5. Australia debates about child nudity
"The evil is in the eye of the beholder"
Since May 2008, two publicly showed photos of naked young children have started a public debate in which, among other questions, fear of child nudity and artistic freedom combated. Even the Prime Minister, but also the photographed children play their role in this debate. The two cases were an exhibition of photos of artist Bill Nelson and the cover photo on the magazine Art Monthly. We follow the cases by giving quotes from the media.
1. The Bill Nelson case
Start of the case: politicians, thus police, and a psychologist
The Herald Sun, May 23, 2008:
> Police expect to lay charges after seizing more than 20 photographs from
NSW Premier Morris Iemma also weighed in from China, condemning the
NSW Minister for the Arts Frank Sartor saw the images - some of which
The same newspaper on the same day wrote:
> Photographs of naked 12- and 13-year-olds by a leading Australian
photographer could give people a taste for pedophilia, a clinical psychologist says.
[..] "People who would never cross the line in the past, they would never
have sought out photos of naked children are now doing it because it's so accessible," psychologist Jo Lamble said the Seven Network today.
"They might look at something like that and think: 'Oh, OK, well that's art, so that's OK, it's tasteful', but it can give them the taste for it."
And Newspaper The West wrote on the same day:
> Child protection advocate Hetty Johnston backed the move to prosecute,
> NSW Department of Community Services Minister Kevin Greene said the
The debate starts
> Understandably the topic of the pictures provoked impassioned debate in
> Politicians of all colours, sensing an easy free kick, have all lined up
for a go over the last 24 hours since the story was beaten into an issue
by right-wing columnist, Miranda Devine. [...] Sadly their [= The Daily
Telegraph] extreme moral-panic style commentary has left little room for a community debate.
> While some thought the whole thing disgusting others claimed that if such images were more commonplace they would lose their value as titillation, that is, it's only the way we react to them that makes then dirty.
> But it isn't fair to say the images constitute the "sexualisation of children" as Opposition Leader Barry O'Farrell has charged. Having looked at them, I really have to wonder if these are the kind of images a sexual predator would desire. They seem altogether too dark and moody for that. But sadly, few will be able to form their own view. Not only have they lost the opportunity to see the images, but the water has been irrevocably muddied by the hysterical commentary our socially conservative columnists and opportunistic politicians. <
A more rational approach appeared in The Australian the next day, May 24:
> Porn case is likely to fail; Chris Merritt: The success rate in obscenity trials in Australia is extremely low - and experts believe the looming case against renowned photographer Bill Henson will prove no different. [...] The case will almost certainly boil down to a decision by either a magistrate or a jury on whether the photographs are obscene. <
The Age gives on May 26 an article named "The controversial career of Bill Henson". Read: he has more nudes photographed in his career. The article ends with a quote:
> Forty years ago, artist Martin Sharp was famously tried for obscenity because of a piece he wrote for Oz magazine. Last week he received an invitation to Henson's exhibition, which features a topless 13-year-old. "It was a powerful image. I would call it very beautiful in its vulnerability rather than 'revolting' as the Prime Minister has done," Sharp said. The photograph suggested the girl "gave her trust to Henson - and this trust has been violated by the police and Kevin Rudd's comments."
The Herald Sun, May 26:
> Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin said the topic warranted further discussion.
"I think the use of photographs and billboards, and the way in which
SMH, May 27: Police widen Henson inquiry; Josephine Tovey, Les Kennedy and Jonathan Dart:
> Criminal investigations into Bill Henson have widened to include previous work by the controversial photographer, after police received complaints about several Henson works on display at a regional gallery. Police advised the Albury Regional Art Gallery to take down several photographs by the artist dating back to 1985, after they received a complaint from the public about "inappropriate" images, which they are investigating.
> Henson's work is held in a number of regional and state galleries, including the National Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, though no other gallery has removed any Henson work from display.
Here follows a row of names of "prominent arts figures" who
have protested, but they are scarcely quoted in the article.
> Police said Thursday they had visited the prestigious National Gallery of Australia in Canberra as part of a search for the works of an art photographer accused of producing child pornography. Police in cities across Australia have been scouring galleries for photographer Bill Henson's work [...]. <
In The Age, June 1, Graham Dawson wrote:
> As a psychologist who worked for over three years in the rehabilitation of child sex offenders, I found they always believe there is something special about their situation that legitimises their actions. The point is, we can't accept one adult's offending behaviour because they're famous. That introduces a concept of gradations within a sexually offensive act. These gradations are what offenders rely on to excuse, and therefore continue, their behaviour. Any attempts by so called experts to legitimise Henson's work will make the rehabilitation of sexual offenders all the more difficult. [... ]
Art appreciation may be subjective but the wellbeing and protection of children is not. We have an objective moral obligation, a duty of care, as a civilised society, to ensure children are protected from exploitation and abuse. Children should not be dragged into the adult world prematurely. But our libertarians and "art lovers" are more concerned about feeding the desires and whims of adults than they are about the interests of the child. That is the real issue here, not some argument about what is art, and/or demands for "freedom of expression".
