‘We apologise for the inconvenience’

“We understand that these limitations will sometimes affect content shared for legitimate reasons, including awareness campaigns or artistic projects, and we apologise for the inconvenience.” Facebook on the removal of the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph The Terror of War by Nick Ut.

‘We apologise for the inconvenience’ is a curious turn of phrase for Facebook to use. It’s something a big company tells a little person when something inevitable is about to happen and there’s nothing they can do about it – a major road widening, or a server upgrade, say. It’s not something you expect to hear when an entire sphere of public discourse is morally recalibrated. Was it an entirely digital algorithm that sampled the pixels in Ut’s photograph, calculated ‘naked child’, and automatically executed the function ‘delete’. Or was it a lowly paid, poorly educated, Facebook shift worker who saw a naked child and knew that there was only one rule to follow in the Facebook rulebook: ‘delete’. Either way, Zuckerberg’s convenient contention is that Facebook is just a technical ‘platform’, so that such chilling acts of censorship, which are occurring frequently in other cases involving breasts or photographs of family intimacy,  are just an inconvenience to be met with a begrudging and hollow apology. The alternative seems to be that Facebook is a publisher, and therefore needs editors with a depth of cultural knowledge and personal agency. The former is toxic for the way we are all forced to rely on Facebook as the only game in town, and the latter obviously doesn’t fit Zuckerberg’s globally rapacious business model.


The hashtag #standupstripdown has been invented to be used by people like Heather Whitten who want to post family photographs with naked children. In the latest of a string of such incidents her image of her naked husband cradling her sick and naked son in a shower has been taken down several times by Facebook following complaints by people disgusted by the potentially paedophilic readings the photograph could carry. The disgusted complainers who are having such a lamentable chilling effect on our visual culture misunderstand both semiotics and paedophilia. Even if it unpleasant to imagine  the occasional paedo using such images for sexual gratification, the psychological effect on our whole society of NOT seeing images of such rich aspects of life, love and bodies is far worse. Others complain that the children in such photographs cannot give their consent and may be shamed or embarrassed when they grow up. But image making and image sharing in our culture cannot be reduced to a infinite series of micro-contracts over ‘self image’ between two quasi-legal parties. Such a legalistic conception of self image as an owned ‘property’ also reduces the complexity and richness of our collective visual culture. I’ve previously written about this so I don’t know why people aren’t taking any notice of me. Perhaps I didn’t think of inventing a hashtag.

Heather Whitten

Heather Whitten

Bill Henson

Op ed, Canberra Times, 2008

You can call Bill Henson’s photographs many things: melodramatic, perhaps; overwrought, perhaps; repetitive, perhaps (he’s been shooting the same kind of brooding, heavy-lidded adolescents for decades). But one thing you can’t call them is pornographic. Contrary to the claims of the activist, Hetty Johnston, whose single complaint led to the police raid on the Roslyn Oxley 9 Gallery and the subsequent charges, a photograph of a naked teenager is not automatically pornography. And I’ve got news for Kevin Rudd, who finally fully revealed his own narrow-minded prudery by joining in with the baying of the pack, photographs of naked teenagers are not automatically disgusting. If they are not sexually titillating for viewers, as is the case with Henson’s images, and if, as in this work, they are covered in a heavy cloak of metaphorical significance produced by the model’s faraway expressions and the scene’s stygian lighting, they are not pornography they are art. Good enough art to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale, the cultural equivalent of the Olympic Games. Good enough art to pull 65,000 people to the Art Gallery of New South Wales without a single complaint, and good enough art to have been on the high school syllabus for years. Judging by their blog entries the high school students who visited Henson’s many previous exhibitions responded to his work with far more intelligence and thoughtfulness than our politicians.

Commentators such as Clive Hamilton, formerly of the Australia Institute, have recognised this, but have nonetheless accused Henson and his gallery of naivety. In the current cultural climate where corporations are sexualising children of younger and younger ages to sell them clothes or pop music, and where paedophiles are finding more and more images to feed their lusts by trawling the internet, how could Henson not expect there to be a backlash, Hamilton asks. Henson should have known better, he says. But why should artists pre-emptively buckle to pressure groups and media-manufactured witch-hunts? Maybe they have something important to say, which needs to be said. Maybe we should even respect artists and the international reputations they have built up over decades of hard work and hard thinking.

