ms Lamble’s last line in the quote above is a classic slippery slope argument and it troubles me: it’s well known that paedophiles get aroused by looking at underwear catalogues for the children’s section of major department stores, should we ban those as well because “we don’t know who’s viewing them”? Let’s extend that slippery slope all the way to reductio ab absurdum, shall we – all sorts of fetishists become aroused looking at all sorts of images: if someone gets sexually aroused watching horse races because they get off on torturing horses, should we then ban all broadcasts of horse racing?
Since I wrote very strongly against the sexualisation of young girls in advertising in 2006 (and on particular images here), my position on Henson’s photos may seem confused, but it’s actually very clear: sexualisation is not just about how much skin is showing, it’s about the way that the skin is presented and posed, what is emphasised and what is not. The girls in that advertising were photographed in “come-hither” poses, by all reports these photos of Henson’s continue the themes of his earlier work, which is anything but “come-hither” in its presentation, as he is examining the awkwardness and awareness of change rather than posing the minors in sexy adult positions. I certainly understand the argument of Michael Reid:
“I think the sexualization of children is an extremely important (issue),” said art market analyst Michael Reid. “The question is: ‘Was there consent?’ which I can’t answer, and ‘Has the image been sexualized?’ In my opinion, it wasn’t.”
Reid is quoted in more depth by the SMH:
“I have noticed people are prepared to give their opinion without actually seeing the photographs,” he said. “I find this quite disturbing because this debate is very important.”
Mr Reid said he judged the artistic merit of the work to be valid and not pornographic.
“The main photograph in question is in the style of the Old Masters,” he said. “The model is enveloped in a black velvety shroud and she is backlit. She is very still. There is not any sexual charge about the image. It is quite restful and contemplative. She is demure.
“I was aware of the child sexualisation issue but that does not exist here in my opinion. Bill Henson had done a huge body of work that goes across a whole range of areas . . . this is a debate that has to happen – but rationally.”
Rationally, then. Surely the way to combat our society’s fetishisation of nudity as always sexual is not to hide nudity away more than we do already, but to allow social nudity to become more normalised. This would involve a deeper understanding, hopefully building to a natural awareness, that people enjoying the sensation of the breeze on all of their skin are not necessarily indulging in a sexual display. Certainly when one is part of a social nudist community, sexual thoughts are simply not automatically provoked by the sight of “private” skin: people are chatting, cooking, playing sports and supervising toddlers while naked and it’s just not a big sexual deal.
For instance, in my experience growing up as a nudist, clothing was far more provocative than the naked body. Indeed, when teens hung around together at night at the nudist clubs I frequented, the sign of flirtatious interest was to put on some clothes. Those who stayed naked at night, as they had during the day, were sending a “keep off” signal, as all these social nudist clubs have strict “no sensual/sexual touching while publicly nude” rules.
The nude in art can be vulnerable, certainly, and our society’s prurience and broad fetishising of dominance can make vulnerability be perceived as erotic , but the nude can also be haunting, confronting, disturbing and even powerful, which appears to be more the themes that Henson explores in his work. But is that enough? Bluemilk has an excellent post analysing the various issues of images of child nudity, and presents a different and valid emphasis than my own response, (flavoured as it is by my personal history of social nudism), and quoting Clive Hamilton’s take that it is different now than it was 10, 15 or 20 years ago:
I’ve argued that previously when perhaps it was a more innocent age, then artistic representations of children, as is the case with the Bill Henson exhibition, wouldn’t have provided difficulty.
But in an age where children have been so heavily sexualised by commercial organisations and by the wider culture and where there’s so much more alarm about paedophilia then I think the presentation of a 12-year-old girl, for instance, naked to the public, really has quite a different impact and raises new concerns.
Sadly, Clive Hamilton does have a point. Again, I argue that the ideal solution is more casual and comfortable social nudity, not more taboos against nudity, but I have no specially good ideas about how to bring that about.
Rosie Ryan at ABC blog Articulate has a round-up of other blog opinions.
Barista worries about the consequences for the gumnut babies, amongst other things.
Categories: arts & entertainment, culture wars, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, media
There is one photo where the girl’s vagina is shadowed by the shadow cast by her arm. It was deliberately lit that way. She isn’t covering herself, there is no sense of shame in her posture. I got the impression that the message was ‘there is nothing to see here, this is not the focus of this photo’ and found it a rather touching picture of a young girl on the verge of adulthood, but still very much a child. It wasn’t, IMO, pornographic because it wasn’t titilating. She wasn’t trying to hide anything, she wasn’t posturing, just beautifully posed.
I understand where Bravehearts is coming from, but as you say if you banned everything that turns people on we’d all have to stop looking at everything.
I sought out Hensen’s photographs online and while I don’t know if they are the ones featured in the exhibition (or that were featured as the case may be), some of the images I came across were quite disturbing. I appreciate and admire many of Hensen’s images but as I said, some I found disturbing. This was mainly because of the age of the models and the poses they were in. I just wonder if a minor can give true informed consent about something like this.
I’m seeing this from the perspective of a Mum who sees her own children nude everyday and loves their chubby bums and beautiful straight backs and strong legs and marvels that I had anything to do with their creation, so for me the Henson photos capture a moment of innocence. Over at Bluemilk, one of the commenters has posted her teenage daughters opinion of the photos which is quite different, and coming from a completely different perspective, which has made me think deeply about where I’m looking from.
Yes, that comment struck me too, Mindy. The pertinent part:
I’m with her right up to the point where she describes the images as an adult fantasy. That is her subjective reaction, and there’s nothing wrong it being so, but that doesn’t make it the only interpretation available. Henson’s stated objective of attempting to capture the ambivalent thoughts of adolescents about their changing bodies seems just as valid an interpretation. Her response, despite the nuances she articulates, seems largely to be caught up as much in the “nudity = sexualisation” equation that I’m arguing against as Hetty Johnson’s is.
Just added a link in the post to Dave Tiley’s post at Barista, where the debate in comments is much more along straight censorship/porn lines.
Is there an underlying assumption here that Henson’s photographs of adolescents have nothing to do with sex or sexuality? I can’t tell which of his online photos were in this particular exhibition, but there are certainly some which are highly sexualised: the photos of adolescents deep-kissing in their underwear, the photograph of a sprawled naked girl in dark bushes with a smear of red on her inner thigh.
I don’t know that I can completely agree with your dismissal of the “adult fantasy” evaluation. Is it the “fantasy” you object to, its connotations of sexual fantasy? Because it’s an adult behind that lens, an adult constructing and posing and presenting the images, and furthermore it’s an adult who has never been an adolescent girl. I think the argument holds water, so long as you don’t read it as necessarily a sexual fantasy.
I have a huge problem with the way the discourse has gone on both sides, and in _no way_ are the ban-advocates worse than the free-speechers in this respect. There has been plenty of discussion about what’s wrong with the way the ban-advocates have gone about things; their major problem, I believe (and they’re not all doing this), is concentrating on the “But is it art?” and “Will anyone get turned on?” questions rather than questions of consent. Skepticlawyer does look at consent, and also raises the point that Henson did some (much?) of his photography in Romania; she wonders if he did this to circumvent legal problems with consent.
On the other side? Major, major problems also. The biggest one I have a problem with is the “he who smelt it dealt it” (thanks baroquestar) argument: that if you see any allusions to sex in the above images, “YOU’RE the PAEDOPHILE! HA!” Come on, people.
