In Sydney yesterday an exhibition of images by acclaimed photographer Bill Henson was raided by police and its opening night was cancelled. The DPP are currently examining the photographs, the events surrounding their being taken, and interviewing all the models concerned, The reason was that the images to be displayed were of ‘underage’ children, as young as 12.
The picture below was ‘borrowed’ from a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, because in the background is one of the images currently at risk of being labelled ‘kiddie porn’.
From the outset I have to admit to being *no* judge of art, let alone photography as art, so its merits on that plane are something on which I’m simply not competent to comment. This leaves me looking at the image as ‘the man in the street’, and from that perspective I*do* find this picture, and the larger issue, quite disturbing.
I’ve got mixed feelings about it on many levels and find it incredibly difficult to form a cohesive opinion. So other than being ‘disturbed’, exactly how *do* I feel about it?
To begin, I’m assuming the reason this particular image was chosen as the background to the picture of the ‘artist’, is that it is in some way representative of the remainder and if that is the case then I see where the problems lie.
Whilst the image isn’t in the least ‘erotic’, the girl’s pose does make her appear highly vulnerable and (in my eyes) suggests she is somewhat unsure and unhappy with being exposed to the camera lens. Of course this is *my* interpretation and perhaps says more about me that it does of the photographer, however if I consider myself to be ‘ordinary’ then many other people would surely see it in a similar way.
Perhaps had the girl been more ‘naturalistically’ posed, looking directly at the camera with a smile on her face I’d not have felt so disturbed by it. The child would then have been engaging with the viewer and become a part of the interaction rather than the object of the focus. However she isn’t.
Of course, because I’m not the artist, it may be that this is perhaps what the intent was… since a more ‘natural’ pose would have looked totally artificial with no more ‘artistic’ value than you could probably find if you searched through sites on naturism for pictures of children, however, if the intent *was* to ‘disturb’ then with me at least it succeeded. So again I’m questioning the motives of the photographer in posing her the way he did.
And yet… some of me accepts that the photographing of people is a perfectly valid art form and the setting of an age limit at which recording images becomes acceptable is totally arbitrary. How many of us have seen photographs or watched documentaries of ‘primitive peoples’ whose members, young and old, appear totally naked. Why are *they* acceptable and these potentially going to be classed as pornography?
Perhaps because for these peoples nudity is their ‘natural state’ ? I don’t know, but I feel I’m grasping the edges of something here that I can’t quite get to grips with.
Would I be so concerned if this was a painting? I don’t know, but perhaps the issue for me isn’t just the image per se, it’s the question of just what motivation Bill Henson has for photographing naked children. If he is looking for insights into their personalities, why not photograph them clothed? If he is concerned with the interplay of light, form and feature on human skin, why not use adult models? Either way I’m yet to be convinced it is socially or ethically acceptable to display children’s bodies this way. Yet at the same time can’t quite pin down *why* I think it’s wrong!!
I’d appreciate some comment on the rights and wrongs of the pictures themselves and of the concept of the exhibition. If anyone wants to further comment on the complaints it’s generated and why, that might also help. I certainly wouldn’t want my own 12 year old daughter pose naked for a photographer, but just because *I* wouldn’t doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ‘wrong’.
Some assistance understanding what the range of issues are here might help.