Girls don’t become women, and boys don’t become men, overnight. It is a time of magic, beauty, confusion, and yes, vulnerability. This simple cultural and biological fact has been the subject of art and poetry for millennia. But by now prohibiting the picturing of this period in life, when innocence mixes with knowing, who in fact is being protected? As has been proved time and time again, when things aren’t talked about, celebrated and discussed, that is the time when they become most vulnerable to exploitation. “This photographic exhibition violates the things for which we stand as Australians and indeed as parents”, Brendan Nelson brayed . Speaking as a parent, I refuse to be conscripted into a supposed army of the outraged. “I’d like to see the parents [of the models] well looked into”, demands the self-appointed guardian of our children, Hetty Johnston, “what parent in their right mind would allow their 12- or 13-year-old to strip off and display themselves all over the internet?” Well, if a photographer of Henson’s calibre and integrity approached me as a father, I just might.

Dr Martyn Jolly

Dr Martyn Jolly is Head of Photography and Media Arts at the Australian National University School of Art

Panic and paranoia? The law and photography in Australia

‘Panic and Paranoia: Photography and the Law’, (with Katherine Giles), Photofile 80, 2007, pp22—25.

Martyn Jolly and Katherine Giles

Every day photographers are experiencing the effects of one of the great contemporary paradoxes of the medium. Never before have photographs been so easy to make and distribute, as millions of digital files are created with mobile phones or digital cameras and uploaded onto the web or distributed electronically. Yet never before have individual photographers felt themselves so inhibited in what they can photograph, where they can photograph and the messages they can put into their photographs. Whether these inhibitions are internalised as a vague feeling that certain types of photography may now be ‘inappropriate’, or whether they come directly from people telling them that photography is ‘not allowed here’, they are all underpinned by an ill-defined sense that the law has somehow changed in relation to photography. Photographers’ blogs are tangled with long threads of discussion about what may or may not be allowed, and are bulging with stories of police, security and members of the public stopping them from taking photographs. As the Sydney photographer, Andrew Nemeth, says on his excellent photographers’ rights website: “Photography is not a crime. Many photographers are fed up with being treated as if they were creeps”.[1]

But how much has the law actually changed? And how much else is now under threat in this current climate of panic and paranoia over morality and security?


In Australia, there is not yet any legal cause of action for a ‘breach of privacy’. Existing privacy laws only refer to the use of personal data by organisations and governments. Nor is the taking of a photograph for the purposes of art, social documentation or as a hobby a commercial use, even if the photograph is later sold. So their subjects are not ‘models’ with the right to ‘release’ their image to the photographer for a particular use. Instead many other laws regulate the area, including: passing-off laws; trespass laws; confidentiality agreements; nuisance and harassment laws; obscenity laws; stalking laws and laws dealing with filming for an indecent purpose.

Denise O’Rourke is currently being sued by two girls under trade practice laws over their portrayal in his documentary Cunnamulla because, they are claiming, he entered into a misleading agreement with them about the subject of the interviews he wanted to do with them. The celebrity model Lara Bingle is using defamation laws to sue the men’s magazine Zoo Weekly for publishing bikini shots of her from earlier on in her career, with the addition of smutty captions.[2] Several men have been charged under offensive behavior laws with using their mobile phones to photograph topless bathers on beaches.

All of these existing laws should be enough to regulate irresponsible photographers, so that the situation in Australia can remain as it currently stands, where, in words of Justice Dowd, “a person … does not have a right not to be photographed”.[3] But nonetheless there is clearly a trend towards a general restriction on the right of photographers to document their world and the people in it. For instance Justice Michael Kirby has argued that extending the law in Australia to protect the ‘honour, reputation and personal privacy of individuals’ would be consistent with international developments in human rights law: “In recent years, stimulated in part by invasions of individual privacy, including by the media, deemed unacceptable to society, several jurisdictions have looked again at the availability under the common law of an actionable wrong of invasion of privacy.”[4]

Since 2002 the technological combination of mobile phone cameras and the internet has become a socially potent combination. This, mixed with publicity about the use of cameras as an integral tool to the sexual assaults on Diane Brimble aboard a cruise ship and a teenager at Werribee,  has led to widespread public concern about photography and pedophilia, pornography, immorality and misogyny. This is having an effect on photographers at large.

