The following article was published in the Bondi View on June 13, 2008.
By Reuben Brand
Controversial photographer Bill Henson will not be charged over allegations of child pornography, as the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions informed police that there were no substantial grounds for convicting Mr Henson or the galleries that exhibited his work.
Police executed a search warrant late last month and seized 20 of the 40 photographs on display at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Paddington, among them were images of naked children as young as 12 and 13.
Senior Liberal frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull, who also owns two of Mr Henson’s photographs, came to Mr Henson’s defence, saying that artistic freedom is one of the things that makes this country great.
“We live in a free society and it’s important that artists, writers and journalist be able to express themselves freely … within the law” said Mr Turnbull.
Cameron Murphy, – President of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, said there was nothing wrong with a photograph of a naked minor.
“It is about the context in which it is displayed, and the purpose of the photograph. There are reasons why these photographs are allowed; it is the duty of art to provoke thought and contemplation” said Mr Murphy.
If the picture was clearly pornographic then Mr Murphy said there would be absolutely no case for it to be portrayed as art.
“In my view this is clearly the exhibition of an internationally recognised artist. It is appalling to see police raiding galleries and removing works of art. The position of the Child Protection Agency was extreme and irrational -such a reaction makes Australia look ridiculous,” said Mr Murphy.
Prominent Sydney-based photographer Ella Dreyfus is head of public programs at the National Art School. She said today’s problem was that children’s bodies are over sexualised and Mr Henson should take more responsibility for the sexual connotations in his work.
“He deliberately is very evasive. I have been to his lectures, I have even questioned him myself about the idea of consent, and he is very evasive. He doesn’t want to own up or take the responsibility for what people are angry and upset about,” she said.
“And I think that he just hides very nicely behind philosophy and the history of art I asked him at the talk what sort of consent do you get? Is it written consent? He wouldn’t answer, he just said ‘oh yeah the families agree’… I couldn’t pin him down.”
Ms Dreyfus is no stranger to controversy in her career as an artist. In an exhibition titled Under Twelves she photographed 14 young boys from the chest up, her son included. The difference between Mr Henson’s work and her own, says Ms Dreyfus, is that her models are not naked or sexually suggestive.
“As a mother and a concerned adult it does worry me. The pressure on children to perform, to look like sexual beings, when emotionally and mentally they are just light-years away from it.”
Ms Dreyfus does not support censorship and believes that sending the police in was definitely overkill, but she is glad that the debate about Henson’s work is out in the open.
“I feel that with Bill Henson it’s been a case of the emperor’s news clothes. Like the king’s walking down the street naked and no one’s saying anything because the king doesn’t believe he’s doing anything wrong,” said Ms Dreyfus.