There are also threads of “it’s expensive and classy and beautiful, so it can’t be problematic”, “feminists are all just religious-right-like puritans at heart but won’t admit it”, and a whole lot of invalid comparisons to censorship of literary fiction and private baby photos.
And then there are the people who seem to be saying “Well no one has a problem with sexualised pictures of girls in advertising, or the Miley Cyrus picture, or pole-dancing lessons for grade-schoolers, or Bratz dolls, or Britney’s teenage marketing, so why does anyone suddenly and out of the blue have a problem with this?”
Plenty of feminists have been having plenty of problems with some or all of the above for a long, long time. Sometimes I really do feel invisible.
The debate has, understandably given the circumstances, become entrenched in legal rights and bannings: based in an ethic of justice, not an ethic of care. I’d really like to see more feminist discussions of it. In other words, I share your wish for a more nuanced debate, and one that isn’t a bunch of adults, mostly men, at the centre fighting over the images. However. I’m also a bit wary of buying into something that is already a thoroughly entrenched war where both sides are stereotyping, mischaracterising, and abusing those who don’t 100% share their views.
I wouldn’t argue that about all his work, but certainly the picture that most of the fuss has been about doesn’t appear to me to be sexualised, even though it depicts a body with emerging secondary sexual characteristics and the child’s sense of awkwardness about these changes is part of the study. I think it is possible to separate sexualisation from sexuality, although I acknowledge not everyone might agree.
Consent is problematic, I agree. If genitals were on display I’d be more concerned whether a minor can consent. I’m unconvinced on the issue of minors being unable to consent for more general nude photography, although I acknowledge that my nudist upbringing might well be blinding me somewhat here.
I agree that some of the arguments along those lines are invalid. However, some of the opposing arguments do seem to almost ask us to put ourselves in the mind of a paedophile and ask “would a paedophile find this arousing?” before making judgement, and I don’t find that valid either.
I think that images that don’t show genitals can still be considered porn (even if not legally). But I understand that the sexual connotation in many images is open to interpretation.
Interesting comment Lauredhel. The image that most disturbed me was the one with the girl on all fours (her waist down was blocked out of the picture but it definitely appeared to be an all fours shot) with her head down and hair sort of tossed to the side. It looked to me like a very convincing implication-of-sex shot.
I’m fairly set on my position on this, and have blogged it twice. I will admit though that on individual points I keep flip flopping. I do object to being painted by some (where the blog has been linked) as a conservative interpreting the issues from a blinkered, panicked perspective.
One of the biggest issues for me is Henson’s appropriation of teenage sexuality. I’m all for the idea that teens have sexual identities that are complicated, frightening and confusing – I think it’s more helpful for them to interpret that themselves though than have a (much older) photographer do it for them.
In the Henson case, the issue as I have said, also relates to internet facilitation of pedophilia and child pornography across borders. That’s a slam dunk,
The photographs were in a gallery. They are only widely viewed on the internet because Hetty Johnson and others made them into a cause celebre. Nice work.
I have my own reservations about Henson’s photos. Segueing from Audrey’s comment, there was also a picture of a girl being lifted or carried by the arms by two youths. It had an uneasy caravaggesque air of something not right. Of course adolescent rape exists same as adolescent consensual sex does. But that does not make it pornography in my book.
“PSFs”? Whatever. Never heard that before. Sex Pos is what feminists usually call it. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
I have no doubt that somewhere on the net there are scanned photographs of me as a naked teenager in the late 70s playing volleyball or tennis at a social nudist club, and that some paedophiles would find those photos titillating. It really doesn’t worry me that some of the people who will look at those photos of the under-age me would be aroused by them, and I don’t think that their arousal, on its own, is sufficient reason to ban such images. There has to be actual directly harmful exploitation of the minor, or the intent for the images to be sexually titillating as an indirect exploitation.
I acknowledge that there is a very different context between photos taken at a nudist social event and photos taken in a studio, and that studio images can be presented in a very different way from candid snaps. It bothers me though that people are reacting to Henson’s other work on adolescents available online, where the models are clothed or legally adult, and assuming that the photos with unclothed minors that are the centre of the current furore are necessarily directly comparable. I don’t know whether they are or not, but I’m not persuaded that they necessarily are. Certainly much of his other work is highly sexually charged, but the one image that I’ve seen of the images that were taken from the gallery by police does not appear sexually charged to me.
Henson’s history of interaction with his under-age models is personally spotless from what I’ve read. Their parents are there in the studio, he doesn’t touch them, they can end the photoshoot at any time. He has no history I can find of attempting to have sexual relationships with his under-age models either when they are minors or when they become legal adults in later years. So there is no direct harmful exploitation. The case, then, comes down to evaluating the intent to create sexually titillating or explicit material which would be a form of indirect exploitation and potentially prosecutable. This is very much in the eye of the beholder.
P.S. I also wonder about the possibility for artists interested in working with minor children for artistic purposes having a special form of license for such works that might result in a better model for the consent issue – what if the parents give permission for the photos to be taken of the minor child, but then the film negatives/memory card is given to the child (or even better, a nominated trustee) for them to keep until they are legally adult, and only then can they sign a release form for the images to be published? Would that strike people as ethically satisfactory?
I very much doubt that they were. As I understand it one single image (the 13 year old nude girl standing shadowed) was on the invitation postcard that the (small, exclusive) gallery sent out to the people on their mailing list.
On reflection, I’m deleting a comment made (1:40pm) because of the gratuitous insult to feminist interlocutors in the final line.
Addit: It also contained statements that are potentially defamatory.
This debate is almost hilarious, the fact that half the world would not have even known about the images or the photographer himself if so many people had not made such a fuss is laughable. To say that these images are pornographic is a joke! Does this mean that advertising material created with images of children modelling underwear is also pornographic! If a paedophile wants to seek images this can be done is so many ways, not by seeking out high art.
I also think that those researching Henson on the net have to be careful that they are discussing the correct images. Some comments here revolve around images of a teenage couple kissing in underwear and another of a girl with blood running down her leg are from a series done many, many years ago. These in this case are absolutely irrelevant!
Personally i find it sad that we live in a society that cant distinguish between art and pornography, or one that does not have an open mind to dicuss these topics rationally. We are talking about a photographer with a very distinguished career, not just someone who has produced a bunch of images for shock value – surely that needs to count for something.
Has anyone also stopped to think that perhaps this is a series of images devoted to the vulnerability of minors and the prevalance of paedaphilia, therefore the fallout from all of this is simply bitter sweet irony! Art should be about social commentry, it should mean something as well as being executed in a most professional manner, it should spark debate, but no one should be prosecuted for it, what has become of freedom of expression. If you dont like it, then simply dont view it.
Freedom of expression does not apply as a protection from prosecution for criminal acts. “High” art should not be free from examination as to whether it crosses criminal lines with regard to child pornography.
In my opinion, the images referred to from this exhibition were not pornographic. As you say, other work of Henson’s is highly sexually charged and should not be confused with the images at the core of this particular furore. Henson may quite possibly be deliberately treading a very fine line with his series on adolescents with respect to what is and isn’t pornography, and your idea of examining vulnerability to sexual predators may very well be a conscious portion of his artistic intent, but if he has crossed the line into the criminal act of child pornography then he should not be immune from prosecution just because it is “art”.
Whether he has crossed that line is, of course, precisely the matter under legal examination. Then there are the ethical issues of whether consent from the parents is adequate or not. I offered a possible model for ethical consent for minors above at comment 16, whereby a conditional consent for the photographs to be taken could be made while underage but that no publication could take place unless the subject signed a release form once they were legally adult. I wouldn’t mind some feedback on whether others would find such a model ethically adequate or not.