In early 2005 the Brisbane Courier Mail found a website with non-pornographic, non-offensive photographs of children playing at Southbank on it, they created an unsubstantiated panic that international child pornography rings had linked to the site. They hadn’t, and ultimately no action was taken. In Victoria, a site with close-ups of schoolboy rowers, which had been linked to by other pornographic sites, was also found.[5] Subsequently, several urban councils attempted, unsuccessfully, to use their municipal powers to stop parents photographing on their sports fields and council beaches. [6] Shortly after, Surf Life Saving Australia called for a complete ban on pictures of its 40,000 young members without the written permission of parents. Although they subsequently backed down, they initially claimed that their young members should be able to “reasonably expect” privacy, even if they were in public areas. Presumably unaware of any irony, they went on to say that they intended to advise their staff to record the appearance, attire and car registration numbers of anybody they spotted breaking this rule.[7]

But the Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW) already bans photographing a person in a state of undress or engaged in a private act for the purposes of sexual gratification without their consent. Other jurisdictions prohibit taking photographs of private intimate activities in private personal places such as toilets or change rooms. And specific laws to prevent the new lewd uses suggested by camera phones, such as upskirting, are being bought in by various states, which the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General have now agreed to review and regularize. [8]

Of course, taking lewd pictures of people who might reasonably expect to be unobserved is indefensible, but the tenor of the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General’s discussion paper of August 2005, Unauthorised Photographs on the Internet and Ancillary Privacy Issues, implied a wider drift towards a general right for people to control their image, even when they are taken in public and are not offensive. The discussion paper suggested:

Publishing images of a person without their consent removes their freedom to choose how to present themselves to the world. Some may argue that consent is implicit because the activity is in a public place in full view of people. On the other hand, filming results in a permanent record that can be used in many ways. It is natural that where people are aware they are being filmed, they can adjust their behaviour accordingly. If a person has no knowledge they are being filmed they have no way of reducing the intrusion.[9]

In the new environment of hyperdistribution, this argument runs, the lack of control a subject has over the subsequent use of their image has changed the unposed photograph from simply being a candid image, to being an intrusive act. Arguments such as this are a threat to photographers. For instance one of the medium’s most celebrated genres is street photography, which has produced many masterpieces that have illuminated our sense of ourselves as citizens sharing urban space. In Susan Sontag’s words the street photographer is “an armed version of the solitary walker, reconnoitring, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.” Is this time-honoured romantic alienation about to become criminalized? Possibly. For instance, whilst shooting a couple of bathers sleeping on the sands of Bondi Beach, in implicit homage to his father’s iconic Sunbaker (1937), Rex Dupain suddenly found himself surrounded by four police officers who questioned him for 25 minutes. “Lifeguards and the police are taking the law into their own hands” he complained, “they regard anyone with a camera as a potential pervert. We sit at home and watch close-ups of people lives on disturbing television reality shows but someone taking pictures at the beach is seen as a threat. Our days as a free society are over.” [10]

Police and security guards are not the only ones taking it upon themselves to constrain photographers, irrespective of any law, concerned parents are also getting jittery. In preparing for her exhibition of portraits of her son’s soccer team, Under Twelves, at the Ground Floor gallery in Balmain in late 2005, Ella Dreyfus was scrupulous in making sure all parents knew what she was doing. She showed them a sample of the style of her shots, and all agreed to her project enthusiastically. “Young boys are beautiful; their mothers know this, but does society allow us to acknowledge their beauty?” asked Dreyfus. But a few days before the show some parents apparently got nervous at the prospect of her portraits inadvertently inciting pedophilia, and Dreyfus suddenly found herself requested to withdraw two images from the exhibition, and mark six not for sale.

In September 2006 an amateur photographer called Jodie snapped a young man sitting on the steps at Flinders Street Station. He got up and demanded five dollars from her. When she said she didn’t have five dollars he demanded the film, when she told him it was a digital camera things got ugly, and she finally deleted one photograph in front of him before walking away, with him hurling abuse at her. The other shot she kept and uploaded to Flickr, but with his face blacked out. She asked her friends from the Flickr community: ‘Did I do the wrong thing? Should I have uploaded at all? Should I have left the original photo?’[11]

She had attempted to resolve all these dilemmas by erasing her subject’s face in a half guilty, half defiant, compromise to his supposedly violated ‘right to privacy’, while maintaining her own right to photograph the people with who she shares public space. This botched economic transaction between subject and photographer, and its clumsy resolution as the publication of a faceless figure, follows the rising logic of our contemporary visual culture — the logic of the celebrity image.

