Here Are The Henson Pictures – But A Dilemma Remains

I left my position on the Henson pics dangling in my last post, concluding with a serve at the nanny state for confiscating the offending items and locking them away in a high cupboard where the kiddies couldn’t get at them.

Subsequently, a commenter provided a link to some of the pics of Bill Henson’s that are at the centre of all the fuss (thanks, Lyn). So, nanny state subverted by the lawless Web (bleearrgh!), here’s what all the fuss is about:

Henson picture 1

Henson pic 2Henson pic 5Henson pic 3

(click to enlarge)

No doubt these pics are all over the Net by now, but if I have contravened any copyright laws in posting them here, on being credibly and meaningfully appraised of that fact I will, of course, take them down immediately.

Acknowledgement is due to the site from which I copied the pictures – http://www.sauer-thompson.com/junkforcode/ – which is well worth perusing in its own right. Excellent stuff.

OK. So, now that I’ve sighted the pictures, one issue is categorically resolved as far as I’m concerned – they are not pornographic.

Pornography is blatantly (and mostly crudely) erotic in intent, its form characterised by anatomical close-ups focusing on genitalia and nipples, graphic depiction of sexual engagement, its agenda clearly to titillate the viewing audience. None of that applies to Henson’s work. Thankfully, authorities in high places agree: the cops have received legal advice to drop the public indecency charges that were pending against Henson. So, sense has prevailed.

But while the pics are clearly not pornographic, that is not to say there are no sexual aspects to them.

Examine the arguments of the pro-Henson camp and you’ll encounter multiple declarations by arts spokespersons, media commentators and bloggers that the confiscated pictures and similar stuff from Henson could not possibly be seen as ‘sexualised’ and that only a depraved pervert could conceive of them being arousing.

To which I say, bullshit. Those who argue thus are either in denial, resorting to untruths in the cause of advancing their cases, or in dire need of a reality check. Henson’s subject is a pretty nymphette in a state of undress, ferchissake – whatever the artist’s intention, sexual buttons are going to be pushed in many viewers!

I have no personal access to the female viewpoint, but here’s the honest (albeit perhaps unpalatable) hetero male truth: virtually any photographic image of a naked female from pubescence onwards is liable to register a sexual response – though not necessarily progressing to physical arousal. And I reiterate, I’m talking plain vanilla hetero male – not pedophile or mutant sicko perve monster from the black lagoon.

If it helps, blame biology, which does not share our legal or moral definition of “illicit” and cares not at all if breasts or bums or loins or expanses of bared flesh belong to an “underage” model….or even a bona fide human one, for that matter (Second Life shenanigans and hentai anime spring to mind).

Accept that Henson’s pictures of this girl in early pubescence, however “artistic”, are likely to register in many viewers at least a recognition that the subject is a sexual being, albeit in an early stage of maturation, and the question arises – is this a matter for State censorship?

Why should it be? A natural response has been elicited in some viewers, privately and harmlessly. Thoughts and fantasies are not punishable under law. No crime has been committed. The girl in the photo has not been violated.

Sure, many of us will experience discomfort and confusion as we sort through our responses to Henson’s pics. But is it the business of the State to protect us from these sorts of opportunities for reflection on ourselves and our culture?

Isn’t one of the time-honoured traditions of art to challenge social and cultural mores, to confront us with ourselves and our taboos, to jolt us out of our complacencies, to spotlight the discrepancies and paradoxes that lurk in society’s shadows and give lie to our fond and oh-so-carefully-constructed self-image? Art is necessarily subversive. Take that power away, and we risk self-delusion as a society. And we all know where that can lead!

That said, there will always be – and should be! – an uncomfortable relationship between art and authority, and a line must be drawn somewhere. Are we feeding the lust of the pedophile in allowing pictures of naked adolescents like these to be displayed in public?

It’s a non-issue as far as I’m concerned whether pedophiles would or could find the pictures arousing, since their response buttons are wired differently from the rest of humanity. If we banned images that might set off foul fantasies in tot fondlers we’d remove every painting of a cherub from the galleries of the world, which would virtually wipe out most of the works of the great masters. Shit, we’d have to cover up the Sistine Chapel!

So, viewing the pictures has clarified most of the Henson issues for me, but I’m still bothered by a couple of core questions:

1. Are adolescents capable of making a fully responsible decision to pose naked for photographic artists, given that their images will be displayed publicly, both in hard copy form at exhibitions and on the Net.
2. If not, who is responsible?

