film & video
censorship of photography
This page considers the censorship of photography.
It covers -
is supplemented by the discussion of photography
as a communication medium and the more detailed note on
unauthorised photography (inc
paparazzi and street photos) elsewhere on this site.
Is photography the "most democratic of the arts"
(or merely one that most people can embrace, whether as
a practitioner or as a consumer through exposure to photos
in the home and at a distance in newspapers, magazines,
books and on video)?
The ease with which the camera can capture reality ("the
unblinking eye") or what is purportedly reality and
with which photographs can be reproduced means that it
has featured in debate over the past 150 years regarding
censorship (images that are deemed to subvert respect
for dictators or other elites, disclose secrets such
as the existence of military facilities or of famines)
(representations of stigmatised activity or merely images
deemed unsuitable for members of the lower classes,
minors and women)
between 'art', 'smut' and 'sickness' (evident in contemporary
anxieties in the UK, US and Australia regarding photographs
acceptability of making and publishing photos of streets
and other public places (explored in more detail here).
debate has been reflected in a range of statute and common
law (often inconsistent with the treatment of representations
on canvas or in marble) and administrative action such
as punishment of photographers and suppression of particular
images, including use of customs officials to black out
or remove offending images from current affairs magazines
in states such as Singapore.
It has also provided an opportunity for advocates of various
causes - the sacredness of art, the protection of children
from evil, and so forth - to behave like dogs and yet
again mark their territories through statements that affirm
their virtue, rally supporters and gain attention of the
media, policymakers and community.
Anxieties about mass access to erotic images are older
than the internet.
Lisa Sigel's Governing Pleasures: Pornography &
Social Change in England, 1815-1914 (New Brunswick:
Rutgers Uni Press 2002) and 'Filth in the Wrong People's
Hands: Postcards & the Expansion of Pornography in
the Britain & the Atlantic World, 1880-1914' in 33(2)
Journal of Social History (2000) for example
argue that new technologies and distribution mechanisms
at the end of the nineteenth century resulted in a democratisation
of erotica and an associated anxiety among government
agencies and advocacy groups about suppression of the
During the 1880s visual images in the form of cheap ephemera
such as postcards outstripped older - and more expensive
- text-based forms of pornography -
specific patterns of distribution and state repression
placed early forms of pornography out of the hand of
the working classes. High prices, low literacy rates,
class-specific cultural referents, unequal patterns
of state repression, production, and distribution patterns
restricted the dispersal of pornography
printing and photographic technologies allowed the working
classes to become consumers rather than just objects of
Sigel's analysis is consistent with broader conclusions
in Mitchell Stephens' feisty The rise of the image
the fall of the word (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1998),
Statistics on demand for improper images and responses
by government agencies and nongovernment crusaders are
problematical. Ronald Hyam's Empire & Sexuality
(Manchester: Manchester Uni Press 1990) claims that around
250,000 'indecent' photographs were seized between 1863
- when the London Metropolitan Police Obscene Publications
Squad was established - and 1880.
Other sources suggest that around 130,000 'obscene' photographs
and 5,000 lantern slides were seized by police in an 1874
raid on the London premises of photographer Henry Hayler,
whose journal has been edited by Bill Jay as 61 Pimlico
(Tucson: Nazraeli Press 2000). Across the Atlantic around
194,000 "bad pictures and photographs" (along
with 5,500 indecent playing cards) were seized by Anthony
Comstock as Special Agent of the US Post Office in 1873-74
A century after Comstock the publishers of UK periodical
Gay News were charged with obscenity over a cover
photograph of two men kissing. Two decades on in Australia
Helen Vnuk's Snatched: Sex & Censorship in Australia
(Milsons Point: Random 2003) noted digital 'cosmetic surgery'
on nudes in Australian magazines.
Totalitarian regimes, such as the USSR, Nazi Germany and
contemporary China, seek to manage reality by managing
the generation and reception of images.
