In The Age today, we have this report of Bill Henson’s speech defending his actions in photographing and exhibiting pictures of a nude female child in 2008. What do we think of his arguments?
People do get confused with notions of consent and harm…
A 10-year-old can consent to something that might otherwise be unlawful assault – dental work. In this state a 15-year-old can consent to a sex change. These are pretty serious things. Children’s consent plays a major part in divorce proceedings all the time…
I’m talking about the harm that results from under-age contact sport. ‘Imagine being a happy, healthy, 12-year-old boy kicking a football around one minute and then finding yourself in a wheelchair the rest of your life.
There’s no specific documentation to suggest anywhere, so far as my legal researchers have been able to discover, that shows that life modelling by children for artists results in physical or psychological damage.
The problem with this is that Bill Henson is comparing apples and oranges.
Of course, he is right – there are indeed a range of activities in which children can engage because they are legally empowered to give their own consent; just as there are other activities for which the legal consent of parents is required. But are there some other activities in which we wish to have the right, as a society, to say: “No; neither the child in question, nor any adult, is legally empowered to give consent for that.”
Certain obvious activities in this category come to mind. This category includes any action in which adults would seek to use a child for their own purposes, in particular those uses which touch upon the child’s physical or psychological vulnerability. Using a child as a model in the advertising industry falls into this category, especially if the child is sexualised in any way.
Art needs to be very careful that it does not fall into this category. Of course, many children model for photography and painting, or act on stage or in film, or perform in dance or music. The questions must always be: 1) are the interests of the child paramount (ie. is the child the major beneficiary of this activity?), and 2) is the vulnerability of the child protected in every way?
In Henson’s case, I cannot believe he fails on both counts. He took the photos for his own sake, not for the sake of his model. He initiated the photographic sessions, and he took the photos in order to exhibit them before the public for his own personal acclaim. Now this may have been excusable if he had not also exposed her physical vulnerability by photographing her naked.
It is one thing for your 10 year old daughter to give her consent to have tooth pulled by the dentist; another thing to give your consent for your 15 year old daughter to sail around the world; it is yet another thing entirely to suppose that a 10 year old girl can give her own consent to be photographed naked for the purpose of public exhibition. Not even a parent can give this consent on their child’s behalf.
Sorry Bill, your arguments do not convince.