I have concluded that the answer to the first question is no. Legally, the age of consent is 16, and the responsibilities that come with other adult rights such as holding a driving license, consuming alcohol and voting are not conferred upon teenagers legally until 17 and 18 years of age. There is no consistency, then, in the argument that young adolescents are capable of exercising informed choice on matters with possible personal consequences that may endure for many years (as is the case with naked images of themselves unleashed on the Web).

As for 2, surely the buck stops with the parents?

I’m clear on this: if I had a pubescent daughter, I can’t imagine consenting to her posing nude for a photographic shoot, however esteemed the artist conducting it. And that’s as simple as that.

Which, I suppose, leaves me in much the same position as a carnivore who reels back aghast when confronted with the horrific realities of the slaughterhouse, yet happily continues to purchase cuts of meat from the supermarket, neatly and hygienically packaged to distance the product from the process that delivered it to the shelves.

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18 thoughts on “Here Are The Henson Pictures – But A Dilemma Remains

  1. If I had a daughter of that age and she wished to take part in such a “shoot” – and if she was an intelligent young person who knew her own mind and had her own values – I’d support her decision and, indeed, be proud of her for making it.

    Certainly, she would be better placed than the state to decide whether she would (for example) be teased about it at school and how deep her commitment to art might run, and a parent should give every consideration to accepting her choice. The parent, in turn, is in a much better position than the state to judge the maturity of the individual child and the danger to the individual child within the cultural milieu within which the family lives.

    There’s been a tendency in this debate to infantalise the young models, to treat them as generic mixed-up teenagers rather than as bright young, perhaps “arty”, individuals who very likely know their own individual minds and have their own individual values, projects, and commitments. A lot of what has been said in the media discusses them in an offensively condescending manner. Please don’t fall into the same trap, given that the rest of your discussion is so good.

    I don’t see any analogy with laws relating to drivers licences. It may be administratively convenient for the state to impose an age requirement before it will issue the privilege of a drivers licence, regardless of the differing competence of individuals, but here, with the taking of photographic portraits, the convenience lies with allowing the parents to make judgments about their children’ maturity.

    You do, of course, say that the buck stops with the parents, but if we followed through the with the drivers licence example it would stop with the state. I think, like you, that it should stop with the parents, but I also think that (at least prior to the poisonous atmosphere created in the last few weeks) a reasonable and sensitive parent would very often agree with their daughter’s decision – after discussing it with the daughter, checking out the artist, etc. The idea would be to be protective but supportive.

    We allow parents and children to do many things of great consequence without the involvement of the state. For example, we don’t stop parents exposing children to the poison of fundamentalist religion, or allowing others to expose their children to it. Many highly consequential decisions are made by children or parents, or both in combination, without the state intervening to override the family’s view of the good. I don’t see how this situation is any different.

    I guess you agree with this, but I worry when people start making analogies with laws relating to such things as drivers licences, where rather procrustean rules are imposed for administrative convenience. Those sorts of laws are an exception to the general presumption of letting parents have the final control over the decisions of their individual offspring, as the latter develop in maturity.

  2. Russell,

    O to have your simple, black-and-white view of these issues. No more moral dilemmas, no more thinking. All neatly resolved. A little too neatly, perhaps?

    I glean in your comment a degree of arrogance, and a conviction in the rightness of your position that expresses itself as a sort of moral absolutism. Pause a moment.

    This sort of righteousness often brings with it an intellectual complacency that can yield a sense of clarity that is illusory. My view is that there are gaping holes in your assertions.

    You complain of the media discussing the young models in an “offensively condescending manner”, of treating them as “generic mixed-up teenagers”. You then move straight on to your preferred view of them as “bright young, perhaps ‘arty’, individuals who very likely know their own individual minds and have their own individual values, projects, and commitments.” On what, specifically, do you base your case? “Very likely” doesn’t cut it.

    I put it to you that both the media view and yours are mere assumption, completely unsupported. Why is your assumption fact, whereas differing assumptions are, well, just assumptions – and patronising ones at that?

    Secondly, you appear to have decided on a very literal interpretation of my driving license example, which I reject, since it misses my point. This point is that setting a legal minimum driving age of 17 reflects a valid recognition by the State on behalf of the community that many kids younger than 17 – probably the majority – likely lack the maturity, decision-making skills etc to drive responsibly.

    I believe you have missed this point through focusing on the apparent abitrariness of the legal driving age. This is neither here nor there in the context of my post or the point I was making, but since you bring it up, I would challenge your reduction of the determination of the miminum legal driving age to a matter of administrative convenience. It may be that, but it is far more.

    Some adolescents might be capable drivers at 14, or 13, or 10, but that’s too bad for them. All laws compromise some individuals for the greater good of the community. Lines have to be drawn, limits set, and far more than mere administrative convenience, this is functional law working in the only way it can to serve and protect the rights of both the individual and the community and support the democratic system which is the foundation of our society.