I was sexually abused as a child in the 1980s. Thousands of photographs were taken and two or three super 8 movie reels. I can tell you it looked nothing like the Henson photographs.
I think we have to accept that paedophiles potentially will find any image of a child potentially erotic. I think this is inescapable but, I also believe that for most of them the Henson images would really be way down the scale of interest. If everyone is serious about stopping these people finding something titillating in the images of children, then the only logical answer is the most extreme which is to stop people photographing children altogether, which is absurd.
I do not believe closing down the exhibit because someone might find the images titillating–like I say I do not think they would–really has any traction here. This controversy has brought out the worst in society, now with the gallery owner being threatened.
Also, we as a society are in real trouble if we start equating nudity inescapably with sex. Why, because this makes every parent or family member who has ever taken a naked photograph of their child a pornographer.
For me to come to this conclusion is difficult because of my history of being abused and suspicion about the motives of photographers. But like I said before, any image of a child is potentially stimulating to a paedophile, so drawing a line based on potential provocation is the beginning of a very slippery slope indeed. This is something I think neither Hetty Johnston or Miranda Devine, who is appears started this widespread community outrage of two, thought of. The Law Society summed it up when they said that the next thing is police examining the baby photos at 21st birthday parties.
Hetty Johnston is certainly a problematic in all this. Because she is an anti-paedophile campaigner, everyone is too scared to question some of her other underlying motivations and philosophies lest they be paedophile sympathisers! This is problematic because she does not represent the voice of all abuse survivors and it is sheer hubris on her part that she might think she does. We are certainly dealing with a serious issue in the community, but her scatter gun, bordering on witch hunting approach is wrong.
Coming to these conclusions is difficult, but I am decisive. I am still getting over my abuse. I found out 8 years ago a friend of mine had abused children before he suicided. So there are complex issues to deal with at the outset that I ruminate over them for sure. But in the end, picking on Henson’s art is madness and if the charges stick, woe betide anyone who photographs children again.
Thank you for sharing your story, Dan.
My thoughts exactly.
Thanks for your thoughts too titog. I discussed this whole fiasco with my wife the other day. I said to her I thought they were barking up the wrong tree, picking on Henson.
I am certainly not soft on these issues. Recently I have been complaining about teenagers doing ‘dare’ videos on youtube. Why? because they invariably when they do one like “drink a tube of tomato sauce or whatever” they then get comments like, “I dare you to take of your clothes and…” Now if zealots like Johnston were serious they would focus there attention to that sort of misconduct which is actually tangibly dangerous.
Apparently Hetty Johnston has been quoted as saying that “she doesn’t hang around with chardonnay sipping arty types”. I do not think she realised that this public scandal that was really created only by her and Miranda Devine which now the pollies are all buying into, actually does not quite have the popular support they thought it had. Some of the poll result have been surprisingly in favour of Hanson but it depends of who conducted it. By the way, I am not a chardonnay slugger, but I acknowledge art has an important part to play in our culture, including art like this.
I think all the power has gone to Hetty’s head. Hollingworth was right to go, that was her doing as well, but really, do we want someone like her as Australia’s moral guardian? I certainly do not, however it will take the voice of a prominent Australian (it needs to be a woman too) to publicly and accessably question some of her more extreme politics and methods. Just because you want to stop paedophilia does not automatically grant you beatification!
No doubt child abuse needs to be tackled seriously. But a mccarthyite like inquisition that persecutes the innocent for a higher cause is unacceptable.
Since tigtog did talk about Henson’s earlier work and themes right in the post, they’re entirely relevant on this thread.
13 year old girls do not usually pose nude for an old man. The shots are certainly erotic and suggestive.The shadows contribute to this effect.
In fact, I don’t know of any parents who take such shots of their kids.
I have seen the photo’s and one in particular clearly exposes her hairless vulva.
I definitely would not want some old geezer(even if he is a great photographer) taking a suggestive pic of my 12 year old daughter. These are unnatural poses for a juvenile. Of course, if it had been of an adult female, it would have been a different story.
The photographs actually gave me the creeps.
And, what about the issue of consent.Is the girl mature enough to understand the implications here. How will she feel in say 10 or 20 years time?
Certainly they are relevant to considering his body of work, although I’m not sure how relevant other photos necessarily are to the consideration of the photos which have been removed by the police.
Sally Mann is celebrated for doing so.[link] [link]
[edited to add: also, as I explain in another post, I myself posed nude for photos at age 14, enthusiastically and with my parents’ permission]
That’s contrary to what I’ve seen reported elsewhere, Kathy. Are you sure that wasn’t a shot from the same exhibition but of an older model with a wax job?
Pavlov’s Cat and Lucy Tartan have both posted strong contributions to the Henson debate.
There’s a doco on Henson’s work on the ABC tonight at 10pm.
I think it’s important to note that he started taking images of adolescents thirty years ago, and he’s only 53 now. When he started he was not much older than his models, and since then he has built a glittering reputation not only as an artist but also as someone who can be trusted to treat under-age models with respect in the studio. This history and how it influences the youths who choose to pose for him (and their parents)should not be discounted lightly.
Um…it looks like I have upset Lucy Tartan with my post, and probably that I have posted it in several places and annonymously. My appology in advance if this offends anyone else. I feel given the circumstances I need to tell my story because I think it can help in a positive way to put things in context.
I am have been deeply shaken by many things in life and ALL I seek to do is find the TRUTH. Truth is something I have a deep hunger for actually.
The point of my point is this: A sexual abuse survivor can have a positive attitude to Henson, because, I realise there is a great gulf between exploitative abuse and what he is doing. Also, while I am not arty farty as such, I think art that makes us think is important.
Dan, I can understand LT’s reaction to seeing exactly the same cut and paste. It’s just not good netiquette, particularly when moving among blogs with a shared readership.
Nonetheless, I thank you for sharing your views. While I accept your explanation of your actions in provisional good faith, it’s not hard to understand why others might have some doubts about your sudden appearance without a commenting history on our discussions. I hope that you can manage to not take that too personally.
Tigtog I went to the gallery website and viewed the pics myself, sometime before they were removed. There was only the one pic but yes the girls vulva was exposed.A similar pic where her hand was strategically placed covering her vulva was the pic that has been published in the SMH and The Age.
(c) Child pornography means any representation, by whatever means, of a child engaged in real or simulated explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes.
But Henson’s work does not depict children in explicit sexual activities– certainly he seems to go to great lengths to ensure that for the children and adolescents involved, the experience is non-sexual. Furthermore, I think you’d be hard pressed to argue that any sex organs included in these pictures are primarily for sexual purposes. While some photos may well convey a sense of adolsecent sexuality (because adolescents do have a sexuality), sexual titillation is not the primary purpose of the picture.
The only way you could reach this conclusion is if you think that ALL nudity is sexual, and honestly Tigtog has addressed that issue so very thoroughly by this point that there’s no need for me to reiterate.
By the way, I think the children in underwear catalogues are NOT topless– they’d be wearing some sort of bra– it’s just that their poses and positioning would be more explicitly sexual than Henson’s photographs.
Tigtog, I just wanted to say that I’ve really been finding your approach to this refreshing and informative. I think I have similar biases to you– I wasn’t brought up nudist, but nudity was never really taboo in my house either, and my mother is an artist, so we would often have pictures from her life drawing groups scattered around the place. I’ve also done life modelling as an adult, so I do have personal experience with being nude in a non-sexual context.
