Henson nudes not 'revolting', but demand reflection


Henson - Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery The controversy about the Mr Bill Henson's photographs has touched deep feelings. The issues involved have inevitably been reduced to single words or phrases, like exploitation, censorship, pornography, parents' response and freedom of artistic expression.

The issues however are complex, because the social relationships involved in taking and showing photographs of pubescent children are also complex and interrelated. They need to be named and thought through patiently.

The central question is whether it is ever right to photograph children, particularly children partially or totally naked, as an art form. There are many different contexts in which it is possible to photograph even undressed children. They range from a doctor making records preparatory to medical treatment, to war photographers filming families fleeing in terror from bombing, to filmmakers producing pornographic images.

Most of us would judge the act of taking photographs differently in these contexts. Our judgment is based partially on the intention of the photographer, but also on the likely impact on the child. So is it legitimate for an art photographer to take photographs of children in order to illuminate the aspects of childhood that we normally don't attend to?

As part of the context, the working relationship between model and photographer is also significant. Our judgment may be affected by knowing whether the photographer was abusive and manipulative or respectful and professional.

One of Mr Henson's earlier child models has described her experience as deeply respectful and safe. If she is believed, it cannot be argued that this kind of photography invariably damages children. It can certainly be argued that it is highly likely to damage them. But then we would also need to ask under what conditions the process would be safe.

One of the knottiest issues raised is whether children are capable of giving informed consent to an activity that is likely to affect them deeply. Even if they are capable of such consent, should we regard their consent as irrevocable? Children, after all, can change their mind totally and often.

Even if we judge that children cannot give irrevocable consent, that need not totally exclude their involvement. Their consent would clearly need to be supported by wise parental support. It would also need to be revocable. If they did revoke their consent, the image presumably would be removed from display and excluded from publication. Such conditions would have added benefits in discouraging the commercial exploitation of children in advertising.

The way we answer these contextual questions affect our judgment of Mr Henson's photographs. But we remain left with the deeper and troubling question whether children are appropriate photographic subjects for such searching study of the darkness of childhood. I do not find conclusive the evidence that they suffer hurt from the experience. But should even the possibility discountenance the making of such images?

Other questions arise about the display and reproduction of the images. Our answers may also vary with the context. It might make a difference whether the images were displayed in a gallery or on a tram. Galleries and specialist art journals usually attract people with a relatively trained artistic sensibility who look for the meaning of the image. Images in the public realm might draw a more superficial viewing.

That is not to say that everything claiming to be art should be entitled to be shown in a gallery. The making of the artefact or its content may involve such abuse of human dignity that to invite an aesthetic response to it would be morally unthinkable. Snuff movies of high quality, if such exist, might be an example. But I am not persuaded that Henson's photographic images are based in such disrespect for human dignity that they may not be shown.

Art is intimately related to currents in contemporary society and culture. This exhibition has revealed how strongly in our culture runs anxiety about child abuse. This anxiety has also expressed itself in concern about the sexualisation of children in media and advertising. It is natural that Bill Henson's images should be seen as part of this broader phenomenon. To support his enterprise will inevitably be seen as weakening opposition to this noxious trend.

Nevertheless what I have seen of Bill Henson's photographs suggest they work in quite a different space. His images seem less to sexualise childhood than to make sexuality just another of childhood's terrors. In his photographs nudity represents a disturbing vulnerability rather than a high sexuality. They are not pornographic. But it remains true that as a media event his art has been confused with the commercial exploitation of children.

Under the judgments we form about the legitimacy of making and showing art of this kind lies a view of the place that art plays in society. The higher our estimation of its importance, the greater the privileges we will give artists to make and display images that in other contexts we might exclude.

I would argue for a real but limited privilege. Art is central in any culture because it reflects the large human questions and the deep movements within the culture. This is a vital task. To do it properly artists must have space to make mistakes and to cross boundaries. Even repugnant images can illuminate a culture. But there is a moral framework in which art must work.

Finally, if we were convinced that Bill Henson's images should neither be made nor displayed, would it be right to invoke the law and involve the police? The answer will depend on whether these measures are likely to achieve the goals that the law is made to uphold, in this case to free children from exploitation and harm.

I suspect that most legal cases involving works of art do not achieve their goals. They bring the law into disrepute, arouse sympathy for the accused, and erode support for the good values the law is designed to protect. In the event, it is not only art that is liberated, but also pornography and exploitation.

Bill Henson at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery

Andrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew hamilton, bill henson, role of art, child pornography, photos of nude children



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Existing comments

Not really, war is not supposed to be a porn show, why should it be entertainment, what about the Geneva Accords or did you forget that?

Just because people do it, doesn't make it legal.

And doctors don't mail the stuff out to rich men who want to hang naked 13 year old girls over their beds.

Bill Henson's naked kid material is being hawked all over the internet. In the UK, it is a clear-cut case of child pornography, no ifs, and no buts.

When the Brits re-vamped their child porn legislation (SOA 2003), it was to target people like Bill Henson, I would invite you to google 'topless' and one of the major statutory elements 'NSPCC'.