The celebrity’s commercial capital is their desirable lifestyle, and their enviable body, all encapsulated in their instantly recognizable face. So it is in their interest to regulate and control the production, interpretation and distribution of their image as closely as possible. There are now at least 30 paparazzi in Sydney, and they are at war with celebrities.[12] The frequent incidents between them, such as paparrazi squirting Heath Ledger with water pistols on the red carpet of the Brokeback Mountain premiere, after he allegedly spat at them during the shooting of Candy, are more than crass paparazzi ‘overstepping the mark’, they are symptoms of a fight for the control of a valuable commodity — the celebrity’s face. As one of the paparazzi succinctly put it, “It’s the price of fame, my son. If we stop taking his picture, his price goes down. This is give-and-take. It’s fame. It’s the name of the game. You give us some of your private life because you earn so much money. That’s the way it works”.[13]

Celebrities are applying pressure for a ‘right of privacy’ in Australia for their own purposes. By invoking such a spurious ‘right’ they hope to garner public sympathy for the control and regulation of the supply of their image, but it is harassment and defamation laws that they actually use against photographers. The most famous altercations are between Jamie Fawcett and Nicole Kidman. In early 2005 Kidman took out an interim restraining order against him, claiming he had harassed her and endangered her life by chasing her across Sydney at high speeds.[14] For her wedding, however, she established a temporary truce with the paparazzi, while preemptively devaluing any of their pictures by distributing an official wedding photograph world-wide a few seconds after the ceremony was over. But this New Year holiday season Fawcett and Kidman were at it again, with Kidman complaining of harassment to the Bateman’s Bay police and leaving the country early after he, and a Channel Ten news crew, followed her convoy to the South Coast.[15]

These days everybody is potentially a celebrity, however briefly, and everybody’s face has, at least potentially, a value. Fantasies of instant celebrity are regularly enacted in reality TV shows, and the world of the celebrity can suddenly open to those who have unexpectedly found themselves heroes in the public eye. For instance, the trapped Beaconsfield miners reportedly discussed who should play themselves in the inevitable movie of their rescue (Russell Crowe and Heath Ledger), and the settlement of their deal with Eddie McGuire was delayed while they were locked in negotiation with mine management and the coroner over who would own the rights to video footage the pair took to aide the rescuers during their confinement.

As a result of the pervasiveness of celebrity culture, if we are photographed in public we instinctively tend to think slightly less like citizens mingling in the town square, and slightly more like celebrities caught out on the town. We now carry our faces into public more as our commodity, something we own, something we have carefully grown, groomed and cultivated, something we can always potentially make money from. Within this logic the face is less an interface, and more a logo, a stamped unchangeable rebus of the self, a trademark always potentially on the verge of infringement.

Although there is no automatic right of privacy in Australia, the controllers of any commercial or government premises can make any rules they like as a condition of entry into their property. As the town square becomes the shopping mall, more and more public space is becoming privatised. Pedestrians are no longer citizens experiencing democratic interactions, but consumers having regulated retail experiences. Shopping centre owners want to keep their malls feeling lively and exciting, but they also know that shoppers want, above all else, to feel comfortable and protected, and this falls to automated surveillance systems and private security guards, who can make any rules they like. While the majority of people welcome blanket CCTV coverage because it makes them feel protected[16], self-expressive photography by ordinary individuals is treated with suspicion because its motivations and destinations are not obvious, and it can’t immediately be recuperated into the shopping experience.

For instance in July this year the Southgate shopping centre in Melbourne erected warning signs featuring a camera crossed out with a bright red slash. In one incident a Chubb security guard stopped the grandmother Val Moss from taking photographs from the public footpath “because”, he said, “of the terrorism overseas”. In response her camera club, the Knox Photographic Society staged a demonstration with over 100 photographers. A spokesperson for the shopping centre said; “There are safety, security, privacy and copyright issues which need to be considered with all photography and filming within the centre, and we reserve the right to ask people to stop filming or photographing if it is deemed inappropriate.” [17] No, no, no and no. Safety is not compromised by raising a camera to your eye, nor will security be breached by hand held snaps. There is no right of privacy in public space, so why should there be a right of privacy in the ‘new’ public space of the mall, and copyright is not infringed by taking photographs that will only include goods on display or advertising signs as incidental parts of a general scene.