As noted above that management encompasses restrictions
can be photographed (eg bans on photography of particular
locations, people or events, including defence facilities,
the residences of the elites, mass starvation or destitution,
pollution, prisoners and demonstrations or other indications
that subvert official assertions that all is well)
people and other entities can be photographed (eg exclusion
of unauthorised photographers, bans on photography that
captures elites at play or in unflattering ways)
dissemination of images, particularly on a mass and
Studies include Hitler's Face: The Biography of an
Image (Philadelphia: Uni of Pennsylvania Press 2006)
by Claudia Schmölders.
Liberal democratic regimes, such as Australia, of course
place some restrictions on photographing particular locations
(eg defence facilities)
or in specific circumstances (eg court
the rectification of history
There has been no comprehensive longitudinal study of
the political airbrush: doctoring paintings and photographs
to remove evidence of past alliances or former colleagues.
David King's The Commissar Vanishes: the Falsification
of Photographs & Art in Stalin's Russia (New
York: Holt 1997) is one of the more eloquent demonstrations
of the rectification of history. It is complemented by
Charles Hedrick's History & Silence: Purge &
Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity (Austin:
Uni of Texas Press 2000).
ownership of the image
In 2005, as discussed in a note
elsewhere on this site regarding unauthorised taking and
publication of photographs (particularly of minors), there
were calls in Australia for civil or even criminal penalties
for those who took streetphotos or put them online.
The visceral nature of photography - its representation
of reality and its closeness to what might be found at
home (in contrast to much avant-garde art) - means that
it has become a focus of anxieties about heterodox sexual
activity and about the exploitation of minors.
Much contemporary debate about censorship of photography
(or perceived failure to censor) is arguably not about
photography as such. Instead it is a maifestation of what
might be glibly characterised as the 'culture wars', an
opportunity for institutional legitimation and for disagreement
about moral policing.
A focus for that debate has involved photos of minors,
marked by outbreaks of moral
panic regarding domestic snaps of toddlers (including
seizure/destruction of innocuous photos in undeveloped
film provided by mum or dad to a film developing service)
and police visits to galleries exhibiting art that is
claimed to breach child pornography statutes or otherwise
improperly sexualise minors.
It is difficult to escape the impression that much of
the brouhaha after such visits is disingenous, with overreaching
claims by advocacy organisations (whose lust for a headline
is greater than their effectiveness in addressing the
reality of child abuse in Australia and overseas), fatuous
responses by art critics and inept intervention by officials.
Intervention has typically been inept because it has been
conducted in front of the glare of the cameras and because
it has concerned images that are not much different from
those readily available in books or in other exhibitions.
A cause celebre of 2000 was the South Australian police
seizure from the Folio bookshop, an art specialist, of
Pictures for Sale, a book of Mapplethorpe photos.
The work was also available at the Art Gallery of South
Australia's bookshop. In the following year the Saatchi
gallery in London was "visited" by UK police
and threatened with prosecution under the UK Protection
of Children Act 1978 over Tierney Gearon's photographs
of her young children, provoking responses that Gearon's
work did not sexualise its subjects and was essentially
no more offensive than a plethora of family happy snaps.
(Broadcaster Julia Somerville had been threatened with
prosecution under the Act in 1995 when family snaps of
her children bathing at home were reported to the police
by the pharmacist developing the film).
Australian artist Concetta
been charged in 1995 with 'indecently recording a person
under 13' (ie photographing her sons in classical poses),
being acquitted in 2003 after two years of preliminary
The prosecution is discussed in 1997 'Crossing The Fine
Line: The case of Concetta Petrillo' by Alison
Archer in 18(3) Artline (1997) and noted
elsewhere on this site.
Mapplethorpe images had been the focus of controversy
about arts funding in the US - discussed in 'Censorship
and Subsidy in the Arts' by Arthur Danto in 47(1) Bulletin
of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1993)
2561 and Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts
Warrior (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1993) by John Frohnmayer
- and about self-censorship by London's Hayward Gallery
to avoid action under the UK Indecent Displays (Control)
In 2008 NSW police, after a 'raid' on a Bill Henson exhibition
at the prestigious Roslyn Oxley9 gallery, announced that
charges would be laid under both the NSW and Commonwealth
for publishing an indecent article. The announcement presumably
provided the NSW government with a welcome distraction
from a series of political misadventures.
