Monday, 26 May 2008

ethics - when freedom & responsibility clash

These past few days in Australia we've seen an interesting and difficult ethical issue unfold, as two different ethical values come into conflict.

artistic freedom

Bill Henson is an eminent Australian photographer. I first came across his photos of urban areas at night - everyday and not particularly "beautiful" subjects, but the use of light and dark made them extremely interesting and evocative. But when I went to an exhibition of his work a year or two ago, I found that the majority of his work were photographs of people - people in crowds, ordinary people, and studies of children and adolescents. The way the photos were lit, the repetition of the same subject in many different views, and their age, made many of the photographs slightly disturbing or edgy, and his work has sometimes been controversial.

But this week a new exhibition of Henson's work opened in Sydney, and when it was found to include photographs of nude adolescents, some of them "explicit" (as the euphemism goes), a complaint was made, police took possession of the offending photos, and were considering charges for indecency relating to under age children (although legal advice suggests prosecution would be unsuccessful).

Many people applauded the police action, but others were upset at the censorship, saying that the photographs were not pornographic, and artistic freedom allows artists to push the boundaries.

child protection

On the other hand, Australia, like many other countries, has significantly tightened child protection laws in the past decade or so. Although not always successful, some attempts have been made to limit child access to the internet, penalise creators and viewers of child pornography, and reduce risks to children in other situations by requiring those who work with children to undergo police checks, giving clear and stringent guidelines to how teachers, doctors and others deal with children in their care, and placing age limits on some activities.

All of this can be seen as inconvenient, an insult and a curtailment of civil liberties, but most people believe it is worthwhile to reduce the sexual abuse and exploitation of children.

the two values collide

In this case, child protection laws have collided with the artistic freedom.

Defenders of Henson's work say that, compared to the sexualisation of children and teenagers through mass media, especially music videos and fashion, these photographs are benign. But it seems to me there are two separate issues here.

  1. What is the effect of these photos on viewers? I don't think many people think Henson's work is pornographic in this sense, and few would want to ban them on these grounds.
  2. Have children been exploited? This seems to be the key question. Some art forms are created by the imagination of the artist (e.g. painting, literature), but photography and film also require a subject. Even if we would allow a similar photograph of a 20 year old, should we allow a 13 year old to model, has he or she the maturity to make the choice? Thus economist Clive Hamilton, formerly executive director of the Australia Institute think tank, said: "I think the way childhood has been sexualised so heavily, particularly over the last 10 or 15 years, has inevitably changed the way we see children in their naked form. I've argued that previously when perhaps it was a more innocent age, then artistic representations of children, as is the case with the Bill Henson exhibition, wouldn't have provided difficulty. But in an age where children have been so heavily sexualised by commercial organisations and by the wider culture and where there's so much more alarm about paedophilia then I think the presentation of a 12-year-old girl, for instance, naked to the public, really has quite a different impact and raises new concerns. And I argue that she, the girl, the model, could not possibly understand the implications of being presented naked to the world, even though the presentation is very aestheticised and that therefore she could not give informed consent."

I think it is a great pity that Henson's work has been stigmatised in this way, and if there is a way to amend the law to allow adequate child protection without catching his photographs in the net, then perhaps it should be done. But as it stands, it may be that artists and patrons need to willingly show restraint (e.g. not putting the photos on the internet) for the sake of continued protection of children. Sometimes freedom has to be curtailed for the sake of another principle. It's unclear whether this is one such time, but maybe it is.


  1. I'm not a big fan of Henson's work; I find his photography challenging but I think there are a lot of artists better using the photographic medium. However I have found all the hub bub surrounding Henson's work interesting - I definitely think Clive Hamilton highlights the real problem; that our society has in part created a negative stigma surrounding adolescents and sexuality by oversexualising them; marketing sex to them; and at the same time discouraging real time between parents/guardians and children to discuss sexuality etc. If we really cared about young people then we'd be attacking most of the current marketing campaigns aimed at them! There is no doubt that children need to be protected; but what's happened to our world where a naked body needs to be seen as sexual and exploited? It is just so subjective...

  2. Yes, it is true as you say that there are many other things that over-sexualise adolescents.

    Most commentators have focused on whether Henson's photos are pornographic, when it seems obvious to me that they are not. But few (apart from Clive Hamilton) have asked whether it is wise to bend the child protection laws by using such young models.

    It is good that Henson hasn't been prosecuted, but nothing has really been resolved either.


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