    Ditto, my age of consent and drinking age examples were intended to underline recognition by the State that adolescents younger than 16 or 18 respectively need to be protected from the potential dangers arising from making improperly considered decisions due to lack of maturity and experience on matters that could seriously impact them or the community. We all know that many kids are sexually active and consume alcohol inside the legal age. The law may have it wrong – maybe the majority of adolescents are ready for adult decisions and responsiblities in the areas of sex and alcohol, and the consequences, at 14. I don’t know.

    And I don’t know how this could be accurately determined, except by reference to one’s own experience as an adolescent. Which leads me to conclude that 18 is about right for the legal drinking age! Kids are always going to disregard this law, but to lower it and thus give State sanction to the sort of youthful alcohol abuse that we know is widespread and potentially extremely damaging to individuals and the community would be irresponsible. Again, a line must be drawn. The fact that its placement is somewhat arbitrary is by the by.

    So, where do you draw the line on minors posing naked for an artist? Well, as is clear from my post, I do not believe this should be a matter for State determination – we agree on that, so no need to labour the point.

    But stating that I would not consent to a daughter of mine posing nude for an artist, knowing that the resulting images would be posted on the Web (this is my main concern, and one you didn’t bother to ascertain – so I won’t bother to elaborate), does not necessarily imply that I am falling into the trap, as you call it, of “infantilising the young models”.

    It is true, though, that I do not believe most kids of 12 or 13 are sufficiently mature to make a responsible and properly informed decision on something that may have enduring consequences, some of them potentially personally damaging. A kid of such tender years might “know her own mind” and “have her own values”, but my contention is that it is highly unusual for those values not to change over the incremental learning years ahead. Are you seriously suggesting that kids have developed the values that will stay with them through adulthood at 12 or 13?

    It is unfortunately typical of many parents today to make no distinction between child and adult, and in so doing to confer adult responsibilities on their kids in the name of “freedom” and “individual rights”. Forgive me for beaming your phrasing back at you, but I think you are falling into this trap.

    My view is that the parents of the girl who is the subject of Henson’s pictures have miscalculated in consenting to the shoot. They surely did not anticipate the extreme publicity that ensued, and I am extremely doubtful that they are comfortable with their daughter’s nude pics now being disseminated so widely. Viral spread of images on the Web is always a possibility, but I strongly suspect that it was not one entertained by the parents.

    If I am wrong on this, I can but express incredulity that they consented. All their daughter’s peers, male and female, and her teachers, and her extended family, will have seen the pictures by now. Kids (and adults) being what they are, jibes, taunts, and condemnatory judgments are inevitable. We all remember the acute sensitivities of early teenagehood – however mature she might be, this girl is almost certainly going to suffer some hurt and embarassment, perhaps profoundly so. And for that, the parents are culpable. That’s a burden I would not like to carry around with me, though I wouldn’t challenge your parental right to it.

    Ultimately, though, I would reserve judgement on the girl’s parents until I know their complete reason(s) – and their daughter’s – for consenting to the Henson shoot. Just a matter of waiting for the 60 Minutes interview, I guess…

  3. But the pictures you posted up are censored anyway? Did you put the black bars there?

    I think they are sexual photos and I wonder about the mentality of a middle-aged “artist” wanting to photograph naked children to begin with? Why would an artist feel the urge to focus on children unclothed? What exactly is the “profound message” we uncouth common suburbanites are obviously missing?

    Hmmm… If you ask me, I say “PAEDO!”

    Lol!

  4. Magorth

    No, the black bars were on the pics I downloaded.

    Can understand your views. I don’t know who suggested there was any profound message in Henson’s work – not me. I did make the point in an earlier post on Henson, though, that naked forms of all ages have been subjects of art for centuries.

    We live in a particularly conservative and paranoid time. I think it is the business of art to refuse to be constrained by the taboos of the time, and to explore them. It so happens that pedophilia is the great taboo at this time – 20 years ago, Henson’s pictures wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow.

    So, I do think the aesthetics of the nude is a legitimate focus of artists, as well as all aspects of the experience of being human.

    Don’t get me started on the legitimacy of photography as an art form, though! Again, far from black and white (no pun intended)…but I consider it a somewhat inferior form.

    Time to quit before this goes any further!

  5. You know, Rolan, I gave you a reasoned comment and I wrote it in a friendly tone, querying whether you might not be influenced in certain ways and whether you’ve properly thought through the likely situation of these particular families (and it doesn’t even have to be “likely”; it’s enough for my purpose that there’s a possibility of families with such a view of the good as I tried to evoke).