News.com.au writes on June 2: Artist to exhibit photos of nude 11-year-old boys as protest;
Michelle Draper: A Melbourne artist will exhibit a series of nude photographs of
11-year-old children to protest against the recent censorship of the
> She said her intent through her photographs was to show vulnerability
and fragility, not just of young people, but of everyone. "It's like the vulnerable side of everybody, the fragility of us all, we
all grow. And I think it's beautiful," she said.
'Thus', we read the next day in The Age: "Police say they will look into an exhibition of nude photographs of two young boys to be shown at a bar in Melbourne tonight to verify there are no issues with the works."
Abc.net.au quotes a minister on June 7:
> Federal Arts Minister Peter Garrett says a decision not to proceed with
The debate goes on
The Australian on the same day:
> Children's rights activist Hetty Johnston declared it was "a great day for pedophiles, a sad day for Australia".
> NSW Law Society president Hugh Macken said the Henson photographs did
> Ms Johnston told The Weekend Australian last night she was one of the three people who issued a complaint to police about Henson's photographs, and she intended to continue her fight against state and federal laws that allowed images of naked underage girls to be taken and circulated as art. <
The Australian News continues on June 12:
> Child activists yesterday threw their support behind a letter published
in The Australian that said the bigger issue was not the art-child pornography debate, but the rights of children.
"Basically, I was shocked that people were not seeing the real issue," said child psychologist and writer Steve Biddulph, one of the 30
signatories to the letter. "It wasn't about pornography, or even about pedophilia - it's about
The Age continues on June 13:
> Henson foe says artists do nothing to protect children; Annabel Stafford: Child protection campaigner Hetty Johnston has called on the arts community to set up a board to decide what constitutes an artist and therefore who can take photos of naked children. [...] "The arts industry does nothing that I can see in terms of meeting its obligation and responsibility (to protect children)," she said. "There have to be checks and balances." [...] Ms Johnston also said she had asked the NSW Attorney-General to look at tightening child pornography laws. <
At least, critical thinkers have their say
The famous Germaine Greer wrote in the Blog of the Guardian (UK) on June 16:
> Would Australia's PM ban Botticelli? - Australia's prime minister Kevin Rudd has hit out at photographer Bill
Henson's pictures of naked adolescents. Would he ban Botticelli?
Two weeks later, the NSW department of public prosecutions informed the
police that there was no reasonable prospect of a conviction. But the offending picture is now known to millions; Henson and the gallery must
be laughing all the way to the bank.
Rudd would not recoil in horror from Botticelli's Birth of Venus, one hopes, but that, too, is
the image of an adolescent. For some months, travellers on the London
Cranach and his mate Martin Luther might have been unhappy with the unprincipled use made of a tiny
exquisite image meant to be enjoyed by the refined gentleman in private,
but they would have made no objection to this model's evident youth.
In 1995, staff at Boots reported that film left for development by the newsreader Julia
Somerville and her partner Jeremy Dixon contained pornographic images of
The photographing of pubescent bodies is even riskier.
Coming of age is the subject matter of the bildungsroman; most of our art is concerned with it one way or another. The chief inspiration for any artist is her childhood and youth, yet even when young people give their own account of their experiences, the result is deemed indecent.
Meanwhile the models on our catwalks are, or pretend to be, gangling adolescents. Every year, fashion magazines produce a new crop of schoolgirl models. Mothers may look at pictures like Henson's and howl with fear; but the man who rejects them with exaggerated horror is appalled not by the works themselves but by his own response to them. Innocence is not an option. <
Lots of comments react to her Blog.
TV show of Insight: the naked eye on June 24 may end this subsection.
Here, we give only some quotes. The full text of the transcription is on the given links. In the case they sooner or later will disappear from the web, the full text of the transcription is also given in the documentation section of this Newsletter under # 08-068. Text only - Ipce does not allow itself to publish possibly debatable pictures. The other articles quoted are stored under # 08-067.
Ms Hetty Johnston, director of Bravehearts, was also there. She repeatedly gave her opinion just as we have seen here above in several newspapers: "You can't use a naked child for artistic purposes or for film. You just can't do it."
