The Bill Henson Debacle

The Bill Henson Debacle? This whole thing is one of the most ridiculous things I've heard in the news all year. This isn't coming close to the "let's repeat that Heath Ledger is indeed dead and we will be mourning him so" stories but might be passing the "Corey is a dingbat" story quite soon.

As a photographer who used to work at the gallery in question as the web manager, I can tell you that the images aren't anything new for Henson. This sort of work has been a part of his repertoire for a long while now.


For those who didn't have the foresight to look at a concept of art, allow me to be an ass an explain it to you: it's called naturist photography. This isn't exactly new, and for a lesson in history, please research the following (if you're going to get your backs up about this): David Hamilton, Sally Mann, and Jock Sturges to name but a few.

Now I happen to like a lot of their photography. I don't look at the nudity and go "oh, well that's a child there" but instead look at the photography as a whole… as that's what photography is. An image, not an element. Sure, you can break up a photo over analysis by looking at individual elements, but a photo is not about singular elements. It is a collection bringing to the point an understanding about something – anything – and if you're hung up on Bill Henson's nudity you're not looking at the images or getting the point.

Which in turn brings me to this point:
If I like the work of Sally Mann or Jock Sturges and I own a book, am I able to be convicted of a crime?

The works are art. They're not porn. Which leads me to my next point because what I love about this entire pointless thing is that people are calling Henson's work pornography. As a connoisseur of porn, let me just fill those of you in who don't know what porn is.

Porn is not "nudity" unless you're talking specifically about "softcore porn" which no porn lover would ever consider porn.

Porn is about sex. Occasionally control but by and large sex as a whole.

If I am naked, I am not pornographic. I am merely naked.

Nudity is nudity. It is a naked form and unless you're going to start drawing parallels between heading to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and seeing painted pornography, you're looking at the wrong idea.

I won't deny that there are photographers who indulge in pornographic photography, but just because you take a picture of a person in their naked flesh does not mean that you're taking a picture of something pornographic. And age is irrelevant in that.

If I am 24 and I am naked and only naked in the act than I am just as un-pornographic as a 12 year old accomplishing the same act of standing in the nude.

Now, let's take a look at the NSW Crimes Act which I found through reading a forum thread over this very issue.

"child pornography" means material that depicts or describes, in a manner that would in all the circumstances cause offence to reasonable persons, a person under (or apparently under) the age of 16 years:
    (a) engaged in sexual activity, or
    (b) in a sexual context, or
    (c) as the victim of torture, cruelty or physical abuse (whether or not in a sexual context).

A child naked not engaged in sexual activity is not porn. The models in the Henson imagery are not engaged in sexual activity. That's point A. They're not point C as that doesn't really match Henson's subjects.

Point B is the one that people are stuck on and it's this whole "sexual context" some of you seem to have issues with. And that's fine, you're welcome to your opinion.

I personally like Henson's imagery for the whimsy of innocence, but I'd hardly call that a "sexual context". But that's just me. You're welcome to interpret it how you want.

However I hardly see it as a means to say "arrest that man, fine him, pull down his work" or anything that removes an artistic perception from my eyes without giving me the choice.

This is censorship in a pure and simple form. A lot of us get our backs up when we hear that the OFLC have banned games or movies or even books… and here's a question… are those of you who got pissed about the banning of Ken Park or Baise Moi or maybe an unedited copy of Grand Theft Auto IV among the people complaining against Bill Henson now?

Because shit… that might be seen as a level of hypocrisy.

For what it's worth, I have had a good laugh at some of the things people in the media have been saying about the Henson issue over the past couple of days.

This one is particularly funny. Ms. Hetty Johnston from Bravehearts said that "even art should be classified."

You've got to love the image that that presents: a whole bunch of artists lining up at the OFLC offices with their money in hand and someone looking over their abstract sculptures, their phallic representations, their photos of anything and everything, paintings of love and torture… while three individuals stand there debating over the entire thing and handing out G, PG, M, MA15+, R18+ and X ratings to artists.

This just in! Every digital camera will be forced to include a ratings monitor that will automatically scan over every image you take and look for a naked breast. If one is found, you will be issued with a rating then and there on the spot so you can actually show it to friends or stick it on your site. "The follow image of my hot girlfriend is rated MA15+; we'll try harder next time for an R rating as the OFLC doesn't like us much today." That sort of thing (patent pending on my idea, of course; make sure to use me or I'll sue your ass American-style).

And this gets better as why only classify art when we can classify literature to the point of understanding the relationships between characters! Hey, wasn't Juliet underage in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet? Surely that should be classed as illegal as a romantically linked character was under age.

This comment from the art life on the issue was amusing too (used below, so you don't have to click):

It is a good idea for the show to be re-hung. With all my due respect for Bill Henson, this show might attract pedophiles "in disguise", or more so some wannabe "photographer/pedophiles" might do the same later, defending themselves by saying "Henson has done it, why can't I?"

Sod it. Let's ban the beaches while we're at it. We let our kids swim or stand around naked and there might be a paedophile there!

Seriously… someone can't tell me that this whole thing is just a tad too Orwellian for belief?

Posted in Photography, UncategorizedTags:
  • Kate

    Worth a thousand words:

    Link on interesting video of to Bill Henson’s photographic work:

    7:41 pm May 24, 2008 Reply
  • Pamela Arlington

    Thank you for a very interesting and illuminating article. I’d never heard of Hetty Johnston before, reading about her and realising that it was she who made the complaint makes it all a lot clearer.

    5:41 pm May 25, 2008 Reply
  • Gregory Carlin

    The Henson material is child pornography in the United Kingdom. That’s the de jure position as a factor of the SOA 2003.

    When we lobbied for the re-vamping, of our child pornography laws Bill Henson was a consideration.

    He’s not allowed to display it there. I’m appalled by the internet operations connected to this material.

    Gregory Carlin

    Irish Anti-trafficking Coalition

    6:40 pm June 4, 2008 Reply
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