Last month, a photo of Olympia, a nude five-year-old girl, sparked another controversy in Australia. The picture, ‘Olympia as Beatrice Hatch in Front of White Cliffs', was published in the July edition of the magazine Art Monthly. It had been taken in 2003 by the girl's own mother, Polixeni Papapetrou, who is a professional photographer.
Australia's prime minister, Kevin Rudd, condemned the picture, saying, "Frankly, I can't stand this stuff." The country's opposition leader and other politicians, backed by some child protection lobbyists, also denounced the picture and the photographer. Robert Nelson, an art critic for the Australian daily The Age newspaper and also the father of the nude girl, was astounded by the intensity of the furore. What made him even angrier though was how television stations pixilated the photo.
"Sometimes they pixilated Olympia's face as if to protect her identity. At other times, it was her bottom, and other times there was a great big black square over her front. So there was automatically a kind of criminality imputed to the image, that this image is so dreadful that the public must not be allowed to see it in its nakedness."Courting controversy
According to Professor Nelson, Art Monthly decided to publish the picture because it was "safe". It had been exhibited very widely after it was taken in 2003 and had been published in national magazines. He says:
"To the monthly it seemed that the matter of Bill Henson hadn't really been resolved: the art community needed to inspect itself and consider the weight of the charges against it. It also seemed that in an edition devoted to this subject, it would be inappropriate not to have it illustrated in some way."
Mr Nelson and his wife realised that publishing the picture after the Henson scandal would be controversial,
"but we adopted the position that the image was good enough to be seen in 2003. And if we gave in to this, we would be saying from now on there will be no more pictures of naked children. We would have to take down the baptismal image from the mantelpiece in orthodox families, for instance. We would have to do a purge."Olympia's reaction
Before Professor Nelson and his wife agreed to let Art Monthly publish the picture, they consulted with their daughter. Olympia told them that she loved the photo and wanted it published, even if it did create a backlash. Soon after the magazine appeared, reporters besieged their home, and Nelson felt he had to speak to them. Olympia decided she wanted to join him in addressing the press. She told her father she wanted to make two points: the first was that she liked the picture and the second was that she had been offended by the prime minister's comments. Mr Nelson recalls:
"So she went out and she said exactly that. Incidentally, her sound bites were the really priceless ones that went all over the world. This so-called ‘naked child' berating the Australian prime minister for the narrowness of his mind made international headlines."
The controversy was so intense, believes Professor Nelson, because of growing awareness about paedophilia. He understands people's sensitivities, but he says,
"People need to do their homework, especially if they are national leaders. The first bit of homework is to discover that the overwhelming proportion of sexual crimes against children is perpetrated by people known to the family. These are people who have no need for pictures. And it seems to me that if artists can't provide some kind of leadership in making distinctions about pictures, artists are irrelevant in our community."Mr Nelson also attributes the controversy to
"a moral panic in which we expect ever increasing degrees of control over our lives. And things that we once deemed acceptable suddenly find themselves contravening new standards that have arisen."
Reported by Radio Netherlands and Written By Eric Beauchemin