Monday, May 26, 2008

Children and consent: the artist as pornographer

Is it right to let childrens' parents consent to them being photographed naked and displayed in public? This question has become a hot topic after an exhibition due to be displayed of the renowned photographer Bill Henson that was closed down before even opening due to the controversial nature of the photographs. They showed a 12-year-old girl naked in a series of non-sexual photographs. The full story can be found here, with a followup of obscenity and potential child pornography charges here, but in this article former models of the photographer say that there was no way he had ever sexualised the photography he did of children, and always made sure to get the consent of the parents and the child:

"Bill asked my mother at an exhibition opening if I would like to pose for him and we talked about it and decided to do it," says Ms Elenberg, now a 34-year-old mother. "We went to this old building in Melbourne. It was quite dark but I never felt uncomfortable. Bill made you feel incredibly safe and calm. I was involved in the artistic process and I never felt that I wasn't in control.

"I absolutely support Bill Henson. I'm a parent myself and I abhor child pornography, but this is not child pornography. It's artistic and creative."

So the question is, though, can a child consent to something like this? Where is a line drawn between nudie pics in the bathtub put online for all to see and photographs of artistic merit, and child pornography? In the above article, the CE of Child Wise, Bernadette McMenamin says: "It is clear from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that parents do not have the right to make that decision on behalf of their children. And children, at the age of 12, 13 or 14, do not have the experience or the understanding to make an informed consent. They don't understand how those images will be used or re-used. When they're 18 or 20 or 30 they may look back and say, 'My god, I made a mistake.' "

It seems to me that the difference between naked pics in public and pornography is largely intention. The creeps who get off to children in the first place are unfortunately likely to find catalogues of childrenswear sexually gratifying as well, so there's not a lot we can do about that (except deal with them as we currently do when we find them, because that sort of thing is just revolting). But these photographs are apparently non-sexual (I cannot verify personally, I haven't seen them). How then are they different from anatomical photographs for public medical use, or the aforementioned baby bathtub pics? I personally would be more embarrassed to know that my parent had been showing naked pics of me on their laptop at each talk in public they gave as their background wallpaper (not mentioning any names here person who gives talks in CAPPE!) than to see artistic photographs of me when I was younger that were tasteful and associated with pleasant memories.

Basically what I'm getting at is that yes, I think children can be part of a consent process here, but with their parents who should be properly informed. The argument given by McMenamin above is just silly, because it means that nobody would be able to make decisions for their children at all. A good informed consent process should take the mental status of the parents and child, the understanding of the parents and child into account, and above all put the child's interests first, and it sounds like this was exactly what Henson did. This whole kneejerk reaction to something that touches society's nerve can be used to draw attention to the problems we have in society and maybe work on dealing with them rather than shutting them up in a cupboard. And that's one of the wonderful things about art, is that it often does that to great effect. Perhaps they should start up a fund to help children in developing countries, or something, rather than get on their high horse about all this.

Art is art. Erotica and porn are usually quite obviously so, through the intention of the photographer. Perhaps next time Henson, to avoid controversy, should paint or draw his subjects instead of photographing them? Would that be more acceptable?


sikamikanico said...

I think, because of the risk of harm the parents should not be able to give consent for this kind of thing. (I'm kind of opinioned-out on this by now, but have made my point on my blog and comments, if anyone is interested)

Catherine said...

There are many things that risk harming children that we have no problems giving parents control over. Why should this be any different?


There is a good article on Crikey which I mostly agree with, here (subscription may be required). The big problem Hamilton identifies here is that the societal problem we are faced with is the over-sexualisation of our children. This is the squick that people are reacting to, not the photos specifically, but the culture that pushes children to sexual beings at a younger and younger age. These photographs just brought it out in the open. I recommend reading that article, those CAPPE types who know where I work-related live can come grab a copy from me if they're interested in reading it and can't get to it online.

Nick said...

I think the oversexualisation of children in our society is problematic, but I don't see how this is that. If there was more public outcry about the existence of the Olsen twins, this argument might have greater force, but I think Henson is taking the brunt of the argument, which is fundamentally misplaced.

In regards to consent issues, I don't see how this is problematic in regards to how parents give consent. If a parent in a particular case is manifestly unfit to be a parent, I think it will not be emphasised by this case, but by something else. In regards to parents giving consent for children, or even the more fundamental issue (as I perceive it) of how much power parents should have over their children, I think there are far more serious issues to be dealt with like the responsibilities of a parent to their child's basic needs, which is still a problem in may parts of society, then consenting to have photos taken of them as part of an artistic project.

As for children being able to make an informed choice, and the repercussions of such a decision, perhaps a better solution would be to include a clause regarding the model's rights to request a photo/image be withdrawn from circulation? surely that would provide a case where a later understanding would allow for a redress of any perceived fault.

Is it pornography. It was a US supreme court judge that noted that pornography is something we all claim we know when we see it, but find very hard to define. I personally don't think this is pornography, but hey, what do I know?

Nick said...

Also, to don my amateur art critic hat, one commenter on in the Age noted that he felt something was profoundly unsettling about the images. I'd say that this does not justify censorship, as in many ways this is what art does. There must be a very careful demarcation between what is wrong, and what unsettling. If Henson's intent, as stated in numerous pieces, was to convey the image of the vulnerability of adolescent transofmraiton, then in a society increasingly preoccupied with self-reliance and security (thankyou Oliver James) I'd think that yes, that would be unsettling! But just because it makes one uncomfortable doesn't make it wrong. That's a terribly niave view.

Catherine said...

Oh, it's not that this is over-sexualisation, that's just really what people are reacting to. Kevin Rudd himself said "just let kids be kids" (or similar). But kids aren't exactly living in some magical unsexual world out there. They're dressing up, experimenting, reading, watching, anything but separate from sexualisation in this world.

I agree though, this is not a test for responsible parenting, but what I wanted to say is that parents who are obviously irresponsible shouldn't be making these sorts of decisions for their children (I wanted to get the zomg what about parents who abuse their kids argument out of the way, there's now way that a parent who, say, accepted money for such pictures of their kids would be considered competent to make that decision).

I think your suggestion for a solution is a good one, but probably not very likely to be instituted because i mean, when it comes down to it, if you get your picture taken by a very famous photographer, it starts to be worth a lot of money. And money talks, even if you stash the photograph away in a cupboard for 100 years it'll still eventually come out again.

And "is it pornography"? In another article I read:
"Section 91H [of the NSW Crimes act] deals with the offences of production and dissemination of child pornography. It defines child pornography to mean material that depicts or describes a child under 16 engaged in sexual activity; in a sexual context or as a victim of torture, cruelty or physical abuse, "in a manner that would in all the circumstances cause offence to reasonable persons." [... It also] provides a defence to Henson and the Ros Oxley Gallery. It provides that it is a defence to a charge of producing or disseminating material if it can be shown that, "having regard to the circumstances in which the material concerned was produced, used or intended to be used, the defendant was acting for a genuine child protection, scientific, medical, legal, artistic or other public benefit purpose and the defendant’s conduct was reasonable for that purpose.""

So that's The Law. How it gets dealt with is another issue altogether ;)