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Paul Sheehan, always quick to jump on a controversial bandwagon, wrote off Henson and his supporters in a Sydney Morning Herald piece, “Artists Crying Out for Martyrdom”:

If you confront people long enough, don’t whine when you yourself are confronted. If you mine the terrain of adolescent sensual awakening for commercial gain, if you spend years living on the artistic edge, while gaining public attention and financial reward, don’t complain when your actions begin to carry the taint of exploitative voyeurism. (SMH, May 26).

Note the pseudo-biblical cadences of these phrases and the innuendo masquerading as moral outrage, conveyed by the word "taint." It’s Sheehan who’s imposing the "taint", not Henson. Miranda Devine’s one foray into art criticism argues that “comparisons to Caravaggio and Michelangelo miss the point that Henson’s art is photography, which has none of the ambiguity of painting” (SMH, May 25).

Really? So photography cannot be as three dimensional as painting? There’s a long history of photographers out there since the invention of the daguerrotype demonstrating otherwise. You may not find their photos in Dolly magazine but you will find them in the most reputable art galleries around the world.

The most comprehensive account of the Henson exhibition to be published in the press comes from Roger Benjamin, a research professor in the history of art at Sydney University, whose review of the exhibition, which he was one of the few to see before it was raided by NSW police, states that:

Henson’s figures are neither pornographic nor commercial...In so far as they deal with sexuality at all, they tend to confuse, not to excite. This is because they project mixed signals...Understanding is stretched, things do not add up, and the viewer’s senses are troubled. (The Australian, May 31).

In other words, Henson’s work confronts and disturbs the spectator, which is surely the task of all serious art.

Henson’s comments in a 2002 ABC documentary, re-screened by the ABC after the controversy began, that his work is often appreciated by young people, suggest that the general population, including the parents of the adolescent girls Henson has photographed, may not all be outraged by his work. Indeed, up until now, apart from the 65,000 who saw his 30 year retrospective in Sydney in 2005, which passed without any adverse comment, most people appear to have been unaware that Henson’s work even existed. The woman who commented on the letters page in the Sydney Morning Herald that she’d rather her 13 year old daughter go to an “(uncensored) Bill Henson exhibition than read a Dolly magazine” (SMH, May 26) may be part of a rising groundswell.

On the rather risky assumption that at least some of the letters published in the Sydney Morning Herald might represent the ‘general population’, I’d like to single out the comments of Zuzu Burford from Heathcote, who wrote: “There is a certain irony that World Youth Day is being held by an organisation that successfully covered up paedophilia for several decades in a city where art is confiscated as pornography” (SMH, May 26).

I teach and write about music, film and cultural studies, and I have cited Henson’s work when talking about photography, the gaze, voyeurism, fetishism and the spectator, but also as an example of photography that is provocative, edgy and disturbing in its use of adolescent bodies in contexts that sometimes might appear sexualised and are sometimes placed in abject, even degrading contexts. But I strongly believe in the seriousness and sincerity of Henson’s purpose and the strength and power of his artistic statements. I’ve never tried to influence my students’ thinking about his work, but I have confronted them with it and encouraged them to engage with it in the same way I have with other contemporary artists such as Tracey Moffatt and Cindy Sherman.

An education kit available online for 9-10 (Middle Years) and 11-12 (HSC and VCE) students (, contains at least two images of adolescents that could be considered provocative and disturbing, but which are clearly not pornographic. In it, Henson says in an interview with Sebastian Smee:

I’m interested in that tender proximity, that ineffable, fragile, breathing closeness or presence which photography can animate while, at the same time, allowing no possibility for any familiar connection with the individuals in the picture. (Art Monthly, July 2006).

When interviewed on the cable television channel Ovation by Leo Schofield, Henson talked about the need for “distance” in his work, “without compromising the subject.” I interpret this as respect for the privacy of his models and a desire to photograph them with a sense of authenticity and honesty which is the exact reverse of any sense of exploitation. Robert McFarlane sums up well the dilemma of many spectators in responding to Henson’s work:

Henson is a master at remanufacturing the ineffable ennui of the young and freezing their emotions within the borders of large, well-crafted, mostly colour photographs…His images of vulnerable young faces sometimes hover dangerously close to fashion photography clichés, with subjects suggesting a maudlin scent of self-indulgence. Closer inspection, however, reveals a different, deeper reality. (SMH, July 11, 2006).