Bill Henson will be treated the same as any other photographer, he'll go to jail if he does it in London.
Tazia | 02 June 2008

I suggest the publishing in any form of photos of nude subjects of anyone under 18 years of age be illegal. That way the person doesn't have to regret decisions made on their behalf by parents, carers, agents etc. in later years.
John Watherston | 02 June 2008

Thank you. A beautifully crafted and thoughtful outline of the issues involved in this matter. It has been difficult to respond to the differing possibilities but your article has challenged my thinking and help put ideas into perspective. Again, my thanks for you scholarship.
JUDY GEORGE | 02 June 2008

A very carefully considered article. Thanks. So much of the debate has been on a trivial side issue: the effect of the pictures on the viewers. (Perhaps the debate has been steered in that direction by those who know that it is unimportant and is one that they can win.) The issues surely are the effect on the subject child, and the question of truly informed consent.
Mark Tweeddale | 02 June 2008

Your consulting editor states that: The central question is whether it ever right to photograph children, particularly children partially or totally naked, as an art form.

His question, as framed, implicitly accepts that it is, given what has gone before in the current debate. Parental shots of infants is one end of the spectrum, and the other does not bear description. The law, at least in NSW, prohibits certain photography of children in public places, whether clothed or in swimmers etc. In the subject area in question, artists should never be the arbiters of what is moral. Look to their past. Why is the consulting editor acting as an apologist? I do not recall him ever speaking out against child sexual assault in the churches or in his order.
Rodney Stinson | 02 June 2008

Thank you for an extremely thoughtful reflection on this issue.
Elizabeth Reid | 02 June 2008

This is very thoughtful and helpful. Imagine if Bill Henson was a priest.

Steve Sinn | 02 June 2008

Worth a thousand words... Link to interesting video about Bill Henson's photographic work.
Jade | 02 June 2008

Andrew, you have captured the issue beautifully. Society and parents are obliged to act to prevent the exploitation of children under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The issues are far from simple, though one modern development - the presentation to millions on the web - makes the likelihood of such exploitation much, much more probable and infinitely more damaging than the extraordinary photographs made by Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson. Let us at long last have this debate as part of a long overdue heart-searching of whether and how we value and safeguard children.
Moira Rayner | 02 June 2008

Congratulations to Andrew Hamilton for correctly setting out the issues on Henson and responding with clarity.
Harry Herbert | 02 June 2008

Thank you for the thoughtful reflection. As a 50 year old who was sexually abused from the age of two and throughout childhood and adolescence I have first hand experience of child exploitation and the impact of paedophilia.

As I type paedophiles sit panting over the catalogues dropped into their letterboxes for free, I doubt they are buying $7000 Henson photographs and I suspect there are, sadly, more titillating images of children to be found on the internet.

The ravages of paedophilia on a developing child's psyche and body image are complex as well as terrifying however I find the witch hunt of Bill Henson scarier still - when we censor art in this way it becomes easier to censor so much more.

What of informed consent for the teenagers who, aided by parents, have breast implants or starve themselves to sashay barely clad down catwalks?

The reasons paedophilia flourishes and children remain unprotected against it are incredibly complex - can we have that debate about the wellbeing of children instead please?
HB Coles | 02 June 2008

I think that the most material issue is the matter of consent. You suggest that this consent once given may be the subject of revocation but I do not believe that this right of revocation has anything to do with the issue of whether the consent was unconditional or otherwise.

If the consent is relied upon by the artist (or others) one must ask whether this consent was given voluntarily and with full knowledge of the implications that flow from the giving of that consent. If the parent also gives consent, that of itself does not necessarily have any adequate effect as one may argue that where the parent has consented that thus the full consent of the child may be influenced and diminished.

Also, I would wager that the photography idea did not stem from the child. If that be the case, then any approach by an adult to the child would itself affect the consent of the child as there could be a certain amount of attraction for the child in being photographed which would again diminish the fullness of any consent.

Andrew, I do not think that one can rely on the good character of the artist as what is inherent here is not merely this photography but the issue generally of young children being photographed for asserted artistic purposes.
Adrian Bellemore | 02 June 2008

The thing I find both concerning and unhelpful about this sort of debate is that people talk about "children", without making any distinction between pre-pubescent children and those in early adolesence.

Of course, both groups are vulnerable, but surely there is a difference. We would all agree that it is unacceptable for younger children to be presented in a sexual way under any circumstances. But for young adolescents, it is surely more problematic.

In many cultures, young people of that age are married. In our society, at least some young people in their early teens are sexually active, and nearly all of them are interested in sexuality.

And while our law has to draw a line somewhere to delineate the "age of consent", in practice children mature at greatly different rates, both sexually and in terms of their ability to make mature judgments.

Of course, young people of that age still need protection. What I am really saying is that it never helps any debate to use unnecessarily emotive language, and I think that to talk about "children" when we mean young people in early adolescence can generate more heat than light.
Cathy Taggart | 02 June 2008

The only question to ask anyone commenting on the Bill Henson photographs is: Would you allow your own child to participate? If not, then reserve your comment.
Pat | 02 June 2008

An excellent article. Most comments to date have missed the point. The picture{s} are not pornographic in themselves. Pornography implies degradation of the human person and spirit. They may just come under the mantle of erotica.

