Privacy rights in Child Protection investigations: the need for the mass media to disguise identifying features on the minors in the Henson images

Author Note: The original title of this post was “Do the right thing, Mainstream Media: disguise the faces of the minors in your reproductions of the Henson images NOW”, deliberately imperative because I wanted it to grab attention in people’s feed readers and hopefully provoke an immediate reaction. That has happened, the faces are now being pixellated in the mass media, so I’m changing the title to something that sounds a bit more like “me” speaking.

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The Age has an article quoting the mother of the girl whose image is the most widely disseminated with respect to the investigation of complaints against artist Bill Henson’s nude studies of adolescents. The mother defends Henson against claims that he did anything unethical, and mentions in a statement given to The Age via an intermediary that he has been a friend of the family for over 10 years, that her daughter has “a keen interest in the arts” and that the whole family were well acquainted with Henson’s work before the photo-shoot.

The Age claims to have discovered that the pictures were taken last year, and that the girl is still 13 years of age. That contradicts earlier reports that the images were several years old, which would have made the girl perhaps now 16 or 18, i.e. possibly made her no longer a minor. If The Age is correct, then she is still very much under-age, and I’m pretty sure that that creates a problem for the media who have disseminated Henson’s images of her online and in the press, or at least it certainly should.

I only yesterday realised that the censored images of Henson’s work readily available online mostly lack one key ingredient that we usually see when images of minors are at the heart of a news cycle about alleged sexual exploitation/abuse – there has been no black bar or pixellation over the face to disguise the minor’s identity.

Why the hell not? These minors are not celebrities with no expectation of privacy from the media simply because their faces are part of an artwork, surely? If a photographer stationed outside the family home took a shot of her getting into the family car and the Age purchased it for publication, normal practise would be to pixellate or black-bar her face, wouldn’t it? So why not do the same with these images of her (and the other adolescent subjects)?

Just because websites devoted to art have not pixellated the face in the context of displaying art shouldn’t mean that the mass media gets a green light to bypass normal privacy protection for minors in the very different context of alleged sexual exploitation, does it?

Kudos to the ABC Online, BTW, who have pixellated the girl’s face for some time (not sure whether they did it from the get-go or not). I really hope that some of the websites reportedly under investigation for posting Henson pics online are investigated as much for their failure to protect this girl’s privacy as they will be for disseminating nudie pics.

Categories: arts & entertainment, culture wars, ethics & philosophy, media

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5 replies

  1. tigtog – huge favour to ask – but could you cross-post this at LP, so that more people see it? I’ll explain why offline (and feel free to delete this comment).

  2. I’ll see how soon I can slot it into the posting queue, Helen.

  3. I saw it and wondered the exact same thing. I wondered how it could possibly be legal for The Age to reprint a photograph that had been seized by the police on the grounds that it might constitute child pornography.
    I do not believe the image is pornographic. However, I believe the girl consented to pose naked for a photograph that would be hung in a gallery, and then possibly in another gallery or in a private home — not posted on the bloody Fairfax website. The context matters. It matters deeply. Bloody meeja.

  4. And that’s not even taking copyright into account – Henson holds the copyright to the pictures, and unless they have his permission to publish the picture, I suspect that they are legally in hot water there as well. Of course they will argue a public interest defence, but I’m not sure that will hold.
    Of course, bloggers reposting the images are in breach of copyright as well. Just because we’re unlikely to be pursued for copyright violations doesn’t mean that reposting most images from the internet, not just Henson’s pics, isn’t breaching copyrights. It definitely is.

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