Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I've been following some of the Bill Henson debate, for example here and here. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you can read the story here.

In this country, in our culture, we find truth-telling suspect. We always look for the lie behind the words, the fiction in the fact. We are troubled by writers like Helen Garner and Helen Demidenko who blur the categories so profoundly that we no longer know what is real and what is not. In a post-surveillance age, photographers especially come under scrutiny (sorry that link is a side issue but interesting nonetheless). They capture a fleeting moment of truth, and yet by distilling a moment, by taking it out of time, they distil and inflate that moment. Fact and fiction morph, boundaries blur and collapse. Photographs are evidence - they tell us what is true. But photographs can be altered, they're tricky, they can also convince us that which is false is true. If someone says 'I'm looking you in the eye and I am telling you the truth' immediately we entertain the possibility that they are lying to us. In stories, someone is always withholding or misrepresenting the truth, it's one of the easiest tricks to create tension and suspense. We are not a society based on trust, we're a society trained to always look for underlying motives - whether conscious or unconscious. We see a great deal of behaviour - perhaps even art - as a symptom of some kind of neurological or psychological disorder. Or perhaps as a deliberate attempt to trick, persuade, or hoodwink us.

What is it precisely that these teenagers (boys and girls appear in the photographs, though I've noticed it's only the female models that people have framed as vulnerable and exploited) are to be protected from? I think it is clear that Bill Henson himself isn't a paedophile, I haven't seen any convincing arguments to suggest he is, nor is he wilfully presenting pornographic material. Are we worried paedophiles will look at the photos and feel things? Or that the images will incite repressed paedophiles to act? Or is it exploitative simply for a man to look upon a teenaged body? Or is it the fact that she has been 'used', that meaning has been layered upon her naked body by someone other than herself, someone with power over her? I've read many fears for this naked girl in the future, that while she might have consented as a minor, ultimately she will feel shame and regret at having posed for these photographs in a media age where images live forever (I think it's a huge assumption that a model will inevitably regret these photographs - I think if such photographs existed of me, I'd actually find them an incredible souvenir of my body, of my travels through my bodyscape).

Do the photos challenge our ideas about consent? "Who provided consent for her to be photographed in this way? Should her guardians be investigated and possibly prosecuted?" Dr Anne Smith asks (a spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of Physicians). Her suggestion troubles me far more than the photographs. Is part of the issue here our fear of the power and control individuals have over other individuals - do we want to dissolve families and individual choice about child rearing, including moral values, and make everyone instead a child of the state? I think for some people the answer would be "no, of course not (but everyone should parent the way I do)".

I've read suggestions that artists should have to jump through the same ethics committee hoops as researchers, or be subjected to working with minors police checks (actually the second is quite a reasonable suggestion). But the former, the ethics committee, suggests that art is as measured as research, even that it performs the same function. Art can be spontaneous and sometimes has to be.

Having said all this, I do think Bill Henson is accountable, artists don't live outside law and social responsibility. I don't feel sorry for him. He has created powerful, troubling, disturbing work and some equally powerful, troubling and disturbing forces have said, 'nup, you've gone too far, let's talk about consequences." As bluemilk said:
"Henson, the art world, and the critics of this exhibition will undoubtedly survive this debate intact, while also remaining completely clothed and I can’t help but contrast that with the vulnerability of this young naked girl at the heart of this scandal."
Unfortunately though, I am not sure what made her more vulnerable - the photographs, or the way she has been seized in the subsequent moral panic on both sides (one side arguing that she is an exploited child the other arguing that she is an object of art).

I am reminded, as I write this, of Margo Lanagan's incredibly and profoundly beautiful and devestating novel Touching Earth Lightly, a work I struggle to describe but that I think touches on similar themes to Bill Henson (please don't anyone read this and censor that too). One difference is Lanagan writes for teenagers. Bill Henson's work is about them. But I don't think that in itself should be problematic. In a world with a youth fetish, we need to analyse the images we are obsessed with, god forbid that the only public images of young people are the coquettish images in a children's fashion magazine. I think we are particularly terrified by adolescence, we gatekeepers of children's innocence (and I say that as a mother not a writer), because, like photography, like truthtelling, boundaries blur and collapse. When do they stop being children? Where are the boundaries between what is acceptable sexual behaviour or desire and what it not? At what age does nudity stop being innocent and fresh and okay and start being something sexual? Perhaps in the end, censorship is part of the success of Bill Henson's work, thematically if not financially. Because they've found a boundary, they've discovered a place in time and space that doesn't want them, that won't open up to them.


