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Bill Henson

Sydney Censorship – Henson Follow-Up

Brizbunny has had two big posts here on the whole Henson Teen Photos controversy; original post here, and further explanation of some of the issues as we see them here.  With the events over the past couple of weeks a follow-up post is called for.

No Prosecution.

The NSW Director of Public Prosecutions has advised that there is little chance of the NSW Police managing a successful prosecution.  In light of this the police have now dropped the case against the gallery and Bill Henson. 

The NSW Assistant Commissioner of Police, Catherine Burn noted that the case was a result of complaints received, which the police were obliged to investigate.  As part of the investigation the photographs were seized, as possible evidence, from the gallery.  The photographs have now been returned to the gallery and the exhibition has re-opened.

This is a case of the police acting in the manner in which they are obliged to under the law; they received a complaint, investigated the complaint, and seized evidence that would support any prosecution.  Once an investigation had been conducted and it was clear that a conviction was unlikely to be obtained they returned the evidence.  There was no attempt at censorship, it was a case of the police doing what they are paid to do.

The collapse of the prosecution case is centred around the concept of the “sexual context”.  As far as the law is concern nudity is not a sexual context; it is this that separates nudity from pornography.  No matter what anyone’s concerns are this is the law, and Henson’s work appears to be within the law.

Gallery Response.

The gallery responded to the news by announcing that the exhibition would go ahead.  However there is a twist, on re-opening the exhibition was open to appointments only, and the appointments were vetted by the owner. 

Before the police raid on the gallery the Henson exhibition was open to the public, with the more explicit work available in a private area for serious buyers.  Was this in attempt to keep the non art-lover’s away, and make sure that only appropriate people could see the material that would not be appreciated by the general public. 

The exhibition is now closed, and likely to head overseas.

Links: Sydney Morning Herald [^], [^], The Australian [^].

Sydney Censorship – Part 2

When I originally posted  the Sydney Censorship post I thought that it was one of those passing things.  And I had in the back of my mind that I was going to need another post in reserve ready to bump it down from the top of the home page.  Well I was wrong, and the whole thing just gets bigger and bigger.  A brief re-cap: 20 photo’s of a naked 13 year-old girl by an “internationally acclaimed” Australian photographer in a Sydney art gallery were seized by NSW Police.  There has been even more media coverage and social commentary on the issue over the past week.

Henson Raid - Photo: Sahlan Hayes

Artists Speak Out

It seems that a loud portion of Australia’s artistic community have come out in support of Bill Henson.  This has included a large portion of the 2020 Creative Stream.  This support comes in the form of an open letter that can be found on Alison Croggon’s Blog – Theatre Notes  [^]

This letter is probably the best argued defence of Mr Henson’s work that I have seen.  The signatories to the letter go out of their way to make the point that they in no way condone the production of child pornography.  The main point that is made is that there is a difference between the naked and nude.  A nude is not designed to titillate, it is a celebration of the human-form.

The letter acknowledges the need to public debate, but questions the suitability of the courts as an appropriate forum.  They also note that there is “a trend of encroaching censorship” that has resulted in a number of exhibitions being cancelled or closed.  The artists also believe that the current furore is at least partly down to media sensationalism; and we have seen an overwhelmingly disapproving stance in all of the mainstream media.


Both side of the Australian political spectrum have now weighed in on the topic.  The Prime Minister, Labor’s Kevin Rudd, originally said that he found the photo’s “absolutely revolting”.  After facing criticism from various artists Mr Rudd said:

“I gave my reaction, I stand by that reaction and I don’t apologise for it and I won’t be changing it”  The Age [^]

On the other side of politics, the Liberal Opposition Treasury Spokesman, Malcolm Turnbull, has come out in support of the arts community.  Mr Turnbull has confirmed that he owns two works by Henson, neither of which shows any nudity.  Mr Turnbull has said:

“I don’t believe that we should have policemen invading art galleries … we have a culture of great artistic freedom in this country and I don’t believe the vice-squad’s role is to go into art galleries.”  The Australian [^]

In his defence, the Shadow Treasurer has mentioned that he has not seen the photos in question.  But how can anyone comment on “artistic freedom” like this without seeing at least a sample of the work in question.

However on the same side of politics, Mr Tony Abbott, a member of the shadow cabinet, has said:

But from what I’ve heard they seem like pretty confronting images … Now, I am just not sure that we really need that kind of thing to further freedom of expression, … I mean shocking people is all very well. But I don’t think we need to be shocked by everything. I think some things are off limits.  Lateline 28 May 2008 [^]

Doses this count as bi-partisan support of the condemnation of Bill Henson’s work; if so, a have an amazing meeting of political minds.

Henson History

Bill Henson has been producing photographs of a similar nature to the ones seized, for at least the past 15 years (The Age [^]).  Mr Henson’s work is generally well regarded within the artistic community, with his work being prominently displayed in all of the major Australian collections and at a number of major international galleries.  By all accounts some of his earlier work was of an even more confronting nature.  Yet this is the first time that his work has courted this degree of controversy. 

The key point here is that if this current series of works are offensive or illegal, then the prior works almost certainly are.  Yet no action has been taken on those earlier works, and yet there has been no major change in legislation.  Does this mean that society’s attitude towards this teen nudity has shifted so dramatically over this comparatively short period of time?  Or are the general public and the media evaluating art from their own tainted perspective.

