Save the alarm for the real sexualised and exploitative images of children
Is this photo
comparable to these?
Last week I was asked to comment on photos of little boys, described as reminiscent of the Bill Henson exhibition which included naked young girls and attracted significant controversy in 2008. There was now a “row” over the Melbourne exhibition featuring “naked young boys” holding guns.
The report in the Northcote leader reads:
“A LOCAL exhibition of photographs depicting naked young boys brandishing guns has fuelled claims of child exploitation.
The shots, on display at Fairfield’s New North Gallery, have sparked comparisons with Northcote artist Bill Henson’s controversial pictures of a naked pubescent girl.
Fairfield photographer Sean O’Carroll told the Leader he photographed his son and two nephews, aged two to three, naked and holding replica guns for the exhibition series titled “Boys, Guns Etc?”
A political party and national family group had criticised the exhibition.
So I had a look at the photos. While I understand that seeing images of little boys with bare chests and holding guns is somewhat disconcerting, they are not sexualised images. While there may be concerns about informed consent, these photographs are not remotely comparably to Bill Henson’s images and the comparison should never have been invoked.
The girl who featured naked on the invite to the Roslyn Oxley gallery was 13. While that photo was widely circulated, an even more graphic one of another girl was not. While I have partly covered her, I hesitated to show this second image at all. She is ‘Untitled 1985/86’, quietly auctioned by Menzies Art Brands, Lot 214, for $3800, only weeks after the controversy erupted.
The Henson affair is dissected in the chapter ‘The Gaze that Dare Not Speak Its Name: Bill Henson and Child Sexual Abuse Moral Panics’ by Dr Abigail Bray in Getting Real: Challenging the sexualisation of girls. She describes the image:
…the black and white ‘Untitled 1895/86’…peers down on a naked child on the crumpled sheets of a bed, her knees bent, her legs wide open, her face turned away from the camera, her lips parted, her expression blank. She is wearing childish bangles on both arms and an ankle ‘slave’ bangle. Her hair is in a ponytail. Her vagina and budding breasts are highlighted by Henson’s trademark manipulation of shadow. The girl is anonymous. However, to see the ugly sexual political context of Henson’s photographs is to be dismissed a hysteric, prude or worse.
While we need to be vigilant about the sexualisation and exploitation of children, it dilutes the serious concerns and genuine dis-ease about Henson’s sexual depictions of vulnerable naked young girls – and other overtly sexualised imagery of children – to somehow suggest a link between them and the little boys. Not every image of a child without clothes should be read as sexualised. We shouldn’t see child abuse in everything.
In my view, the photos of the boys holding guns juxtaposes their apparent innocence, curiosity, and affection for each other (one boy has an arm slung over his friend), with the harshness of the cold weapons against their skin. It prompts questions about the hijacking of boys by gun culture, about how we raise them on a diet of violence, how we strip them of their tenderness and empathy from the youngest of ages (see my interview with Maggie Hamilton re her new book on boys), how quick we are to mould and shape them in normative (and harmful) versions of masculinity.
I agree with the photographer:
You can watch the Channel 7 Morning Show piece on the issue below: