BILL HENSON, Untitled #39, 2007/08, C-print, 127 × 180 cm. Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

Police Seize Artist’s Photographs of Naked Teenagers


On May 23, more than 20 photographs by acclaimed Australian photographer Bill Henson (see AAP 50) were seized by authorities from an exhibition about to open that night at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney. The police raid was prompted by complaints filed by a child advocacy group alarmed by the invitations sent out for the show that featured an image of a naked 13-year-old girl.

Internationally renowned for his lush photographs, Henson has often worked with young subjects during his 30-year-long career. The children in this current series were photographed in the artist’s Melbourne studio with the permission of their parents. In a report by Victoria newspaper The Age, Henson is quoted as saying that the youth “seem to be the most effective vehicle for expressing the things that interest me about humanity and vulnerability.” For the exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9, a third of the displayed photographs were of naked teenagers. The gallery released a statement on May 23 saying that the exhibition would re-open without the controversial works.

In an article for The Australian, Judy Annear, senior curator of photography at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, commented that Henson’s “images may take the viewer to an edge, to an uncomfortable place, but it’s like great music or great literature.” Similarly, former National Gallery of Australia director Betty Churcher defended Henson on ABC Radio, saying that the photos are “breathtakingly beautiful” and have “absolutely no suggestion of pornography.” On May 29, Australian actress Cate Blanchett joined the fray, signing an open letter to the Australia prime minister with 42 other important cultural figures that read: “The potential prosecution of one of our most respected artists is no way to build a creative Australia and does untold damage to our cultural reputation.”

On the other side of the debate, Hetty Johnston, the founder of the anti-child abuse advocacy group Bravehearts, expressed her disapproval in The Sydney Morning Herald, declaring that the works “are clearly illegal child pornography images, it’s not about art at all.” Johnston, who had filed the complaint against the gallery, claims they are criminal and hopes that both the artist and gallery will be prosecuted. Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd also condemned Henson’s work, telling the Nine Network that the photos are “absolutely revolting.”

The Rose Bay Police announced on May 23 to the media that charges would be made under both the NSW and Commonwealth Crimes Act. Hugh Macon, president of the New South Wales Law Society, commented that the case against Henson could be difficult to prove. “The Crimes Act requires two things—an intention and an act,” Macon commented. “The act is usually fairly easily established but if the intention is to produce a work of art and solely to produce a work of art, then I cannot see how a crime has been committed.”

In a sudden reversal, on June 10, the seized artworks were returned to Roslyn Oxley9, after police were advised by the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions that action against Henson was unlikely to succeed. “It is reassuring to see existing laws, having been rigorously tested, still provide a framework in which debate and expression of ideas can occur,” said the artist in an issued statement. Following the dismissal, the gallery has reopened the show to viewers with scheduled appointments to protect the gallery and artworks from potential protestors.