Untitled #8 by Bill Henson
Photographer Bill Henson has been criticized for his practice as of late. In May of this year his exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney was closed after several individuals filed complaints with law enforcement due to the questionable nature of Henson's photographs depicting naked children. The complaints were filed due to an email the gallery had sent concerning an invite to a private viewing of Bill Henson's photographs at the gallery. The email contained a photographic image of a nude 12 year old girl which sparked the controversy. The gallery, with Henson’s approval, decided to cancel the opening of the exhibit due to being the focus of negative media attention and law enforcement involvement. During the process of the investigation a number of images from the exhibit were seized by police as potential examples of child pornography. The police also forced the gallery to remove specific graphic images of Henson’s work from their website.
Local authorities and child protection advocates had strived to charge the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and Bill Henson with ‘publishing an indecent article’ under the New South Wales Crimes Act and child protection legislation. However, in June of 2008 New South Wales and the Department of Public Prosecutions declined to file charges against the gallery or the artist. In fact, it was declared that the photographs of naked teenagers were “mild and justified” and were given a PG rating. It seemed the controversy was settled-- until now.
After months of shying away from publicity Bill Henson has decided to be vocal in defending his work and to speak out against accusations that his photographs are nothing more than child pornography since his work involves photographing naked children. Henson claims that the girl depicted in the Roslyn Oxley9 email invite supports the image along with her family. The mother of the 12-year-old girl at the center of the controversy has stated that the photographs had captured a "beautiful" moment. Henson went on to say that people can discover that he is a legitimate photographer by doing a Google search of his name and that he only regrets the public controversy that the image has caused. In a statement to Fairfax he stated that he has been doing similar work for over 30 years and made it clear that he was often in a position of asking parents whether they would allow their children to be photographed nude or not.
It has been suggested that Henson’s vocal defense of his work was spurred by recent information involving the investigation of his practice. Late last month it was revealed that Henson had visited a primary school in order to scout for models in 2007. Apparently the principle of the school had escorted Henson around the playground of the Melbourne school so that Henson could observe potential models in order to photograph them naked with parent consent. It has been suggested that it would be wise for Henson to allow parents to contact him directly about photographing their children nude instead of 'prowling' for talent at primary school playgrounds. Needless to say, this new information has angered parents who have since demanded action from their government.
The outraged parents have stated that Henson’s visit to the school was a betrayal of trust. The fury of anger has provoked a response from authorities against Henson and the principal. The principal of the school in question has since been reprimanded by officials for allowing Henson into the school and is now working at another location. Education Minister Julia Gillard stated that nobody should be allowed into schools without a legitimate purpose upon learning of Henson’s visit. Victorian Premier John Brumby announced an investigation into the fresh controversy and told Melbourne reporters that an individual walking through the school grounds in order to view children as potential nude models is “inappropriate”. Needless to say, the situation does not look good for Bill Henson and the validity of his work.
In recent years the charges against world renowned photographers who photograph nude children has reached a boiling point. In the eyes of child advocates the fact that an artist has exhibited in prestigious galleries and museums does not make photographs involving nude children anymore legitimate than child pornography. You may recall that in 2007 an exhibit of Nan Goldin’s photographs were seized from the collection of Sir Elton John due to similar charges that Bill Henson is now facing. Do these works walk a fine line between artistic freedom and exploitation?
What are your thoughts concerning photographs of nude children for the purpose of art? Are these works legitimate or should artists like Bill Henson be charged with crimes? Do parents, by giving consent for these images, violate the rights of their own children? Should the ability for parents to give consent in this manner be terminated? Should laws and penalties be in place in order to halt works of this nature from being exhibited in galleries and museums? Should museums lose government funding for supporting artists like Bill Henson? Should Henson have to provide information that proves parental consent for all of his known works involving nude children? Or is this controversy nothing more than censorship? What say you?
Take care, Stay true,