SBS Naked Eye - Bill Henson Art Debate

When Bob Bain posted to the No Censorship mailing list that SBS would be airing a debate on the Bill Henson saga, I questioned whether their was anything left to add that print media hadn’t already covered. Bob reassured me that the people on the guest list could add more.

I feared it might turn out to be an hour of Hetty Johnston’s one trick pony objection to the Henson photographs, but put my trust in Jenny Brockie’s ability to never hold a one sided debate. I’m glad I tuned in.

The Guests

Hetty remained firmly grounded and didn’t sway from her previous criticisms of Bill Henson’s work. She called for the art industry to take responsibility and for a formal review system to be implemented to review and decide on artist’s intentions before they photograph children.

But like so many others who have called for censorship of a piece of artwork or film, Hetty too admitted she had not seen the Henson exhibit, nor did she have any desire to see it. As pointed out later in the show by another guest, not seeing the photographs in the exhibit means she cannot fully recognize or appreciate the context the photos were taken in.

Sandy Edwards spoke passionately about her experiences as an artist, as did Connie Petrillo, a Perth artist who faced charges in 1995 for taking naked photographs of her sons for coursework. She was found not guilty in two court battles. The relentless and unwarranted attack by authorities was evidently traumatising on her life and work.

Sandy found it unbelievable that a person could not take naked photographs in the right context.

Two former models also spoke of their experiences, neither regretting their decision. A number of other teenagers commented that they didn’t find the Henson images, or other images shown offensive. One (not a model) also commented that being the same age as the Henson model, she felt she would quite capable of making an informed decision and would say no.

David Marr believes many opponents of Henson’s work are trying to create a new taboo, which they believe is useful in fight against those who commit crimes against children.

Stephen Smallbone, a criminologist from Griffith University pointed out their was some belief that photographs like Henson’s may cause people to abuse children, but said that the assumption is not borne out by the evidence.

Adam Leek, a former police officer and now a gallery owner said the police failed to use discretion when dealing with the Henson case. He said the action taken was not needed.

Michael Bianchino got a laugh from the crowd when he explained his experience photographing his daughters netball team. He says the Henson incident has made sports clubs paranoid about photography at events.

Lindy Allan, Director of Regional Arts in Victoria, wasn’t opposed to the work of artists like Connie Petrillo, but found Henson’s ‘constructed vision’ disturbing. Vivian Gaston expressed concern over the model’s ability to give consent.

As per usual (and I’m not trying to be humorous or nasty),? Angela Conway from the Australian Family Association added nothing of value to the debate. She only further verified that her organisation gets way too much undeserved recognition.

The Internet did get a cop a minor flogging (it declined to appear on the show), but David Marr spoke in its defense. He pointed out we can’t limit what we do in the real world because of fears it will be misused in the cyber world.

The Result

All in all it was a decent episode, with a few top class moments. Such as the Unidentified woman yelling at Hetty – ‘You act as a moral guardian for the whole community!’

I wonder what value Hetty’s checks and balances plan offers artists and children. If the aim is stop a crime being committed, it’s a bit like asking a bank robber to get permission before he commits a robbery. Real artists are the only ones who are penalised with this sort of scheme, as real child abusers go on as normal. That doesn’t protect children, nor will it protect unwarranted public crucifixions of other artists in the future.

If one things for sure, Hetty remains firm and will continue to fight. She admitted if she was writing legislation, she’d make what Henson did illegal.

SBS Insight LogoYou can now watch the episode online at the SBS website. My recap was based on the old pen and paper method while watching the tele so I apologise for any errors.
Transcript here.