Most Australians will probably remember the Bill Henson debarkle back in 2008 when a number of photographs of children were removed from an art gallery and labelled as “disgusting” and pornographic, despite having no intent to arouse and there existing no evidence of abuse of the children.
The debate that followed was heated, often ill informed and caused a great divide among the community. There were those who believed that whether abuse was present or not the images could arouse some viewers and should therefore be removed. There were those that said this was censorship gone mad, that children were a legitimate artistic subject and should be allowed to be so. Many people felt torn by a desire to protect children from abuse and an understanding that this was not such a case, that it really was art and that the pictures really were beautiful and not at all pornographic. The debate sort of reminds me of the sex worker debate that has been raging on feminaust over the last few weeks. The conflict between people who want to protect trafficked women and do so by vilifying the entire industry to “rescue” them and those who recognise that it is not the industry that is evil or immoral but individuals and groups within the industry, much like any other. The gut reaction to want to protect children from abuse is noble and justified however the censorship of legitimate art is not the solution. The Bill Henson case is not the first and will certainly not be the last.
American photographer Sally Mann is synonymous with art and controversy. Mann is famous for her stunning black and white photographs of her children however many of her images have been banned, censored or removed from galleries based on a misguided notion that they are indicative of abuse. This image of her 6 year old daughter is particularly beautiful. Yes, she is naked. Yes, you can see her entire body and she is staring into the camera with flashing eyes. Her hair is wet and plastered against her body in an artistic way. If you were someone aroused by children then you would probably find this image pleasureable. But that does not mean it’s pornography and that does not mean it’s dangerous, damaging or abusive to the child. In fact in my opinion, it would be more dangerous and damaging to tell this child that it’s not ok for her mum to photograph her naked, that she should be afraid or a loving parent who finds her body beautiful and artistic and that she should avoid being naked with any audience because of the potential to arouse someone predatory. In my opinion, that sets the little girl up with a set of concepts and responsibilities of her own sexuality which is dangerous to young women all over the world. It is an idealogy consistent with victim blaming, slut shaming and rape apology.
Today when I came into work I picked up The Age newspaper and saw a full frontal image of a 6 year old girl on the front cover, above the fold. The child is lying on a bed with her head thrown back and her entire body is fully visible. However, I doubt very much whether this child’s parents will be investigated for child sexual abuse, nor will the photograph be banned from public display or exhibition. Why? Because it is of a dying child in Papua New Guinea. The image is being expressly used to evoke pity and concern for the plight of this child and of many more like her and so, to censors and fear mongers is clearly not sexualised. Why is this any different from the Mann photograph? Because of the ignorant and narrow minded assumption that even paedophiles couldn’t be aroused by a dying child… that it’s safe to show this photograph because it has a clear purpose that is as far from sex and arousal as you can get. The representation of this child has a purpose to benefit the greater good. So it’s ok.
Anyone else smelling the hypocrisy here?
In Sally Mann’s photograph the child is at home, or at least in a place of safety and happiness. She’s with her parents and siblings and has been playing, enjoying herself and her childhood. One of the greatest calls of anti campaigners is that it robs children of their innocence, their childhood, a sacred time of carefree fun and lack of responsibility. However to my eyes, that’s exactly what Mann’s daughter is experiencing. Fun, frivolity, relaxation, a “perfect” childhood moment.
In The Age photograph however the child is not at home, or even really in a place of safety. Hospitals are demoralising, depersonalising spaces which rob patients of autonomy, safety and dignity. This photograph was most probably taken without the child’s consent, as it looks like she wouldn’t have the energy or interest in understanding and giving her consent, although undoubtedly (or at least hopefully) the photographer did have her parents’ consent. This child has been robbed of the mythic childhood that people love to talk about, first by her poverty, then by her illness and finally by a photographer who has used her situation to garner sympathy and a front page spot.
So why is the photograph that depicts the mythic glory of childhood shunned and the one which depicts to loss and destruction of childhood on the front page? Why do we accept unquestioningly the intent of the second photographer, a stranger, wanting to make money and develop fame but vilify and attack the first photographer, a loving mother spending time with her daughter? Is it because one has a purpose while the other is just art? Do we turn a blind eye to the image of one 6 year old because she is serving a greater purpose while the other is just a pleasing image? Or is it this concept of pleasure which makes all the difference? Can we accept the second image because it makes us uncomfortable, unhappy and helpless, while the first is unacceptable because it is beautiful and we worry about something inside of ourselves which we cannot control or banish and cannot segregate from our actualised sexuality. The scary concept that the human body is beautiful, in all its shapes and sizes is challenging, especially when the body is that of a child, is quietened by the dying child, because we can feel sympathy and remorse. The image of the laughing, happy child leaves us out in the open though, with nothing to hide behind except a laughing, happy child.
My opinion is we all really need to grow up and recognise that nudity in and of itself is not sexual. We understand that with the dying child, but struggle with the happy child. Until we can reconcile that we do not all have hydraulic sexuality that will be drawn to whatever is present and nudie, until we can respect people enough to realise that sexuality is complex, innate and lifelong, these contradictions and hypocrisies will continue.