The important people in this discussion are the children who are the models. Did they give consent? Were they capable of giving full consent? Is there any way they could have known in advance what emotions in themselves would be aroused? They were older than the period of latency. What support did they have? Who could have ensured that the whole process was not too long or arduous?

Art - probably. Beautiful in the eyes of some. Sexual and stimulating in the eyes of the deviant.

On the balance of risk the works should not have been done.
Anne Norman | 02 June 2008

Today's issue of the Sydney Morning Herald reports that "Images declared 'absolutely revolting' by the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, at the height of the Bill Henson controversy have been cleared for general release.

"Late last week, the Classification Board swiftly assessed 5 Henson images taken from media websites and rated all "G" or 'very mild'. The assessment followed a complaint about images on media websites after NSW police closed his Sydney exhibition. The main complaint said to refer to slide show of seized photos on the Daily Telegraph's website."

For me, a key issue has been the appalling remarks of the Prime Minister in regard to the photos ... quite apart from the fact that he'd not even seen them before dismissing them as "absolutely revolting".

Given the rising concerns of children as to their body images, the PM's remarks reveal a worrying immaturity. His own children would surely have blushed at his naked childishness and political opportunism.
Brian Haill | 02 June 2008

The only reason Bill Henson took these photographs was to make money. Were the photographs for sale? Who was to ensure that the pictures were sold only to those with "proper" intentions ad infinitum? The decision to involve the police was the only correct procedure. Henson should be prosecuted as any adult should be for taking advantage of a minor, whether that minor agreed or not. My advice to Andrew Hamilton is to ensure children are protected from voyeurs.
Bob Cashman | 03 June 2008

Thank you (as always) for your carefully considered entrance into this debate, Andrew. I have admired your stance in Eureka Street on a variety of issues and I find this article of the few that genuinely addresses both sides of the issue in a balanced fashion.
Will Atkinson | 03 June 2008

I've been troubled by this issue and was particularly disappointed in Kevin Rudd's response. Although I've not seen the images, I didn't think they could have been revolting.

We looked at Bill Henson's work in our university art course. He had (or has) a great capacity for capturing a dark beauty. Somehow a very Australian vision, but strange and eerie.

I feel sad that his artistry and experience has been so reduced or forgotten in the hysteria over the 'naked kid' work. It's such a difficult topic because there is a (necessary) sensitivity to the consent of the child etc., but if all images of naked or semi-naked children/pubescents were to be banned, how would children see
reflected their emerging sexuality? And would we, the adults, forget what that insecurity and vulnerability felt like?

Perhaps the internet is the problem - the context that's out of control.
Clare | 03 June 2008

The entire gig is Australia in dialogue with itself, a sure sign of experienced and compulsive hickdom.

You are not the real deal, you're not half-assed Europeans, you are less than that. You are moral primitives.

The UN doesn't like people making money out of naked kids, so stop citing the UN unless you are prepared to concede that.

I don't see the apologists for ersatz-pedophilia posting too many links to UN or human rights sites.

When one has a sex crime investigation, be it CP or rape, the victim, in our case a little girl is *never* displayed via photo in the media. That is a NEVER, even Rwanda can get that right.

Only Australia has ever done that, I can safely say this after a belt of HR conferences over three decades, Australia is a disaster area for basic vocab of human rights.
Tazia | 03 June 2008

The publication of articles like this must surely be what Eureka Street should be doing. Its thoughtful exploration of the issues raised by Mr Henson's pictures leads to a better understanding of what is at stake and why such public interest has been aroused.

It also demonstrates the difficulty of framing acceptable laws that respect and protect the interests and freedoms involved. I have read that the DPP has been asked to advise about possible prosecution. I suspect that he may have difficulty advising that a prosecution will succeed in the face of artistic merits defences.

Further, there is something ludicrous about using police to ransack gallery basements searching for evidence among pictures that may not have been exhibited to the public.

I agree that prosecutions of the kind apparently being considered here under laws enacted for another purpose are only likely to bring the law into disrepute.
JL TREW | 04 June 2008

As Christians we are taught to act, speak and think in ways which glorify God, if my actions or words will lead my brothers and sisters to sin then I'll try my best to not do or say them.
Cecilia | 08 June 2008

I have no arguments with what Andrew Hamilton has to say, but, as a mother of daughters I am concerned that in my experience, 12-15 aged girls are extremely modest and would never expose themselves to anyone, even a family member, without inducement.

And so I am concerned for the wellbeing for these girls who have been persuaded to allow themselves to be photographed in this manner. It is no wonder that the subject of the photo looked so vulnerable and defenceless. I was reminded of the stripping of men, women and children before entering the gas chambers.

And now the images are on the internet for anyone to gloat over! That seems shameful to me.
M.M.Kerby | 11 June 2008

This is one of the best articles of the many, many pieces of yours that i have read. a brilliant exposition of the issues.
James Massola | 13 June 2008


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