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May 26th, 2008:

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!