The real reason for these kinds of blanket bans is to restrict the behavior of people using the mall. They attempt to focus the possible behaviors of customers to a narrow spectrum around the core function of shopping – buying, look into shop windows, recharging on coffee and cake, and feeling protected. This narrow band of profitable behavior excludes all other non-corporate behavior previously acceptable in public, such as self-expression.


Towards the end of 2005 the Federal Government introduced the Anti-Terrorism Act (No 2) 2005 (Cth) containing new sedition laws. To date the laws have not been used to prevent artists from expressing their views. But they could be, and in other countries they have been. The new laws go beyond the traditional definition of sedition as crime of intending to overthrow the government or interfere with elections. They broaden it so that it is an offence to simply urge violence in the community, urge interference in parliamentary elections, urge overthrow of the Government or Constitution or urge someone to assist the enemy or assist those engage in armed hostilities.

This shift of focus towards urging other people to commit seditious acts comes without a clear definition of what urging actually is. The courts will have to define what urging actually means when a case comes before them. In advice to Peter Garrett MP, Peter Gray SC stated that the term urging may, “cover indirect ‘urging’, by way of analogy, or dramatisation, or imagery, or metaphor, or allegory, or allusion, or any of the myriad devices and techniques available to a creative artist.”[18] The work of many artists would already fit within this definition, and the vague language creates an uncertain environment that questions the very nature of freedom of expression in Australia. Until a case comes before the courts, the practical effect of these laws on photographers remains unknown, but the chilling effect is already clear. The ability of photographers to create art that has a direct political message is at the cornerstone of a democratic society. Can art that mimics or comments on terrorism or questions the decisions of Government really be terrorism or sedition?

In 2005 the Australian Law Reform Commission examined the new laws and released a Discussion Paper and recommendations which explicitly recognised the concerns of the Australian arts community and the potential chilling effect on artists. The problem is that the sedition laws do not create a clear distinction between legitimate dissent, including the expression of dissent through of works of art, and actions which should be of concern to national security. This all adds to a climate of fear where the actions of a photographer in simply taking photographs, of, say, a public building or an industrial landscape, immediately becomes suspicious. The eventual implications of the new sedition laws on the Australian arts community are unclear, but the chilling effect is already upon us, and is flowing on to the wider social environment. When a photographer is stopped from taking photographs in a public place by a police officer or a security guard ‘because of the terrorism overseas’, this not only affects all other photographers, it also affects the way every one of us experiences our public places and shared spaces.


We live in a world where more is happening on camera, from everyday trips to the shops to orchestrated sexual assaults, yet more is happening off camera as well, from remote detention facilities to intensive industrial farming practices. However this polarisation of visibility is not really being defined by either the freedom of speech or the right to privacy, but by rules of access made by governments and corporations for their own purposes. In this context we need more photographs taken by thoughtful, curious, inquisitive, dallying, dilettantish photographers, armed with nothing more than an ordinary desire to represent their world, not less. But in order to be an effective mode of public speech photographers need to free themselves from the insidious inhibitions, vaguely wrapped up in concerns about intrusion and sedition, that are currently constraining them every time they lift the camera to their eye.

Martyn Jolly is Head of Photomedia at the Australian National University

Katherine Giles is a solicitor with the Arts Law Centre of Australia

[2] ‘Men’s Magazine Is Smutty: Judge’ The Canberra Times 9 December 2006 p12

[3] R v Sotheren [2001] NSWSC 204 (26 March 2001) paragraph 25 http://wwwaustliieduau/au/cases/nsw/supreme_ct/2001/204html [date accessed?]

