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Last Thursday, police in Australia shut down an exhibition of images by the respected photographer Bill Henson and confiscated the work, which included nude portraits of teenagers. The raid has caused a stir in the land of Oz—one that has drawn in both the nation’s Prime Minister and leading artists and actors, such as Cate Blanchette.
The raid on the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney occurred before the exhibition had opened. Police said they acted after receiving complaints from “some people” about the photographs of the teenagers. The police confiscated 20 photographs. According to this story in The Australian newspaper, the police have since expanded their investigation into Henson’s work, visiting several Canberra art galleries.
Henson is a widely admired artist whose work has been shown at major art institutions, including the International Center of Photography in New York.
The raid seems to have transfixed and divided Australian society. Labor party Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was quoted as saying the photographs were “absolutely revolting.” Meanwhile, the Liberal Party shadow treasurer, Malcolm Turnbull, condemned the police action.
In an open letter to the Prime Minister, a number of Australian artists and actors, including Blanchette, decried the raid, saying that the action “does untold damage to our cultural reputation.”
According to the Melbourne Herald Sun, the mother of one of Henson’s models is defending the photographer.
We’ve had controversies like this in the U.S., of course. Work by photographers like Sally Mann and Jock Sturges have been condemned by various politicians and child-rights groups. Sometimes controversy is good all the way around, forcing artists to articulate their goals and society in general to clarify its attitude and tastes to art. Above and below are some examples of the Henson images that caused the trouble. The images were downloaded from an Australian newspaper website, thus the black bars.—David Schonauer