I’ve been thinking about your suggestion regarding the film and memory cards being held aside until the model comes of age, and I do think that could work. I also seem to remember reading, however, about a photographer who took nude images of adolescents (I don’t know if it was Henson or not, but it may well have been), and he gave them full control over how the images were used– he would let them withdraw their consent to use the images at any time, he would not use them in a new context without their permission, etc. Of course, if he’s selling images that becomes problematic, because you can’t withdraw consent regarding an image that’s been sold to someone else. Of course, you could simply say that the images can’t be sold or distributed until the model has given permission at the age of 18, while they can be used in the context of art exhibitions in which the work is not for sale.
Thanks, Beppie. I must admit I’m surprised and a little disturbed to hear that an image of a minor’s vulva was part of the exhibition, although I’d have to see the image in question to see whether what we’re referring to is as obvious as Kathy makes it sound (and actually see it, not just a small reproduction online). But again, so many people are reducing this to a facile NUDITY=SEX therefore P0RN equation, and I simply don’t think it is, nor should it be, that simplified.
These bright lines delineating black and white areas are very popular, but I find them ethically disturbing, because life is rarely lived in clearly delineated black/white arenas. As I said elsewhere, our laws in the case of unlawful death demand a full examination of the mens rea of the defendant and the individual circumstances of the death with respect to motive, premeditation, intent, accidental or negligent use of excessive force etc etc when determining culpability for an unlawful death. If we’re going to go for a bright line of “naked children – gaol the perv” then why not just go back to “dead body – lynch the stranger”?
From a comment by Nabs at LP:
This record of decades of well-placed trust should count for something, and that the laws regarding indecent/pornographic images of children should take contexts such as these into account. Paedophiles/hebephiles attempting to point to Henson as a precedent are going to have to explain the difference between their subjects suffering harm and alarm and how Henson’s subjects have been neither harmed nor alarmed.
Also, it would be nice if people in the mainstream media could acknowledge that Henson’s nudes are not all of little girls. He has shot both genders at various stages of adolescence, including some who are legally adult but still physically immature.
Somehow Henson’s almost identical images of young boys age are not found as generally disturbing by the public, which I suspect is due to the effect that Clive Hamilton described, that living in a culture where our media is saturated with sexualised images of (clothed) young girls but not with similarly sexualised images of young boys has made us overly prone to view young girls through a purely sexual lens.
It isn’t clear cut as you think. Many people who have been sexually molested do not experience overt or self-identified symptoms of harm until many years, sometimes decades later. The stereotype of abuse/paedophilia is that the harm is immediately apparent and the victim is distressed about it from the beginning. That completely mischaracterises the nature of the crime. Abuse/paedophilia does not usually occur in a way analagous to rape. The abuser gains the trust of the victim and there is frequently a very strong bond of affection. Alarm does not have to be part of the scenario.
Also the description of Henson as polite, shy and gentlemanly may be an accurate description of him but it is also misleading as a marker of safety. The testimony of his models is the only thing that can speak to trustworthiness.
Thanks for the reminder, Su. I did know that paedophiles/hebephiles work hard on gaining trust and avoiding alarm, and thus bypass children’s instincts about appropriate behaviours, but I overlooked it in my analysis.
Agreed, Nabs’ description of Henson’s personality is far less relevant than the testimony of his models as to his trustworthiness. I find the descriptions of his photo-shoots as always including the parents reassuring (although of course I know that parents cannot, sadly, always be trusted either) as well as the testimony that he simply doesn’t touch the models.
Well, in those jurisdictions the law is an ass.
With regard to Henson, I think it’s important to note here that it’s not just a matter of the models saying that they were not abused– they are also saying that it was not a sexual experience, at least in all the reports that I have read.
I could be wrong here, but my understanding is that in situations where an adult grooms/manipulates a young adolescent into “consenting” to sexual activities (as opposed to the direct use of force), the adolescent will usually have an awareness that what they are doing is sexual. So while the lack of alarm may not be a very good indicator of Henson’s integrity, I think the fact that his models (as far as I have seen, at least) in no way saw their modelling as a sexual experience is definitely significant.
Yes I think that is very important. The people who have spoken about modelling for Henson so far have described a respectful process where a very great deal of care has been taken to ensure that they are completely comfortable with what they were doing and where there has been no sense during or(most importantly)after the shoot that there were exploitatively sexual connotations to their experience.
What you say about adolescents is not true for children who, depending on their age, may only become aware that an experience is ‘sexual’ some years later. My purpose in talking about this is to point to the grey areas because there are many. An abuser also can go to a lot of effort to ensure his victim’s comfort. In attempting to define why Henson’s work is not harmful I find that people are drawing distinctions that are not actually helpful. The distinctions are mostly subjective; the states of mind of adult and adolescent or child.
Have there been any interviews with models who were photographed naked in childhood? The ones I’ve seen referred to was one woman who was photographed clothed as a child, and one who was photographed naked as a woman. Skepticlawyer also says that he sourced some of his models in Romania; I don’t know the detail there, or the source, but it doesn’t seem to have come up in the media.
Either way, I think tigtog’s idea of delayed consent could possibly be a useful one, though that wouldn’t of course automatically make the shoot itself not an abusive practice; that would be situational. There could also be some issues around delayed payment that could constitute coercion and that might need to be examined also.
Skepticlawyer also says that he sourced some of his models in Romania
Yes, I read that. From what I remember of the Romanian pictures in the Henson retrospective a couple of years ago, they are people wandering in big, ruined, deserted, Gothic architecture buildings: crumbling stone, marble tiled floors, columns and so forth. Very shadowy, black and white, kind of eerie. I don’t actually remember whether the people in them were dressed or not, or what gender they were, which perhaps says something about the overall focus and impact of those particular pictures.
Interesting about the Romania pictures, Laura. I tried to look up stuff about them after I read SL’s comments and could only find photos of ruins, as you say – in the small images available online I couldn’t notice any people particularly.
Regarding comments readers may have previously seen containing allegations of potentially defamatory statements:
I have received a communication from A Certain Person which offers a link to rebut a statement of mine, but confusingly this link appears to have nothing to do with the actual words A Certain Person alleges are potentially defamatory. A Certain Person also refers to a picture as being contained in the linked webpage when there is none.
A Certain Person’s incoherency has become simply tedious, and I am still unclear on what exactly A Certain Person thinks is defamatory. Life is too short. Therefore I am deleting every comment of A Certain Person’s on this thread, and all responses to any of A Certain Person’s comments as well.
I apologise to other readers if this makes the discussion appear somewhat disjointed.
This whole furore (or as I just saw it described in Beat magazine, “Moral Panic of the Week”) was probably inevitable, human nature being what it is.
I went to a Henson exhibition at Ian Potter (I think) a couple of years ago and respectively found the photographs dazzling, confronting, beautiful, intriguing and uninspiring and unnecessary. Some of his most poignant works revealed a sadness and vulnerability in his subjects that anyone who has been a teenager could surely relate to. Of course, Henson’s focus is much larger than what the current “Panic” would have us believe.
Our collective neuroses re: the body and sexuality is being projected onto Henson’s work.
There have been comments that the abuse of children is more rampant today as a way of explaining why people are more concerned about such things. What the????? As compared to what golden age in history.
It won’t be long before the furore dies down and the next “Moral Panic” is created.
