Honestly, I am not over-fond of Bill Henson’s work. It is too arty and contrived for my taste. Nonetheless, I do note that the posts and pages I did on the subject a little while ago are drawing, and have continued to draw, quite a lot of attention. Lately, of course, this has been generated by David Marr’s new book and articles on the Henson Affair. The Sydney Morning Herald even has a multimedia presentation narrated by Marr. This report summarises events to date:
Controversial artist Bill Henson has yet again come under fire from the nation’s “outraged” and “revolted” politicians, this time following revelations he went to a primary school to search for suitable subjects for his artwork.
In a book by Herald journalist David Marr, Mr Henson said a Melbourne primary school principal agreed to let him wander the playground at lunchtime, accompanied by the principal, in search of subjects for his artwork.
“If the report is accurate, I am disgusted by it,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told reporters in Sydney today.
“I think parents would be revolted and horrified if this were true.”
Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull said he was outraged by the report.
“There are very big issues here relating to the protection of children, their privacy and informed consent,” he told reporters in Sydney.
“The matters that have been described in the media are totally inappropriate and unacceptable and I share the outrage that has been expressed by many people at these events,” he said.
“I’m astounded by the reports.”
Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan said it was the ultimate betrayal of parents’ trust and someone ought to be sacked.
Mr Marr said Mr Henson was accompanied by the school principal at all times and he did not tell the children he wanted them to model for him or take any photographs…
It is certainly true that various agencies representing advertising companies or film and TV interests regularly scout schools for talent; there are strict guidelines on this process. I have seen it done. It seems to me the guidelines were probably followed in the case of Henson, but as you can see outrage is again the order of the day.
This and the image above right are from The American Museum of Photography
I thought I would remind everyone what child abuse actually is. There is absolutely nothing wrong with opposing child pornography or any other kind of child abuse, but I still can’t help thinking that the plot is really being lost in this current furore. It may also be said that I have doubts about the tactics, even the motives, of David Marr — not in terms of child abuse, obviously, but in terms of what may be seen as self-promotion, and in terms of a sometimes less than helpful superciliousness.**
** UPDATE — live blogging 11pm: I am watching David Marr on Lateline at the moment. He is making a very good serious case for his position, and even more so about the panic now surrounding photography, which he is linking to fear of the Internet, and to other agendas, very convincingly. He has also avoided arrogance and has not discounted the genuine concern some have in this for the welfare of children. What he said has been very insightful.*
I am also impressed by the testimony on behalf of the school principal involved in this latest Henson story, a solid and very strongly worded bouquet for her integrity and quality as an educator from one of the parents at the school in question — Australian Olympic flag bearer James Tomkins. I think Kevin Rudd’s response on this one — and all who have followed suit — has been ill-considered.
…LEIGH SALES: Why do you think that’s come up now?
DAVID MARR: It’s the Internet. The Internet has changed the way we view photography. There is a sense in which no photograph can actually be corralled anymore. Everything is potentially available to anybody anywhere in the world, once it gets on the Internet. We still have to deal with that, that apprehension of the Internet, because it’s changing the way we consider art, photography, all sorts of things. Part of the purpose of my book is to look at the history of that fear of the Internet, and try to work out whether in fact we need to be so afraid. I don’t think we do.
LEIGH SALES: Presumably that fear of the Internet comes at a time where there are particularly sharp fears about the safety of children. You talk about this convergence of fears all coming together in this one case.
DAVID MARR: Yes. And I try to distinguish between real children who have the real need to be protected and the kind of forum in which children’s, the fragility of children is being used frankly exploited, by people who have always been trying to have a more modest society, a better behaved society, a more sexually conservative society. Those people aren’t listened to any more at all by anybody unless they’re talking about children, unless they’re talking about the safety of children.
LEIGH SALES: But in this particular case do you think the mums and dads out there who were appalled by it think in that sort of an ideological fashion or are they just thinking these photographs crossed the line and I don’t want my child…
DAVID MARR: Leigh, of course they don’t think that way. They’re thinking with their guts, their concern for their kids and they’re fearful. My job as an analyst and reporter is to try to disentangle those fears and give them names and explain why this is happening…
[WARNING!] The images over the fold are disturbing. Each is linked to its source. They are icons of some aspects only of a sad and complex problem, but I hope they give food for thought and restore a sense of proportion in the current climate.
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