    I invited a bit of introspection from you and for you to reconsider your statement that you wouldn’t let your daughter pose for such a photo. I asked you, quite nicely, not to fall into a trap that I have seen many other commentators fall into. This could have opened up a useful dialogue between people with common ground to explore … or so I thought.

    In reply, you begin by accusing me (in the space of a few sentences!) of being arrogant, self-righteous, simplistic, and, of all things, a moral absolutist. Somehow, you can “glean” all this personal information about me. Well, that’s hardly getting off to a good start in dialogue. I could respond in kind, but that would be unprofitable to us both.

    I agree with you that this is not a matter for state interference (so I wonder about the relevance of all your references to state action in other contexts); and I can answer your other points elsewhere, since you’re hardly the only person to have made them (indeed, I’ve discussed them in other forums such as my blog and Alison Croggon’s blog).

    I won’t trouble you further. Have a good life.

  6. You know, Russell, I did not consider your comment very well “reasoned” and explained why in some detail.

    Instead of speaking directly to my arguments, you choose to pout and flounce off.

    Re: “I can answer your other points elsewhere, since you’re hardly the only person to have made them”…erm, why would I bother chasing up your “answers” elsewhere? Wouldn’t the place to provide such “answers” be here, where I can read them in the context of the discourse? I certainly can’t be bothered chasing them up on Alison Whatsit’s blog (which I’ve never heard of) or yours (which you don’t name). Sorry, but your views just aren’t that interesting to me.

    I see your most recent comment as a copout. And further evidence of the self-righteousness and arrogance I picked up on in your initial comment. Bye.

  7. There is an aspect of this debate that is perplexing to me, raised to feel at ease about my own body. There was a time when the display of SOMETHING was more alarming to one group or other, ie: fully formed breasts. (and they are just breasts)No-one worries too much about infant nipples up to, say, 4 or 5, maybe 6, at the beach or on ‘Funniest Home Videos’. Then it’s not that rare again to see fully formed breasts at the beach or in a girlie mag of teenaged girls. Why the fuss about the in between? ‘Pubescent’ so what?
    There’s less to see anyway.
    It’s the same argument with the genital area… Girls’ equipment is almost totally internal and HIDDEN FROM VIEW. What’s there to see? Two folds of skin. Just like the backside everyone’s got, but a lot smaller. Society has become quite blase about bums these days, no-one cares anymore no matter whose it is. No-one cares about little girls running around at the beach with no daks, or again, on Funniest Home Videos. (Who does the blurry bits? Do they have a ‘Special Permit’ to keep Hetty off their back?) Lots of women go ‘Brazilian’ these days and there’s really little difference left, so what’s with the taboo for the few years around ‘Pubescence’? And all the fuss is usually only about GIRLS – when it’s boys who have all the external dangly bits! There are hundreds of thousands of images that depict willies and balls – and no-one cares less! A painting of nude BOYS made it onto the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald without a murmur.
    I just don’t get it. It’s only skin, which we all arrived in. It’s still legal for Naturists to enjoy being nude, and there are still Aboriginals who go nude if they wish. To my knowledge, no-one’s eyes have exploded yet on seeing a pubescent vulva.

  8. Bill Henson’s photos, all that I have seen, are both erotic and disturbing. Eroticism, of one sort or another, is an on-going theme. One question over these pictures, and others by Henson, is not whether the children have been used to produce pornography but whether they have been used to produce erotica. This is beyond doubt the case.

    The pictures that Henson creates all have dark implications that go far beyond any expression of normal pubescent sexual awakening. When one looks at these pictures one cannot imagine them being entitled “Sally in the bath No 1″, “Sally in the bath No 2″ etc. The face of the child and the gestures do not equate with any innocent situation. If these pictures were to be given meaningful titles that were appropriate to the disturbing sentiment which they imply, then they would be called “Sally raped No 1″, “Sally raped No 2″. To take the line that these are innocent pictures of pubescent prettiness is a denial of the deeply disturbing nature of what Henson has created here and elsewhere, a quality in his oeuvre well acknowledge by his public, what Edmund Capon has described as “… close to despoliation and abuse”. Did this child who was photgraphed have any idea that the phots were going to be erotic and disturbing?

  9. Hi Mandy,

    As you’ll have noted in my posts and comments on Henson’s photos, I partly share your views.

    These are not soft focus Pears soap commercial style pics. And yes, there is certainly an erotic element here. Anyone who denies that is either naive about the male response to such pics, or is in denial to suit their own agenda/perspective.

    That said, I don’t agree with your “dark implications” bit – this is surely a judgment of your own that you are projecting on to the photos.