That’s a lovely picture of tigtog in the other post.
She was lucky to grow up in an environment more conducive to creating a positive image of the body. Most of us didn’t.
As articulated by sublimecowgirl over at LP, given that complaints were made I think it is right and proper that the appropriate authorities should investigate the circumstances under which the photos were taken, and that advising various galleries not to display the images until such investigations were completed would have been quite within the bounds of reason.
The very public removal of the images and press-conference comments about seeing whether charges should be laid, such comments being made before a single interview was conducted, are where the official over-reaction comes in, which only goes to feed the carefully fostered public outrage.
I do realise my good fortune in that regard, Darlene. Mind you, various forms of media are so pernicious with regard to instilling an unrealistic body image that it was only a partial inoculation.
Fair point, but it raises the question of why (if concerns were held about the circumstances surrounding the taking of the photos) of why it has taken so long for a response. Henson’s been around for a long time.
His pictures only came to the attention of the people who made the complaint recently, Darlene. I’m sure that if Hetty Johnston had known about them years ago she would have laid a complaint years ago.
Right, I have been avoiding reading about this topic and I have been avoiding reading blogs about anything(as part of my new-found liberation from blogging) so I appreciate getting the ins and outs of the case.
Well, Hetty is certainly passionate. I’m not convinced she’s got it right this time, but it’s good to have the likes of her out there.
I fear that while all this discussion is going on, lots of kids are getting abused in very real and different ways in their own homes. Alas, the press never seems to get outraged about cases of violent abuse until they’ve got a picture of a (usually poor) cute dead kid to put on their front page. Then they’re outraged at the social workers and the “system” blah blah blah, but then they shut up again till the next dead (poor) kid. Sorry for sounding cynical.
This is probably the best, most thoughtful debate on this issue I’ve read anywhere so far. I don’t know if my thoughts add anything to what’s already here, but I’ll try my best. 🙂
When I was in high school (and a child myself), I was part of an artistic production that depicted a 13-year-old girl’s sexual awakening and included kissing, plenty of sexually charged language, a “bedroom scene”, drug use and violent death including suicide.
Despite involving and depicting minors in this way, no steps were taken to ban Shakespeare or to arrest my drama teacher. For exactly the same reasons, we should defend Henson’s artistic work, not persecute him for it. Just like Romeo and Juliet, Henson’s work may shock or horrify the viewer. But both works hold a mirror up to humanity, wherein we may spy the vulnerability of youth and its inherent preciousness. I certainly know I personally got immense value from my exposure to this kind of culturally contextualised exploration of youth issues.
On the topic of context, I think that the context of Henson’s work is one of the issues his detractors seem to completely miss. I read one opinion article on The Age website which argued that Henson’s work, in a men’s magazine, would be illegal, and rightly so. But to me, this is putting an article into an absurd context – just as viewing Henson’s work online is. A clay pot in a kitchen is a commodity – its context turns it into an article for use and consumption. A clay pot in a museum is studied and revered; it is analysed for its historical and cultural significance.
I’m shattered that the thoughtful context in which Henson’s work has always been displayed has now been violated by reproduction in newspapers and news websites, cropped out of composition, often with black “censoring” bands or bits pixelated out. All of a sudden, the images have been defaced and commodified – irreparably cheapened by consumption and reproduction. This makes it too easy for Prime Ministers and philistines alike to discount the artistic merit of the works in question. It’s no more difficult that throwing an old clay pot out of the kitchen.
ozartist, I think a drama production like that would cause a huge scandal in the current climate; probably bigger than this one!
Teenage/emerging sexuality needs an open discourse. The trouble is that the older you get, the more disturbing the thought is that someone so young would have curiosity, feelings etc. Perhaps there are different forums for dealing with the issues that arise in different ways, but brushing it under the carpet, I believe is no way to deal with it honestly.
Now slightly off topic, it is a big taboo, because to suggest that young people are sexually active or even just experimenting seems to some people to be giving the green light to all sorts of perversion. Well young people do experiment, so how do we put that in a context that is not so alarming? I do not have an answer for that. I do think the general problem of the discussion of emerging sexuality being so taboo at the moment is manifest in the reaction to the Henson photographs, although surprisingly, the polls seem to suggest most people are comfortable with the work.
I find absolutely nothing sexual in any of the images I saw. I would say this however, and this is the way I said it to my wife: if you walk into a gallery a see a photograph like this and your initial reaction is ‘whoa, that is amazingly beautiful’, then your second reaction is ‘my god the model is a kid’, then you feel decidedly uncomfortable, it really has to start provoking us to think collectively about how much our society equivocates ‘beautiful’ with ‘sexual’, because that is what probably creates the discomfort. There is a disjunction of our expectations. On simplistic but useful response would be that ‘beautiful’ comes in all different forms and ages.
I think a portrait of an 80 year old done in this reflective sombre style could evince the same response and perhaps pose even more questions for reflection.
Dan, I think ozartist’s point was that the play s/he described was in fact Romeo and Juliet, which has a long history of being performed as school productions– I actually very much doubt that there would be much of a furore over it today.
I am familar with Romeo and Juliet. To clarify what I meant (what I think I meant to say since I probably skipped several steps of reasoning) is that if a newspaper decided to describe a school production thus:
When I was in high school (and a child myself), I was part of an artistic production that depicted a 13-year-old girl’s sexual awakening and included kissing, plenty of sexually charged language, a “bedroom scene”, drug use and violent death including suicide.
I think a larger scandal would errupt.
Also, I think in sane quarters there would be no furore over Romeo and Julliet however I am unconvinced that some people, if they knew what the story was about would not find it obscene.
Exactly – a lot of the people now saying that the context of artistic intent is irrelevant when it’s Henson taking photos of naked youngsters would see no problem at all with their own 13 and 14 year olds taking part in a school production of R&J, because of the context of the narrative and Shakespeare’s literary status.
Sorry Dan, our comments crossed – I was responding to Beppie. I agree that if the plays plot was described baldly without reference to Shakespeare or the characters Romeo and Juliet the likely reaction would be outrage.
Lauredhel, with regard to my idea of sequestering images taken of minors until they reach legal age (sorry that I missed addressing this earlier):
I’m not sure that Henson pays any models as such. I believe they receive their own gallery quality copies of their favourite images from the shoots, which with an artist of Henson’s stature amounts to an investment.
Dan– I see what you mean now, and I agree. Sorry to have misinterpreted, and I shall be sure to read more carefully next time. 🙂
That’s OK Beppie–there was a bit of a congitive lapse in the sentence structure 🙂
There was a bit of an uproar over Zeffirelli’s 1968 film of R & J, though, with its nude teen actors. I was taken to see this movie with my form when I was at school.
The texts are different now on the first year literature-to-film unit I teach but wen R & J was on it, students were serious and careful in thinking through the ethics of treating such a story as entertainment. Few people were inclined to let it pass just because it was written by the great WS – his status isn;t unquestioningly accepted any more – although I think that did incline them to give the play a fair and careful scrutiny which they were less willing to give Trainspotting, which we also studied.
I left out the main thing I meant to say! Which was to add to Dan’s comment about R & J in the current climate, that I very much doubt a filmmaker could cast the thirteen year old Olivia Hussey & not much older Leonard Whiting in the parts now particularly if they were going to do the aubade nude. Claire Danes was sixteen when Baz Lurmann filmed her, and she didn’t take off her clothes.