The NSW action would apparently involve display of Henson's
photos of young people (which reportedly were little different
to those previously exhibited at the National Gallery
Art Gallery of NSW
and National Gallery of Australia or in volumes readily
available in mainstream bookshops and libraries) and associated
promotional material. The Commonwealth action would relate
to the online catalogue.
One proponent of censorship claimed, with traditional
hyperbole, that "If this is not upheld by the court it
will give a green light to pedophiles everywhere". In
a mild episode of moral panic,
marked by death threats to the artist and gallery operator,
police visited public galleries in Melbourne, Newcastle
and other locations to inspect Henson images. Online photos
used by media websites in reporting the brouhaha were
then referred to the national Classification Board.
Board found that neither the online nor offline images
were illegal, the seized material was returned to the
gallery and the NSW Police accepted that prosecution would
not proceed because there was no reasonable prospect of
The incident is discussed in David Marr's The Henson
Case (Melbourne: Text 2008).
Anxiety about images that pose questions about childhood
is illustrated in works such as Victorian Erotic Photography
(New York: St Martins Press 1973) edited by Peter Mendes
& Graham Ovenden, 'The Last Taboo: Childhood Sexuality
& Censorship' by Kyla & James Legard in 24(1)
(2006), Elisabeth Stoney's 1995 paper
Alice Does: The Erotic Child Of Photography and
Anne Higonnet's Pictures of Innocence: The History
and Crisis of Ideal Childhood (London: Thames &
In 2007 Swedish neoNazis trashed Andres Serrano's 'History
of Sex' photography exhibition in Lund. A more provocative
image by Serrano had been attacked as blasphemous
in Melbourne in the preceding century.
Studies include 'Equal Protection In The World Of Art
And Obscenity: The Art Photographer's Latent Struggle
With Obscenity Standards In Contemporary America' by Elaine
Wang in 9 Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and
Technology Law (2006) 113-139, Culture Wars:
Documents from the Recent Controversies in the Arts
(New York: New Press 1992) by Richard Bolton, 'Eyes Wide
Open, Minds Wide Shut: Art, Obscenity, and the First Amendment
in Contemporary America' by Cara Newman in 53 DePaul
Law Review (2003) 121-160, 'Morals Versus Art: Censorship,
The Politics of Interpretation and the Victorian Nude'
by Nicola Beisel in 58 American Sociological Review
(1993) 145-162, 'The White Man's Burden: Gonzo Pornography
And The Construction Of Black Masculinity' by Carol Dines
in 18 Yale Journal of Law & Feminism (2006)
283-196, 'Reviving Lolita: A Media Literacy Examination
of Sexual Portrayals of Girls in Fashion Advertising'
by Debra Merskin, in 48(1) American Behavioral Scientist
The Serrano incident in Australia is covered in Melissa
Beauford's brief 'Court report' in 4 Art & Law
(1997) 7-9 and in the cogent 'Pell v Council of Trustees
of the National Gallery of Victoria: Should Blasphemy
be a Crime? The 'Piss Christ' Case and Freedom of Expression'
by Bede Harris in 22 Melbourne University Law Review
For broader studies of photography see Photography
and Its Critics: A Cultural History, 1839-1900 (Cambridge:
Cambridge Uni Press 1997) by Mary Marien, On Photography
(London: Allen Lane 1977) by Susan Sontag, The Nude
in Photography (Chicago: Ridge Press 1975) by Arthur
Goldsmith, Art and Outrage: Provocation, Controversy
and the Visual Arts (London: Pluto Press 1998) by
John Walker, 'Obscenity in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'
by Shayana Kadidal in 44 American Journal of Comparative
Law (1996) 353-382, Hard to Imagine: Gay Male
Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings
to Stonewall (New York: Columbia Uni Press 1996)
by Tom Waugh, The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality
and Art in the last 100 Years in the West (London:
Routledge 1986) by Emmanuel Cooper, Outlaw Representation:
Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American
Art (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 2002) by Richard Meyer
and other works highlighted here.
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