    I don’t even know what you mean by “dark implications”. I look at the pics and see nothing more than resonances of “normal pubescent sexual awakening” – and nothing less! I can project my own sexual fantasies on to the pics, of course, but if I choose to do so, I must also OWN these as my own, not charge Henson with deliberately evoking inappropriate male fantasies about underage girls.

    To be frank, I find pretty disturbing and bemusing YOUR assertions that the pics imply anything close to rape. That’s simply not intrinsic to any of the pics, surely? That is coming from you!

    So, I’m with you part of the way, in agreeing that these are not merely “innocent pictures of pubescent prettiness”, but the rest of your post leaves me cold, and a little concerned that people can – apparently – project their own perceptions/judgments on to a piece of art without owning them.

    To put it another way, consider this analogy. A pedophile could look at a family album of baby snaps and find them erotic. That says a lot about the pedophile, but nothing about the baby snaps! Or the person who took them.

  10. Johnno,

    I apologise for failing to respond until now – I somehow overlooked your post.

    It seems to me that you are looking at the physical form purely anatomically. It’s naive indeed to desexualise nakedness as you have done in your post. You CAN view a naked form as you describe in your post, but if everyone did this all the time, there would be no sex at all! Suffer the thought!

  11. You’re kind of an ass, Stein. You can’t respond to comments without insulting the commenter. Don’t be a jerk and don’t invite the comments if you don’t want them.

  12. Thanks so much for your astute and erudite contribution to the thread, R.J. Sterling. But pray tell, which thread are you responding to?

    Here’s a basic lesson in self-development I offer you gratis (read slowly): disagreeing with or challenging another’s opinion is not “insulting” them.

    Here’s one in basic psychology: whining about me “insulting the comnmenter” while calling me an “ass” and a “jerk” in three short sentences doesn’t work – accusing others of something you yourself are guilty of is called projection.

    Bye now, and hope you get up on the right side of the bed tomorrow. :)

  13. pinko,

    I don’t understand your point re ethnography. Perhaps you could clarify.

    Re your point (ii), you’ve moved outside the parameters of the discussion in posting that link to another Henson picture. I maintain that the pictures that were the subject of the controversy (ie: those published in my post above) can be reasonably interpreted as “empathic representations of vulnerable adolescence.” I believe I elaborated sufficiently on this in my post – no point in repeating myself here.

    The picture you have pointed to with your link begs a whole set of other questions, granted, and only serves to reinforce my ambivalence – as expressed already – about Henson and his subject matter.

    Cheers
    R

  14. I know this is an old thread but the debate will never grow old.
    I am a photographer ,and have to be very careful that I stay away from that very thin line that I believe Henson had crossed .
    If they were my images ,I would not have received the from the art world and more than likely be in prison .
    Just my humble opinion
    Ralph

  15. Hi Ralph, and thanks for your comments.

    Maybe you could clarify a few points.

    1. What exactly is the thin line you think Henson has crossed, and how do you conclude that he’s crossed it?

    2. Why do you think you’d be in prison if you’d taken the Henson pics, whereas Henson is not?

    3. Why do you think the arts community would not have supported you (there’s a word missing from your comment, but I’m guessing it’s ‘support’)?

    You seem to be implying that the law applies differently to Henson, as an acclaimed photographer, than it would to you. That’s a disturbing proposition. Of course, we all know the law is not fair, and favours those with means and status, but this is a wider debate on free expression in an artistic context. Hence my request for clarification.

    Cheers
    R

  16. I honestly think it’s time human beings grow up and get rational about this topic. Why can’t we just be honest and tell the truth? Evidently telling the truth is a huge taboo. SIMPLE FACT: Pubescent children are naturally biologically sexual beings. That’s the whole POINT of the sexual bits and pieces of a mammal – reproduction. Get over it everyone! And teens lust after one another all the time. Kids aren’t being ‘artificially sexualized’ – God CREATED them to NATURALLY have a sexual side – that once they grow to adulthood should be enjoyed for what it is. Portrayals of nudity can of course vary in its focus on the sexual aspect – it may be utterly non-sexual, or somewhat sexual. We evolved naked. Nakedness is the biological norm. If we were used to nudity it probably would be less of an issue, but because nudity is taboo in our puritanical culture, portrayals of nudity are more likely to be evocative.

  17. Oh, incidentally, David, my assessment of these photos is coming from a person for whom the nude has never been “taboo”. I am very well used to nudity, and accustomed to seeing other people naked, and representations of naked bodies.

    The thing that is evocative is not the fact that a figure is naked. It is the manner of portrayal, and the body-language which the figure expresses.

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