I should also perhaps say that Dan emailed me privately and I’m sorry I was standoffy when he posted at my blog (he mentioned it earlier, thought I’d clarify.)
I know the Zeffirelli film. I would conjecture a film like that done today would have some difficulty passing the censors. It probably would eventually after much fuss.
All of this business with Henson reminds me of Sen. Dianne Kelly (NP) making a fuss about Lolita (was that 10 years ago now?) suggesting that it promoted and celebrated deviant sex and had no artistic merit whatsoever. I also remember about 2 months later a video came out of Australia Navy personal doing a barstardisation ceremony. It was very graphic and Kelly’s reaction was “well boys will be boys”.
Oh, sorry I meant to add to my last post that my wife and I were discussing how these scandals seem to be something that we in the English speaking part of the world seem to suffer and to many continental European’s the ‘scandal’ side of it just goes over their heads. Maybe they are more culturally ‘grown up’ than us?
Most Disturbing to me is the number of people who can not distinguish between sensual and sexual. In my humble opinion those who can’t see the difference are Pedophiles all ready but don’t see the harm they create. No child sees sexually Only adults do that. Stop treating everything that seems sexual to you as if everyone else sees it the same. Many people get a sexual thrill from seeing a washing machine should those be banned? Some see a nice pair of shoes and that turns them on. Art is in the eye of the beholder and so is porn. Don’t hate the art because it triggers your ideas.
Responding belatedly to Audrey Apple way upthread:
I responded over at Audrey’s to a similar statement to the effect that to me it look more just like she was pushing up after having been crouched down, and that I didn’t see that as inherently sexual.
Now I’m pretty sure that the top photo below (very small here deliberately, and unlike most of the media I have obscured the face for as much privacy as I can ineffectually grant) is the one which Audrey meant. I think a large part of the problem is people viewing images in isolation that were meant to be part of a series. When you look at the shot below, it’s fairly obvious that the upper shot is the girl pushing up from the pose in the lower shot. And that lower shot doesn’t look sexual to me at all, unless you are assuming that another person is with her there, when the rest of the series of images quite clearly shows her all alone. In fact, from what I’ve seen of the series of images of this particular girl, it all seems to be about wandering around the shadowed space and closely examining it. In the context of the whole series, there is quite clearly no implication of a sexual experience happening.
To take up your point about seeing these pictures out of context (and mutilated in many other ways), I couldn’t even be clear from that first picture alone whether the subject was a girl or a boy.
Thanks for that tigtog. I had been talking about the bottom photo but definitely take your point about seeing them out of sequence.
Seeing them out of sequence is what the media’s isolation of an image here and an image there forces upon us (as do perhaps some of the less better designed courses in art history that feature him – how much do they focus on the theme of a series rather than the effect and techniques of a single image?).
I didn’t know that much about Henson’s work before last week. I’ve learnt a lot from what bios etc are available on the web, and the one thing that’s abundantly clear is that he just does not design images that include people as a single shot “message”. It’s all about a collection of shots exploring a setting, and to view them otherwise is rather like aliens viewing a photo of an ear and attempting to imagine the rest of the human. The result would be sketchy at best.
While I find that his images evoke profound emotional responses, and thus definitely are art, I can’t imagine wanting a Henson on my wall, not even one of his landscapes. They’re all too dark and ethereal. I would go and see an exhibition though.
A perfectly valid response to art is trepidation and fear (and concern and protectiveness). It’s not helpful to cast those who have that reaction to a perception of sexuality in these images as paedophiles themselves – that’s only if they find the images are sexually arousing.
Where art education comes in is that it allows people to feel those reactions and step back and examine them, rather than the uninstructed response of finding the reactions so disturbing that it induces unexamined outrage. (Sometimes the end result of examined reactions is still outrage, of course – that too is a valid response – edited to add – even if in this case it’s not a response that I find persuasive.)
There are definitely questions raised about the process of creating these images that society should ask. Like:
How safe were the adolescents who posed? Now that I have an understanding of how he operates and how he chooses his subjects, I have every confidence that they were totally safe, not just physically but also emotionally during the shooting sessions, having grown up around art and artists.
That to me is the primary consideration. The other questions people are asking, such as whether allowing Henson to “get away with” photographing naked adolescents will give abusive predators a free pass to also photograph naked children and use the “it’s art” defense – I can see why people are asking but to me it’s way too simplistic. It’s pathologising nudity for a start, but it also assumes that investigators cannot determine whether the subjects of such photos have been treated ethically as Henson does or not.
First there’s whether the poses are sexual or not, which generally is fairly clear. Then, if a photographer can show the police evidence of a subject’s consent (and parental consent), and there’s no evidence that the parents are negligent or abusive, and the subject attests that there was no suggestive speech or inappropriate touch during the photo session, then I see no ethical cause for a prosecution.
I have other thoughts, but this comment’s already too long.
I wouldn’t choose a Henson for my house either, too intense for me to deal with every day. Even supposing I could afford one. I wonder if Malcolm Turnbull has his out or are they stored? I’d be interested to know what else he collects.
I don’t agree that one needs to imagine other figures to see these poses as sexualising. Whether one would or not in the context of the exhibition and in the presence of the objects themselves is a separate and unanswerable question but on the basis of those reproductions they remind me of nothing so more as the soft pr0n images that have been around for over a century. Maidens with hair swept to one side kneeling with hands on knees, or on all fours and resting on elbows – we have all seen that before haven’t we? The pose itself is simply not a neutral one, it carries with it the ghosts of the hundreds of times we have seen something similar in other contexts. And maybe that is the point. Maybe there is some commentary on how these kinds of bodily positions which are entirely natural have become pinned down to a very narrow meaning and he is asking us to see them afresh ( I can’t know). I just think it is really stretching the case to say that the images could never elicit comparisons to sexual postures upon viewing them.
It sounds to me that Henson’s process was ethical but the problem with gliding over the power differential that Sublimecowgirl tried to explore, and which seemed to be largely ignored at LP, is that we begin to assume that the adult narrative of the process is automatically true. That is a really dangerous thing to do. If we want to examine the ethics of using adolescent subjects in these ways shouldn’t we be asking ourselves (and adolescents that we know) “what power would they have to refuse”, “how does the status of the person in control affect the power of the subject to consent or even more importantly, withdraw consent”? Ultimately this is not just about Henson but about how to safeguard the rights of people who may find themselves in a situation where the process is subtly or overtly coercive. I believe the questions are important. How hard would it be to make a complaint against a high status adult?
Not asking or not giving any credence to these kinds of questions ultimately leads to the kind of comment I just read elsewhere which was in effect “so what if they have regrets as adults?” In different circumstances I am sure that would have elicited some opposition but not now. I wonder why?
Good points, su. You’ve certainly made me re-examine some thoughts, although in the end I’m still not entirely persuaded (while acknowledging that many aspects of analysing these images are subjective rather than objective).
What makes the poses not obviously sexualised to me, (and I’m intrigued by your suggestion of Henson seeking some commentary on the common sexualised poses), is that she doesn’t have the ubiquitous arched back to thrust the breast area forward (which is what we were seeing in those advertising shots from the 2006 Australia Institute report). In fact, the line of her back is so balanced along a straight line that it would bring a smile to the hardest yoga taskmaster, which makes me suspect that this straight spine was very much an intended part of these images.
The power differential and the credence given to the adult narrative over that of the minor should be more examined, you are right. Certainly it is known that some parents can be complicit in their own child’s exploitation/abuse, sadly far too often. That would have to be an awful lot of complicit parents in his studios watching those shoots and permitting violating behaviour right in front of them though – I really struggle to find that scenario credible.