[4] The Australian 10 July 2003 pB01

[5] ‘Unauthorised Photographs On The Internet And Ancillary Privacy Issues’ Discussion Paper Standing Committee of Attorneys-General August 2005 paragraphs 7–12

[6] Amanda Hodge ‘Fear Kills Joy Of Watching Children Play’ The Weekend Australian 26–27 February 2005 p8

[7] ‘Surf Body Call For Photo Ban’ Sydney Morning Herald 5 November 2005

[8] ‘Upskirting To Become A Crime’ Sydney Morning Herald 28 July 2006 np

[9] ‘Unauthorised Photographs On The Internet And Ancillary Privacy Issues’ Discussion Paper Standing Committee of Attorneys-General August 2005 paragraph 40

[10] ‘Dupain’s Beach Snaps Draw Police Focus’ DD McNicoll Weekend Australian 9–10 December 2006 p10

[12] ‘Snap Pack’ Dominic Cadden Sun Herald 13 February 2005 p14

[13] Quoted in the Australian Law Reform Commission issues paper number 31 Review of Privacy cited in ‘Shooting Star’ Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend 1 July 2006 p26

[14] ‘Best starring role goes to the beak in Kidman’s paparazzi drama’ Justin Norrie Sydney Morning Herald 12 February 2005Sydney Morning Herald p13

[15] ‘Nicole cuts her hols short’ The Daily Telegraph 2 January 2007 np

[16] Wells Helene A Allard Troy Wilson Paul Crime and CCTV in Australia: Understanding the Relationship Centre for Applied Psychology and Criminology Bond University Australia (2006)

[17] ‘Picture this — if you’re allowed: city puts photo ban in the frame’ Carmel Egan The Sunday Age 30 July 2006 p3

Collateral Damage – Denise Ferris and Martyn Jolly

‘Collateral Damage’ (with Denise Ferris), Art Monthly Australia, July, 2008, pp3—5

Now that the nightmare is finally over for Bill Henson, and the dust is settling, what will be the residual damage to Australian culture?

Photography plays a complex role in our culture, it produces direct evidence of reality, but at the same time it deals in social symbols and metaphors, and creates personal ideals and icons. The attack on Bill Henson cut through this complexity with a syllogism devastating in its fundamentalist simplicity: nakedness is always sexual, and photographers always exploit their subjects, therefore photographs of naked children are always exploitative child pornography. This equation efficiently short-circuited any other mechanisms of representation, or expression, or interpretation that until now were assumed to be intrinsic to photographing models posing for the camera. In her strident way Hetty Johnston from the lobby group Bravehearts put it best. When she heard that the DPP had finally dropped the charges she declared: ‘We are just handing our children on a bloody plate to paedophiles. This is a disgrace for this country, absolutely shameful.’

In this formulation, not only are all photographs of naked children always equivalent to paedophilia itself, but they also condemn the whole society. As the Sydney academic Ruth Barcan pointed out in Nudity a Cultural Anatomy, ‘Images of children and youth function as mirrors to an adult society eager to verify its own moral state. This might help explain why representations of children can be subject to idealization, but also why both the effect of images on youth and the representation of youth in images can become concentrated sites of social unease and regulation.’

Any attempt to resist an over-regulation of photography driven by such social unease is immediately met with the ultimate foreclosing reply: child protection. In supporting the initial raids of his police officers the NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said, ‘the most important thing here, the thing we cannot lose sight of, is we have to protect our children’. As more police started to raid art museums, rifling through their racks looking for thirty year old art works, Hetty Johnston agreed,  ‘Nobody is above the law, not artists, they just can’t be, children are suffering as a result.’

But how might actual children suffer as a result of Bill Henson’s photographs? Perhaps a paedophile might see one and be so erotically inflamed they may abuse a child. But there is plenty of real child pornography available on the net, and no proof that the mere existence of further images of naked children in artistic scenarios and artistic poses will exacerbate a paedophile’s behaviour. Perhaps a child might see one and become ‘sexualised’ too early in her emotional development. But an image of a normal pubescent child simply standing there is unlikely to provoke body-image confusion in other children, who must also be regularly seeing their own friends’ bodies. Perhaps his models may be traumatised by the experience of posing for him, even if they don’t yet realize it. But no Henson model has yet reported that they found posing for him anything other than enjoyable and creative experience. Or perhaps the ‘innocence’ of a child is ‘exploited’ by Henson making money from it. But child actors have long delighted us with their precocious presence in popular films and TV shows, so why should art be any different.

