Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Picture Imperfect

Once again photographer and artist Bill Henson is back in the news, with the revelation that he was allowed to wander about a school playground scouting for models. Once again, controversy has raged with outrage on one side met by indignation on the other. Of course, it would be different if Bill Henson was a “good bloke” It would be different if Bill Henson was a dinky-di beer drinking football star visiting the school to check out the youngsters for their sporting potential. It would be different if Bill Henson was Kyle or Dicko looking for young singers to put on TV. It would be different, but why would it be different?

Quite clearly, the one glaring difference is that Bill Henson takes photos of children without their clothes on. Now, let me be clear. I accept that Bill Henson is an artist, and that he only works with the full permission of parents. I also accept that nakedness doesn’t have to be seen in a sexual context. It’s a fact of life that we are all born naked, and the inhibitions and attitudes that we have about nakedness are imposed by our society and culture. In a purely rational world, nakedness would be just that and nothing more. It wouldn’t mean anything. But we as human beings impose meaning upon it. The truth is that soft drink commercials do more to sexualize images of the human body than Bill Henson does. But that’s not the point.

The point is that, as with the earlier controversy about whether or not Bill Henson’s photography amounts to pornography, those who are genuinely a danger to the safety and wellbeing of children will see this as a green light. They will see it as a legitimization of their twisted proclivities. They will see it as an invitation to disguise what they do as having some sort of artistic intent.

The real question is whether or not any outside parties should be permitted to conduct scouting expeditions into schools without prior parental approval. Isn’t the purpose of attending school meant to be education? Schools are not supposed to be talent agencies are they? If Baz Lurhman turned up at a school looking for a child actor to cast in a Hollywood movie, would that be an appropriate use of the school? Would it be a legitimate part of the education process, or a distraction from it? Surely, if parents want their children considered for such opportunities there are more appropriate venues for that to occur.

What’s worse is that while Bill Henson might be welcomed with open arms because he is a recognized artist, some schools actually prevent parents from taking photographs at school activities such as sports days because of child safety fears. Now that’s truly irrational.

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