This is absolutely spot-on. This is of course why the complaints against the Henson images do have to be fully investigated, to ensure that everyone involved safeguarded the minors adequately in what everybody must have been aware was a borderline situation in the first place.
My own defences of the images and criticisms of certain processes of the investigation thus far are certainly not intended to be taken as any assertion that there should not be an investigation at all. It’s a defence against the rush to judgement happening due to the media storm, not an argument against the principle of fully examining claims that come under the ambit of Child Protection. Full examination must occur.
On the question of the disregard given to the “regret” issue on LP I’m not sure I entirely agree that it’s a progression from a lack of credence given to the adolescents’ narratives. The dismissiveness, IMO, had much more to do with the vagueness of the original comments about regret (didn’t specify whether the particular regrets we are being asked to consider are mild and rueful or bitter, harsh laments complete with lingering trauma) than about any bias in credency.
I wasn’t suggesting that this is what happened. At all. I was talking about the difficulties of adolescent consent in a more general sense, not about this specific case.
I would like to ask a some questions of the regulars here:
What do you think will be the implications for art in Australia if Henson is found guilty? Guilty on all charges? And I ask this with failure of obsenity trials notwithstanding.
What do you think will be the implication for photographers who want to photograph children?
I can see the possibility that self styled censors might just like to visit art galleries to see what works they can find offence in so that they can do their public service to have them removed. Do you think it plausible someone would want to do this?
And lastly (somewhat satiricly) When my child has their 21st birthday and we pop out the nudy pics on the slide projector in front of an audience of guests should we ask the police to check the slides for offending content first?
Sorry, su – I knew you weren’t suggesting that. I should have been more careful about clearly indicating that that comment came from frustration with some other scenarios that I’ve read posited over the last few days by people other than you.
I can imagine someone setting up a special bus tour around the country with that as the primary purpose.
That one was easy. Your other questions require a little time to reflect.
Well it has suggested by a commenter elsewhere that this might cause a new law to be formed so that there could be “rebuttable consent” for similar circumstances. The onus would then be on a prosection to show why that consent to be photographed was not a valid consent(that was my understanding).
There has already been a similar case. WA artist Concetta Petrillo’s case went to court in 1997 and she was found innocent but continued to have her work censored. You can read about it Here.
I can speak of the general situation (as I don’t think I’ve made any legal claims in this whole business, and am more interested in the feminist/ethical analysis): if you asked me, I would suggest you don’t do this in the first place, if your intent is to embarrass and mock. It’s a tradition I’ve never had any time for, much like wedding-toast roasts.
I am not defending the roasting Lauredhel. I know families who have put an embarising photo up on a projector or birthday card. I see now the tone of the question seems to emphasise the embarasment factor; I did not really want to emphasise that so much, but it was a bit a throw away question that almost quotes a comment from the NSW Law Society about the case.
I share your concerns about roasting or mocking people.
Imagine the outrage that instead of photographing a nude under age child we covered her up in fishnet stockings, suspenders and a g string! Wow suddenly its no longer art, How come?
Who has argued that art cannot be pornographic? A great deal of art is pornographic – go and take a look at the figures on some Greek urns sometime. However, a nude human figure is not necessarily pornographic (it’s also not necessarily art).
The costume you suggest is automatically sexualising, as you obviously well know, and would most likely be sufficient to change the perception of the image so as to belong to the category of pornography. That would not stop it being art.
su #71, that idea of a rebuttable consent sounds interesting, and not entirely
likeunlike my idea of separating the consent to be photographed as a minor from the consent to the images being displayed/published later, when the subject is a legal adult. The two ideas together could work well both ethically and as part of a legal framework.
They would still have to address the concerns of child protection with regard to, as you mentioned earlier, subtle and covert coercions.
Yours is the idea that I felt most comfortable with, Tigtog. I think if you are going to intrude yourself into someones life in such an intimate way at the most vulnerable time then they should control the image.
The subtlety is very hard to convey to people. There is often no black line between Ok and not. One can segue into the other so that one is never sure where the turning point was and feel implicated in the turning. Or it can be like a subliminal image in a film, so fast that you doubt that it really happened. I don’t think people really get that. Every time people have said something about how this situation is Ok I have been able to think of a circumstance in which the same objective facts are not ok. The difference is so subjective. That is why I understand why people want to draw hard lines, just to escape the anxiety of all that subjectivity.
I can certainly understand the impulse to draw hard, bright lines as well, su.
The problem with that is if you draw a hard bright line saying that child nudity is child pornography and clothed children in photos is fine, then it’s harder to educate people that grooming and subtle coercion can occur when people are photographing little girls in the sexualised manner below (not to say that it ever did, but the possibility is just as likely as with Bill Henson’s nudes):
Hard bright lines are not that rationally or ethically useful when looking at a subject that is fuzzy with subjectivity. Those hard lines can certainly lead to rational and ethical absurdities. However, we do have laws with regard to certain crimes that manage to cope with fuzzy subjectivity quite well with respect to unlawful deaths, so it’s not impossible for the law to cope. If we’re not to pathologise the bodies of adolescents entirely, I think the law needs to cope.
After reading some more thoughts on this elsewhere, and sleeping on it, my other thought is that those wanting to draw the hard bright line seem to want it drawn solely around the concept of whether material can be found arousing by someone/anyone, when what is most important is to have a hard bright line on consent and the protection of the rights of minors.
It’s also a question of where scarce child protection resources should be placed. Children need to be protected from predatory deviants, but that protection is required against direct acts upon a child – the coercion, the seduction, the abuse.
I can understand the ick factor at the thought of the child being viewed deviantly, of course. I’m not exactly thrilled at the thought of pervs looking at photos of me from my nudist club days, but their looking at those images that were taken voluntarily doesn’t actually do me any harm, then or now.
The harm arises when their viewing provides a market for images that have been produced through abuse. It is the abuse that matters, not the images themselves necessarily – often exactly the same image could be produced ethically with consent and oversight. The conflation of all images of nudes with a narrative of overt sexualisation and abuses is where the current social barometer is getting it wrong, and my growing conviction is that this irrational conflation matters precisely because it clouds the issues of consent and protection of rights.
I wasn’t really talking about the legal angle but a society angle; how we as adults negotiate relationships with children and adolescents. By the time the law gets involved in specific instances, it is already too late whether you are a minor who has been exploited or an artist like Concetta Petrillo.
I am talking about how we view the ethics of instrumentalising adolescent bodies as a process of examining, as adults, our own thoughts or feelings about bodies and transitions. That is what concerned me about the instant dismissal of how such a person would feel about the process later; it conveyed a profoundly rigid adult perspective and an absence of empathy. And although I agree absolutely with you that attitudes towards nudity which are bound up in shame are part of the problem, it remains a fact that in our society nudity represents a further degree of vulnerability and when the subjects are already vulnerable as a result of their age then I think that that is an important consideration. The people who keep saying that any objection is bound up with seeing nudity as inherently sexual miss this angle. The model’s nudity troubles me because she is in a state of ultimate vulnerability before the adult gaze. Of course that is the point, it is part of what we are supposed to reflect upon (perhaps) and yet it troubles me still.