Whilst the DPP was considering whether or not to charge Henson, other police were spending their time more usefully by using actual child pornography to track down real paedophiles. The images they traced, which were downloaded at least 1500 times to Australia, were quite unlike Henson’s, being images of actual sex-acts. Although police operations like Operation Centurion have established that the circulation of pornographic images is an important part of paedophilic behaviour, no research conducted anywhere has been able to establish any causal links between images of the type produced by Henson and aberrant behaviour.

Nonetheless, we have arrived at a time when the naturalist’s slogan ‘nude ain’t rude’ seems historical and quaint, and when talking about nakedness as being just the way we were born sounds like old-fashioned hippy speak. The British sociologist Frank Furedi has described this as a ‘culture of fear’ where ideas of social change (including how we see ourselves represented) are experienced as risks, not opportunities for new orientations. This exaggerated sense of risk is driven by a powerful ‘cognitive illusion’. As the Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has argued, we estimate the probability of an event from how easy it is to recall examples. And examples of abuse are continually made forcefully present to us through the media. The incentive structure of activism and opinion markets adds to this — no one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better.

Potential risks inevitably lead to potential victims. Every photographic act is now more readily viewable through the prism of victim and abuser, than artist and subject. And so Hetty Johnston is able to claim that, ‘the liberties the art world take … harm the whole cause of child protection.’ Even more authoritative commentators such as Clive Hamilton, the campaigner against ‘corporate paedophilia’, says that Bill Henson and Roslyn Oxley should have known better, and have only themselves to blame. They should have realized that they would suffer collateral damage from a society finally waking up to the fact that it has let its children become sexualised too early. But Henson isn’t the only artist to be sustaining collateral damage. For example in April 2007 Polixeni Papapetrou’s photograph Olympia Wearing Her Grandmother’s Jewels was withdrawn from the Gosford leg of the Australian Centre for Photography’s touring show Changeling: Childhood and the Uncanny after complaints from the public. And in 2005, just prior to the opening of Ella Dreyfus’s exhibition, two of her images of soccer players in her son’s team were withdrawn from display, four were withdrawn from sale, and two remain covered over in the catalogue.

Do these few examples really matter? Why bother with those who think they can definitively tell right from wrong, and who set themselves up as experts who know what’s good for all of us? Because these harmful helpers also wantonly mishandle exactly what adults are entrusted with — the social and cultural future of our young. Their self-indulgent disgust and uncorroborated fantasies of harmful art will have significant long-term effects on the world our children will inherit.

Their world would drop a visual veil over our children until the age of eighteen. The marvellous extended process of a child becoming an adult would take place in the dark. The transition period when children are most vulnerable to exploitation (from somebody they know and trust in 85% of cases) would take place largely unseen and unspoken about. The complexities, doubts, fears and dreams of puberty would be left to the tabloids, the television and the advertisers to articulate with their banal sexual dichotomies and overheated social scenarios. The psychologically supporting network of loving looks and mutual regard we want our children to grow up in would be ripped away. The complexity of children would become publicly invisible — except for the photographs that sell products to them.

Their world sees only two possible contracts between adult and child, either one of parental or pedagogical authority, or one of sexual exploitation. All other contracts based on mutuality, creativity, fun or play, are suspect. The chance these teenagers had, through symbolically representing ‘youth’ for Henson (with mum and dad’s permission and with their own free will) to briefly pretend to be someone different, and collaborate on producing something mysterious and beautiful and powerful, would exist no more. By all accounts Henson’s models down through the years still value the experience, some even hang the resulting photographs on their walls for their own children to admire.

The world of the over-anxious sees no social role for art, or creativity or expression. Hetty Johnston sees Henson’s art in only two lights, it is either to make him money by selling images of children, or for his ‘personal satisfaction’. For her, art seems to be a furtive personal activity closely allied to pornography in any case, and without wider social or cultural benefit. ‘If we keep allowing artists to do whatever their whim allows, whatever they want to do, what’s the next boundary that’s going to be challenged by the likes of Bill Henson’, she demands. In her view, and in the view of her cheer squad in our parliaments and in the media, art is a habit a small section of society has, a personal indulgence rather than part of a larger conversation.

Moral panics rise and fall. Eventually this one, too, will subside. But after it has there will have been a tectonic shift in the attitude of the public and the law to what we can and can’t see, what we can and can’t make. The deadening effect will hang like a pall over all of us.