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On the Sexualisation of Children & Teenagers

There would be few less contentious areas in photography than the issue of exploiting children. In 2008 the New South Wales Police raided a Paddington gallery to seize child pornography shot by the well known artist Bill Henson. No charges were brought to court. In 2010 he put more provocative pictures onto gallery walls as New South Wales law was changed to make it unlawful to produce child pornography for an artistic purpose. In 2013 he pulled work from a South Australian gallery exhibition after a senior detective lobbied the Premier to intervene. But, after all the rhetoric on this subject, is the work really about sexualisation of children?

The 19th Century photograph I’d begin the discussion around is Alice Liddell as the Beggar Girl. The photograph was made by Charles Dodgson (1832-1898), better known to most as the author of Alice in Wonderland under the pen name Lewis Carroll. The girl, Alice Liddell, was inspiration for his famous children’s tale. Simon Winchester wrote a worthy read called The Alice Behind Wonderland that I would highly recommend. In this book it is made clear that although today’s eyes view the Alice Liddell as a Beggar Girl photograph as highly sexualised, it was not viewed that way at the time. Accusations and innuendo surrounding Dodgson’s proclivity towards pedophilia is without real merit, based on loose conjecture and a page missing from his diaries.

Photography, to a great extent, is about learning how to see and understand pictures. There is historic lineage behind certain images or forms of representation. There is the context of the picture being made – what is included and excluded from the frame. And the context of where it is viewed and for what purpose.

Also, there is what the viewer brings to the photograph. Our baggage. Politics. Relationships. Fantasies. Desires. Memories. Expectations. Dark and light. This is why they say good art should aim to raise comment, to change opinions about something. Good art is about being remarkable. It should have a non-trivial affect. And if you stand in front of a Bill Henson photograph on a gallery wall and see child pornography then it says just as much about the way your mind works as about the photograph you are consuming. If it makes you uncomfortable then don’t look. Avoid that gallery. Don’t torture yourself with the books. Or face your demons honestly in the daylight.

Two good books to put on your bookshelf are Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art by John Szarkowsky and On Looking at Photographs: A Practical Guide by David Hurn and Bill Jay. You might find they make you think about photographs in a different way. Even, by some long chance, the photographs of Bill Henson.

Just off the top of my head I’ll offer you some more photographers who I don’t believe create child pornography – the early work of Sally Mann, the work of David Hamilton and the challenging nudes from Jock Sturges. If you are interested, you can watch video documentaries about their work – Sally Mann What Remains: The Life & Work of Sally Mann, David Hamilton (Part 1 and Part 2 – note you will need to sign in) and Jock Sturges Line of Beauty and Grace.

Each of these photographers has had their battles with the prejudice that their work is pornographic, or exploitative. It is difficult to convince many people that the pervert in the room is often themselves complaining about what they read into a photograph, too. We have all the modern trappings of marketers sexualising children to sell product (Juicy on an 8-year-old’s butt or tiny mini-skirts for pre-teen girls) and a good twenty years behind us in the war against men. Because, ultimately, a man can’t look at an image without being compelled to become a rapist. Something that reminds me of an old and very bad movie called Futz (1969).

And the readers of books by these authors should be concerned. In 2011 a man in the United Kingdom had his conviction for possession of child pornography overturned when an appeal judge saw the offending material was a copy of Age of Innocence by David Hamilton. A freely available book in legitimate stores. And viewing their work online could see you arrested and imprisoned because it contravenes the letter of the law. But are you really a sex offender? No. Are all the people who own books with these images from Henson, Mann, Hamilton and Sturges pedophiles? No to that one, too. They’re just normal people with a book of art photography. Nor should they be arrested for attending an art gallery that hangs the picture, or viewing that same picture electronically.

The sexualisation and exploitation isn’t about what’s in or not in a photograph. It’s in the context. And it’s in the small or open mind for art appreciation (or pornography) that your inner brain is compelled to frame the images. I’d suggest, if you don’t like it then don’t look. Disagree with me as you must. They have a right to their existence on art gallery walls in the same way that a cock on a park fountain statue doesn’t turn your son into a homosexual. I hope that makes sense.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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