Monday, August 06, 2012

The invisible vitrine – mid-20thC Central Australian child pornography

Currently engrossed in a research project/article on the Indigenous-white frontier in Central Australia in the mid-20th century, I am digressing to ponder a curious, common sideline to books published about remote Australian Aborigines in the 1950s and 60s – a photograph or two of naked Indigenous children, usually as “colour” only; i.e. apropos of nothing in the narrative.

It is problematic, in several ways, to unpick these images from their face up, art-critic style – unlike, say, nude images of adults from my own time and culture.  So, contra to this post’s title, I have a somewhat open mind as to whether these images should/could be considered child pornography.  Most have an initial winsomeness, a la Anne Geddes but with older children, although the five photos of just-pubescent Indigenous girls in Charles Duguid’s No Dying Race (1963) would, on the Bill Henson test-barometer, almost certainly would be considered child pornography today.

Duguid’s repetition – or gratuitousness – is also a factor here.  Although the five photos from 1963 pale against contemporary reports of child-pornography arrests/convictions that always seem to feature thousands of offending items, it is the collector or assemblage factor that perhaps best indicates the photographer’s/collector’s intent for the image – the more, the pervier, you might say.

My own rule of thumb is that to be considered prima facie “innocent”, images of naked children should be created by, and only circulated among, persons who are related to, or at least know on a prior and ongoing basis, the child-subject.  Images of naked, outback Indigenous children, taken by non-Indigenous photographers for mass/urban non-Indigenous circulation, are therefore intrinsically troubling. 

A corollary here is that Otherness in naked children is too easily used as a shield by the accommodating assumptions of what I’ll term Tourist Art, as opposed to high art.  The 2008 Bill Henson controversy hinged largely on the dividing line between child pornography and high art, but the questionable images I am concerned about actually find apparent refuge at the other end of the spectrum, in the artless family or holiday snapshot.  There is no doubt that comparable images, if of naked white children, would never have been published in such a genre and medium.   Otherness, and perhaps also higher production value, thus takes these Indigenous child-subjects out of the “aw-cute!” everyday, and puts them inside a vitrine – and so potentially, a collection.

The 2007 Northern Territory Intervention explicitly started as anti-child abuse measure; it now seems high time, given its lukewarm results at-best to date, to turn the blowtorch on white Australians by doing a historical audit/round-up of questionable images held for and in our own domain.  Some of the child-subjects (who are almost never named) would still be alive, and even if they aren’t, their descendants and other relatives may well be doubly haunted by these decades-old images of the dead, that are, ironically or not, possibly banned from their own communities under the “No Pornography” rule of the Intervention, but are freely available elsewhere, for a few dollars in a second-hand bookshop.

At the time these images usually were taken (pre-1964), the Northern Territory* child-subjects were wards of wards of the state.  That is, their parents did not have the usual legal rights (or responsibilities) of adults, and in particular, lacked the power to negotiate contracts other than for everyday items (or necessaries).  The Commonwealth government therefore must be presumed to have given its consent to the production and dissemination of these images – the same entity that in 2007 sent in the troops to cleanse the dysfunction out of remote Australia, but still seems blithe to its own role of arguably sowing the seeds for some of this dysfunction in the relatively recent past.

* Presumptive wardship for all “full blood” Northern Territory Aborigines was abolished in 1964.  Some of the questionable images would have been taken in South Australia and Western Australia, where wardship was abolished at different times.  The latter two jurisdictions also had sole control of their Indigenous populations. 

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