I noted that the director of the AGNSW said that he sees many groups of adolescents who are really fascinated by Henson’s work and I definitely accept that overprotectiveness and overreaction are a big part of the mix. But so is an attitude of ownership of adolescent bodies by adults, and that is profoundly wrong and is at the root of exploitation, sexual and otherwise. Consider what Michael Gow said of Henson’s work:
WTF? He goes on to say that artists should be able to work beyond the limitations that society sets for itself. Again WTF? If we were living in a society where violation and exploitation were rare then I would have a lot of sympathy for that position but we don’t. The causes of violation are all bound up in how our society works and we need to examine every part of it, including these attitudes of entitlement. This is the kind of attitude that sees Roman Polanski as a victim simply because he is an artist. Fuck that.
Again I am talking about the trends I see in the way these issues have been discussed, rather than this specific case.
Your comments are definitely picking away at a what I suspect is a blind spot of mine, su (or at least an insufficiently examined one). Just picking out the concepts that most struck me above:
All of this evokes a big YES in me, and is particularly related to feminist arguments against a culture of sexist entitlement regarding the sense of ownership of female bodies by men. I’m still very interested pragmatically in the legal aspects and how they intertwine with the ethics of individual situations with respect to the dynamics of this particular case, but I fully agree that the examination of the broader societal ethics regarding conceptions of ownership and entitlement and gaze is ultimately more important.
Oh, thank you su: you’ve expressed the things I’ve been thinking so much better than I could. I think it’s also important to note that there is a gender dynamic here: he’s a male artist depicting (mostly) female adolescent bodies – which adds yet another layer of power differential and gaze history to the mix.
The actual images themselves are disturbing in other ways (even ignoring the vulnerability of the nudity). He’s not depicting them as having any power of their own, as far as I can see. In the pictures I’ve seen, they’re vulnerable, surrounded by darkness, crawling around, lying splayed. His interpretation of the emotions of adolescence are a very particular interpretation, and not a universal one at all. (Or am I the only one who, while I may have felt intermittently vulnerable in some aspects, but also felt a strong and growing sense of strength, freedom, and independence around that age?)
Brian made a similar point over at LP, that Henson’s work seems focussed on adolescent fragility without acknowledging adolescent strength. It’s all about hanging back from the brink of change instead of leaping over the gap, which is certainly what some adolescents do. Most of us probably vacillated between these two extremes at different times of the day, even!
The works definitely capture some components of certain adolescent angsts, but it’s far from an entire representation of the adolescent experience.
Have followed this event with great interest and passion. For me the main concern was about our beliefs on innocence and our fear related to nudity and sex rather than just about how young people are presented in photography.
I have been making a living from photographing men and women in many cases naked for around 20 years.Whilst my photography has changed over this time my main motivation has always been to present what I find to be beautiful and to combine this with humility of expression.
On one of my websites I posted to say that I would not be 100% closed to photographing someone under 18 nude.I think there were about 180 responses many of which attacked me for such a suggestion. The general argument was that we must protect the innocence of our children.
I believe that many of the adults angered by this event are holding little or no belief in innocence and purity as being real. Society in my opinion has lost much connection to heart and truth and transperency. We seem more about appearances than honesty and a genuine desire to understand the ills of the world.
An issue such as nudity and children is such a sensitive one and seems to have much confusion surrounding it.Surely this is providing us as a society with an opportunity to take away some of the barriers that adults seem to have in regaining a belief in their own innocence and purity.
As it stands now I feel like many adults are protecting their children from what they see as a definitive about life. ie; That the world is not a pure place and never will be. That once you grow up you too will lose your purity so for now we are going to let you live in ignorance of how the world is.
I sincerely hope that this incident is not stored by most as confused judgment. I so believe that if humans are prepared to search their emotions deeply that we can create a much more pure and honest world. A world where we would not have so much fear for what our kids will discover when they grow up.
How can possibly be “too sensitive to it?” What does that mean? Is a little kiddie porn okay?
If there was ever a need for a hard line to be drawn – isn’t this the issue?
That’s an awfully generalised argument to be popping in at comment #85. Who are you quoting, just for a start?
The rest of the thread has been all about discussing whether nude photos are in fact automatically kiddie porn in the first place. Perhaps you ought to read the other comments before commenting further.
Perhaps ‘sensitive’ in the sense that smut is perceived to exist where and when it does not?
I would certainly be of the view that that sort of ‘over sensitivity’ actually detracts from the real business of protecting kids from harm.
I re-read Emma Rush’s report and it is a pity the scholarship is so poor because certainly the advertising and fashion (and by corollary the celebrity) industry have some issues to deal with, I just think she could have picked a much better target than DJs. There was a good response to her report in The Age last year, however I cannot find it now so they must have archived it, I thought it covered some of the shortcomings quite well–and no it was not Catherine Lumby.
Conflating Henson’s photography with the representation of children in advertising I think is completely erroneous. But a real question that has to be asked is what constitutes a sexualised image because we all seem to have different ideas about this.
I have read in different forums about the prevalence of the ‘come hither’ look. The scary thing about that look is that it can happen quite unintentionally if the subject being photographed tilts their head slightly forward while looking straight into the camera. My wife friend has an eight year old daughter; they got some family photos done and some of them turned out exactly like that, with ‘that look’. Well, her face looked about 16 in those photographs much to the shock of her parents. So there seems to be a lot of perception and psychology at play here. This is not to brush aside the issue, but I think we really need to start deconstructing what is actually happening here.
I am having trouble perceiving the ‘come hithering’ in Henson’s images.
Just a word on modern girls fashions. It certainly has got much more of an adult look than in times past. It is interesting seeing old photographs from 100 years ago where many children were dressed almost identically and different from adults. I read a discussion with fashion designers about 8 years ago saying that the move in children’s fashion was to make it more ‘casual, contemporary and funky’ and like ‘the teenage styles going around’. Well, teenage styles have generally been rebellious and provocative for some time, maybe going back to the 1920s flapper look. Now we have clothes cut for 16-21 year olds available for 5-11 year olds. I do not really think that the fashionistas thought through the consequences of this. Because it does make your little girl look awfully grown up. And while some of the little girls might like it—and there is a whole celebrity and tween magazine culture there to tell them they should—us grown up’s feel rather uncomfortable about it. All of a sudden your asexual little girl has transformed into a nymphet. And of this with the gender stereotypes embedded within it. Now I certainly do not think that all of this has been motivated by some sort of paedophile conspiracy. Many paedophiles like kids who look like kids. For example, the man who abused me liked to dress me in a smocked dress. Emma Rush’s argument that the poses in the catalogues will give paedophiles the message that kids are ready for sex is absurd because paedophiles already think that anyway, and I would hypothesise many would equally be turned off these images because of their more adult portrayal.
Now this is not to defend the adultification (and consequent sexualisation) of children that has happened in the fashion industry, but I think that the dynamics of what has happened here has not been explored fully. This has been as much about the change in the rest of us as in the fashion/celebrity/tween-pop culture. The constituent elements need to be explored much more deeply.
Re the come hither look mentioned above it is in my opinion not just the physical appearance but more so about the emotion and thought behind it. In my photography I have learnt that the energy of a photo has perhaps more power than the visual.
I have taken body crops where 2 images may look identical but to the viewer evoke a different reaction. This is related to the thought and energy present when the camera clicks.So if this can be felt in shots without faces I am sure it is equally so in shots where the face is shown.A tilt of the head alone does not in my opinion create a come hither look.
My personal belief is that photography of people can be empowering or disempowering.This is such a complex issue and in my opinion needs so much more deep thought to match the levels of emotion that have been ignited.