It’s that “closer inspection” that is all-important. I believe that many people who dislike Henson’s work don’t, or refuse to, engage in the inspection it demands. Henson’s subjects are not flirtatious, and his works are suffused with an edgy ambiguity which sometimes, but by no means always, gives them their power to disturb as well as be admired. Some who do engage with the work will be justifiably disturbed by it. But as John McDonald puts it:

...even Henson’s detractors must admit that his photographs are ineffably beautiful. They portray the human figure as fragile and mysterious—in the same way that he transforms the twilight world of the suburbs. His subjects are no longer children, but not yet adults. They are caught between night and day, between freedom and responsibility. (SMH, May 24).

I find the image of the adolescent girl at the centre of the controversy extraordinarily beautiful. The lighting and the use of shadow is masterful and, yes, very Caravaggio-like, and there’s a glow to it which is almost numinous. It reminds me of seeing Renaissance paintings in galleries in Italy projecting a three-dimensional radiance and an ‘aura’, to use Walter Benjamin’s term, which is usually obliterated in reproductions. There is a warmth and a vulnerability in many of Henson’s subjects that evokes feelings of tenderness. I am in no way titillated, or sexually aroused by this image at all, as I might be by pornography, and I am not ashamed to admit I do look at pornography occasionally, although you won’t find any on my computer.

I am very moved by the young woman’s modesty and sense of innocence in Henson’s photograph, and the way she delicately places her hands over her groin. She is in an in-between, girl-woman zone which radiates beauty and delicacy and the only desire she invokes in me is a feeling of protectiveness. There’s a peacefulness and a serenity in Henson’s image which places it far beyond the ‘taint’ of pornography—it’s simply too beautiful to be pornographic or exploitative. As Roger Benjamin suggests:

This strange photograph is disturbing. We are compelled to look, and look again…The power of the image comes from the striking beauty of [the girl’s] facial features, superb in definition, held against the abjection of her body.(The Australian, May 31).

It engages, challenges, confronts and moves us, even if the ‘us’ in this article is predominantly male. And there is no doubt that there are differently gendered and highly subjective responses to Henson’s work; I have had arguments about it with a number of women. It’s also notable that most who have come to Henson’s defence are men. But I believe the image desexualises its subject. Her barely formed breasts and obscured pubic area project a sense of modesty and even chastity. When I sent the image to a colleague, feminist writer Debra Adelaide, who has a teenage daughter, she agreed it was “beautiful” and commented, “it’s almost as if he’s honouring her.” She also pointed out that she found it confronting, “like most good art should be”, in the sense of challenging the spectator to revise rigidly imposed ways of thinking about the representation of young adolescents and the ‘taint’ of sexualisation.

One of the more alarming aspects of the Henson case is that a number of pre-teen children I’m acquainted with, directly or indirectly, were fed knee-jerk responses to Henson’s images as ‘pornographic’ by their teachers. On the other hand, when I finally got to see the Roslyn Oxley9 exhibition the day before it closed—an extremely powerful, moving experience which demonstrated how tightly integrated into a photographic narrative all the images, human, landscape and still life were—there was a group of secondary school girls on a field trip to the gallery giving the photographs serious and thoughtful attention.

One could argue that other images by Henson are more voyeuristic, although I would suggest that they challenge the spectator’s sense of voyeurism, and draw attention to the fact that everyone to some extent is a voyeur. Martin Sharp’s comments that the model in the photo singled out for media attention, and mutilated in the process, “gave her trust to Henson…and this trust has been violated by the police and Kevin Rudd’s comments” sums up the degree of ‘taint’ to which Henson’s work has been subjected by a media beat-up.

Of course Miranda Devine had to have the last word on the subject after the media beat-up died in the water, suggesting that “If art…is a mirror to a society and its values… community tolerance for underage exploitation has found its limits” (SMH, June 14-1). For her argument Devine marshals an army of moral majority supporters led by Chris Goddard, Director of the National Research Centre for the Prevention of Child Abuse, at Monash University, along with “40 psychologists, social workers and child-protection advocates”, including priests, counsellors and artists Michael Leunig and Allan Zavod. I have no doubt that David Marr’s forthcoming book on the Henson case will tease out all the complexities surrounding the issue as well as its broader social and moral ramifications in terms of the confusion of serious art works with child pornography.

This article is an edited version of a seminar paper, titled “Bill Henson: An Appreciation”, given by Tony Mitchell at UTS, Sydney, June 5

RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 pg. 50

© Tony Mitchell; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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