Double Standards

I have one point here: if I had taken the photo’s and attempted to have them displayed at a gallery – I would have been charged – no questions asked!  During Lateline Tony Abbott made the same point:

I guess, my problem here is the double standard. I mean, if I had on my computer the kind of images that were in that gallery, I’d be interviewed by the police and quite possibly face charges. Now, if it’s pornography on my computer, why isn’t it pornography in the gallery? That’s the question that I ask.  Lateline 28/05/08 [^]

Now if even a politician can realise double standards when he sees them, why can’t the artists?

The Children

In all of this discussion we need to remember one thing above everything else; the children.  Now the children involved will not only have the memory of the photo shoot.  They will have the constant thought in the back of their minds that these photos could resurface at any time in their future lives – how damaging could that be to a career, or indeed an entire life.  If this case goes to court, the children will suffer further indignities and media coverage.  But that is not a reason for the authorities not to pursue the case if there are legal grounds for it.

We have no issues with artistic freedom in it’s own right, however ‘artistic merit’ can never be a legal defence in this sort of case.  There is one condition, the model should be willing and able to give informed consent.  My questions to Mr Turnbull would be: How would you feel if the subject was your daughter?  Would this have any impact on your child’s future, if she were in the same position? 

This surely is a set of circumstances where what is good for one child is good for all children.  We, as a society need to protect our children, photographs of naked children regardless of the intended consumption as art will still give those with a lesser purposes access to this material.  The other question, or the flip-side of the same question, is have we as a society become so entrenched in a move to protect our children that we see evil in in every image, and malicious intent in every action?

CannibalRabbit Says

What I hope that I have done is illustrate that there are a whole host of issues at play in this case.  It is a case that can all too easily be summarised into a couple of media friendly sound bites, and under-informed discussion.  In most cases most people commenting on this art work have not seen the work that they are commenting on.  Here at we have not seen Mr Henson’s work, but hopefully we have presented a reasonably well argued position, and enough information for others to make an informed decision on.

It has been said that the way to judge a society is by the way that it treats it weakest and most vulnerable members.  This case has had nationwide coverage, and no doubt some coverage overseas; what does it say about Australia?  I do not think that that is an image we want to portray on a world stage!

We need clarity on whether we as a society allow others to take photographs of nude or naked children – in the name of “art” or for any other purpose.  Nude and naked, artistic freedom and sexualised images are all subjective terms that keep on coming up in this case.  The law is not clear as long as it relies on non-objective measures, and this case has made it obvious this lack of clarity is detrimental to all concerned.  The artist has no clear defence for his work, now or in the future, and the people trying to look after the interests of the child have  hazy ground to prosecute or restrict the distribution of the photos.  The current law or added clarity on nudity for minors cannot be seen as censorship, it is society establishing a boundary that set-out what is and is not acceptable behaviour for it’s members.  It also offers protection for the well-being of those least able to protect or speak-out for themselves.

Sydney Censorship?

I’m sorry, but there is going to be nothing funny about this post.  I have posted before about child pornography.  That was about a US case where teens were charged with possessing child pornography – that is photo’s taken of themselves willingly and for their “own use”.  This is about a much more serious situation in Sydney.

Photo: Sahlan Hayes

In Sydney on Thursday (22-5-08) there was a police raid on an art gallery, and 20 photo’s of a naked 13 year-old girl were seized.  These photo’s were the work of an “internationally acclaimed” photographer, Bill Henson.  It seems likely that the gallery will be charged over two matters: displaying photo’s of naked children on the Internet; and, displaying indecent material.

Three issues concern me, and should concern everyone else.  First, why would a gallery consider risking it’s reputation by displaying such work?  It doesn’t matter that it is the work of an internationally acclaimed photographer.  These are photographs of a naked child; regardless of anyone’s intention they will be seen as being of a sexual nature by some people – society does not approve of children being exploited. 

Second, who was looking after the model’s interests?  A minor cannot sign a release, the very piece of paper that the “professional” photographer would require to sell the works.  The child’s parent would have had to sign the release, how can they consider this display as being in her interest.  This could very well be the undoing of an future reputable career, something to try to hide from, or to be ashamed of.

Finally, what was Sydney’s artistic community thinking?  We have other artists and gallery patrons publicly saying that they saw the police’s action as being “censorship” (The Age [^] and ABC [^]).  Their implication is of petty officials in an unquestioning adherence to an unjust law.  However, censorship is defined as being “suppressing parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds” ( [^]).  They are right, society finds this kind of material objectionable on moral and legal grounds.  This is the same society that the artists are a part, the society that gives these artists their freedom, their rights and their obligations.

Any self-respecting artist or gallery should be self-policing and self-censoring.  Bill’s fellow artists seem almost uniformly in favour of this work as being “artistic” and not sexualising children.  Do these artists not realise that western society emphatically disapproves of depictions of naked children?  How can they be so detached from the society in which they live? 

Judy Annear – senior curator of photography at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, “His work, in my opinion and in the opinion of my colleagues, … is [that it is] unfortunate if people confuse it with pornography”.  ABC [^]

Unfortunately pornography is in the eye of the beholder, and a lot of people find this material objectionable.  Yes, there is a line between art and pornography, but there is a massive grey area between the extremes.  It would be easy to say that society is over zealous in some aspects of child photography, with parents being banned from taking photo’s at their children’s sports days or on the beach. 

But this isn’t a borderline case, and would the artistic merit of the work be any different if the model was an adult? Discuss the border between art and pornography with adult subjects, and let the kids grow-up in peace!