  1. For me, this isn't so much a debate about truth but about beauty. The human body is beautiful. I feel incredibly sad that children and teenagers are being made to feel even more afraid about the way the world views them. That the only way the adult world interprets them is as sexual objects or possibly as clothes-horses. Next, they'll be banning photos of naked babies.
    The implication of the Henson debate is that some people believe children, especially girls under 16, should be made to wear burquas so that they don't ignite a frenzy of dysfunctional sexuality in adults. How incredibly tragic.

  2. 1. I'm not usre how i feel about the bill henson thing. it makes me uncomfortable, and I don't know whether I condone it. But I certainly don't think that that means the photo shouldn't exist. I agree with kirsty - it is sad, and I'm far more outraged by commercials sexualising pre-teens in bikinis. Oh, and I'm more than a bit outraged by The Age, for printing the photo itself. It's one thing to have a photo of a naked teenager hanging in a gallery. It's another altogether to have it on page 3 of the Sunday Paper, with the words PORNOGRAPHY and EXPLOITATION slapped across it. If any damage has been done to this girl, it's from the ridiculous quivering and finger-pointing from the media.

    2. I also made the mistake of reading the Herald Sun on Sunday (in a cafe). There was an article about a GOVERNMENT INVESTIGATION into TV commercials for nappies featuring naked babies. Because they encourage paedophiles. I MEAN REALLY.

  3. Beauty, yes.

    "The implication of the Henson debate is that some people believe children, especially girls under 16, should be made to wear burquas so that they don't ignite a frenzy of dysfunctional sexuality in adults."

    So true.

    The nappy thing is so ridiculous.

  4. Anonymous2:11 PM

    The nappy thing is completely ridiculous.

    Again, I don't have a problem with bodies being on show but I do find his depictions of them quite insulting.

    Ah Penni, I don't even know anymore!

    Great post anyway :)

  5. The more I think about this, the more I think you are right about our discomfort about adolescence. It is no surprise we can't decide what we think about these images (I haven't seen them, so I have no opinion on them specifically), we can't decide about teenagers in general.

    I keep oscillating between the fact that she might well be made to regret it later in life, and the fact that I dearly want to live in a society which won't make her regret it later in life.

    It is enormously empowering to see ordinary bodies of people like yourself. I find Gok's "How to Look Good Naked" with its 100 ordinary women in underwear (or less) incredibly reassuring. Turns out I am not a freak after all....

    I really don't think there should be an age when a naked body becomes sexual. Lord knows I don't feel that way every time I get my gear off. :)

  6. Ariane, I don't feel that way ANY time I get my gear off these days. He wants to photograph bodies in transition, he should look at my descending belly.

    But seriously, I recall a naked photo of me standing next to my mother - I'd pulled a towel away from her because she was reluctant to have her photo taken (as a result there aren't that many photos of us and mum as we were growing up). I was very young, about eight, still young enough to swim in the nude on holidays. But you could already see my developing body (I was an early starter). A few years after that photo was taken I tore the photo out of the album and destroyed it, it had been my first realisation that I was developing (I don't really recall ever looking at my body naked as a child or teenager, though of course I must have done it), and I couldn't stand that photo existing. Of course now, as an adult, I wish I had it. I don't know what that story says, but it says something...something about the grief of adolescence, that adolescents are told that they are something hideously in-between, something vaguely Kristevan about changes of state and abjection and horror. And also brings me back to the thing I said a few weeks ago (that lots of people related to) about how much being a mother is like being a teenager...

  7. I literally spent thousands of hours during my childhood, adolesence and young adulthood modelling for artists. I am incredibly grateful for the experience as it taught me that the human body doesn't have to be just a sexual object. It engendered a physical ease and sense of self-worth that I would never have felt otherwise. It was empowering and a much needed counterpoint to the torment that fashion and consumeristic culture imposes on young women. Being forced to wear bloomers during my high school P.E. class or stand around in my bathers for hours at the school swimming sports felt far more like exploitation than anything that ever happened to me in an artist's studio.
    I often find Henson's work gloomy, dark and sometimes depressing. Anyone who has anything to do with teenagers knows that 'gloomy' 'dark' and 'depressing' are principal tones in the adolescent palette. I don't believe for one minute that the work exploits teenagers anymore than that teenage fiction is a corrupting influence on the young.