The girl, photographed by Bill Nelson, was present in this show and she has spoken. Earlier, newspapers have mentioned that the girl has been sought by police (because Bill Nelson refused to speak to police), that she was found, but that she refused to speak, thus cooperate with police. Also other 'declared victims' were present ... to declare that they absolutely not felt themselves as 'victims'.
> JENNY BROCKIE (presentator, herafter JB): Marina, they're photos of you, the ones that we've just
seen. You're 25 now - how do you feel looking at them now?
Zoe is another nude photographed teenager, then 16, now 26.
> J B: Do you think you were able to make an informed decision about having them taken?
> J B: Leela?
About another case, presented on a video:
> CONCETTA PETRILLO, ARTIST: I took some pictures of my boys. Some were
> J B: Allan Leek, you were a police officer for 34 years and you also own an art gallery which puts you in a very interesting
position in this debate. I wonder what you think about the debate?
> J B: Michael, you're a part-time photographer and you recently got into trouble for taking photographs of your child at a netball game,
can you tell us what happened because I think it's quite an interesting story in the context of this debate.
> J E: Ok, last word on the discussion, first of all from you, Marina.
Parents banned from snapping kids at sport; The Sunday Telegraph
The evil is in the eye of the beholder.
2. The case of the girl on the cover of Arts Monthly Australia
Just after the Bill Henson case, the magazine Arts Monthly Australia published a cover photo with a young girl, six year, playing in the sand.
The articles quoted, and other articles from the newspapers, are stored as document # 08-069 in the Documentation section of this Newsletter.
The Age, July 6, 2008, Mischelle Grattan:
> The picture, taken in 2003 by Melbourne photographer Polixeni Papapetrou
> But The Age art critic Robert Nelson, Papapetrou's husband and father of Olympia, now 11, said the family had no regrets and the photograph was a great work of art. [...] He said Olympia often posed for her mother and this photo, which had been exhibited in major galleries in Australia and New York, was one of her favourites. <
> The NSW Government yesterday announced it would refer Art Monthly
Australia to the Classification Board. [...]
Again, we hear the comment of the Prime Minister and of Braveheats' executive director Hetty Johnson. But also the girl and her father.
Here is the PM in abc.net.au on July 6, 2008:
> Prime Minister Kevin Rudd earlier told ABC1's Insiders that the cover goes against the interests of protecting children. "How can anyone assume that a little child of six years old, eight, 10, 12, somehow is able to make that decision for themselves," he said. "I mean I don't think I can [assume that] - that's just my view and that's why frankly I can't stand this stuff." <
And here Hetty Johnson in the same issue:
> Bravehearts says the decision by Art Monthly Australia to put a naked
six-year-old girl on its cover is evidence the arts community clearly can't be relied on to self-regulate.
The organisation's executive director Hetty Johnson says new legislation
is required across the country to make it illegal to take photographs of
> The young girl whose naked image appears on the cover of an art magazine
says she is "really offended" by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's criticisms of the photo.
And the father:
> Professor Nelson said his family had no regrets about the photo's
publication, for which it had given permission. The photograph was a great work of art and there was nothing
pornographic about it, he said.
News.com.au on July 10:
> Robert Nelson, art critic with The Age, has responded angrily to
criticism of the nude pictures of his six-year-old daughter Olympia in the magazine's most recent issue, which may be pulled from the shelves
after NSW authorities ruled it needed to be classified.
The discussion goes on: The Australian, July 9, Janet Albrechtsen in an article headed "Just naked exploitation":
> The decision by Art Monthly Australia to put the photograph of a nude
six-year-old girl on the cover of its July magazine is barefaced abuse of an innocent child. It is overt political exploitation of a naked
child by a group of adults done solely for their own political gratification.
> And let's not be seduced by the dulcet voice of 11-year-old Olympia
Nelson, who says she loves the photo her mother took a few years ago.
Perhaps her parents think that by treating their child as an adult they are liberated from heavy parental responsibilities. They are not. And Olympia's voice adds little to the debate. This is a child, once again, doing the bidding of adults. First, Art Monthly. And now, her parents. She's 11, her baby voice a reminder that her ability to judge the merits of posing nude for a public photograph is encumbered by her youth, not to mention the influence of her parents. <
Two ministers speak in smh.com.au, July 10:
> The federal Minister for Families, Jenny Macklin, joined the chorus
condemning the pictures yesterday, saying children were being sexualised
in ways that robbed them of a childhood.
What we hear is: 'Do not listen to the child, the victim. Listen to
the victimologists. They know better.'