April 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Child photography vs pornography

By Joe Dolce

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Shaddap you Facebook

One day last December, there was a hard knock on the door. Through the bedroom window I saw two men, dressed in shirts and ties, and a woman. On the doorstep, one man introduced himself as a senior police detective. He politely handed me a search warrant. I looked it over – “Suspected Offence: possession of child pornography. Reason for Search: a reasonable belief exists that material evidence associated with the possession of child pornography will be located during a search of the location.”

They stepped into my home office. Shaking, I called to my partner to come downstairs. We were told a complaint had been made to the Australian Federal Police stating I had uploaded 90 images of child pornography onto my Facebook page in 2011. The AFP had informed Victoria Police, who were now doing due diligence and knocking on my door.

My old account had been deactivated by Facebook in the middle of last year without explanation, despite my sending numerous emails to try to find out why. What on earth did I put online that might have led to this? Pictures of our kids? Had someone hacked into my account? Then it came to me. Back in 2011, I’d uploaded the portfolios of several of my favourite photographers, including a series called Immediate Family, by the acclaimed American artist Sally Mann.

The female officer escorted my partner upstairs and took possession of her laptop. I offered to disconnect my desktop computer but was ordered not to touch it. The senior detective instructed his associate to do it instead. Then they asked me to accompany them to the station to view the offending photos and answer some questions.

Feeling secure in the knowledge that I had never uploaded nor downloaded child pornography, I agreed to go without legal representation. We walked to the police officers’ car, which had been parked discreetly down the street. I told the senior constable that being accused of possessing child pornography could end my career. I wasn’t sure if he knew I had a public profile. Visions came to me of press headlines: “‘Shaddap You Face’ Singer Questioned for Child Porn”. Just the thought of what this might do to my family made my stomach flip.

At the police station, I surrendered my phone, wallet and keys. The senior detective escorted me to a small room and asked me to wait while they fetched the offending photographs. He locked the door behind him. After about 15 minutes, he returned to walk me to another room for a videotaped interview. Two officers sat across from me at a small table. I was handed three folders of images to thumb through. One photo was of a naked woman playing a guitar.

“This is Brigitte Bardot,” I said to the detective.

“I’ll take that one,” he responded with a twinkle of humour.

Another image was of my partner, when she was in her early 20s, lying elegant and naked on a couch. The rest of the photos were, as I suspected, from Sally Mann’s Immediate Family collection.

The senior detective isolated a photo he described as “particularly objectionable”. It was a monochrome shot of a naked baby on a bed, next to a large stain on the sheet. This photo, ‘The Wet Bed’, has been in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art since 1991.

I recounted my limited understanding of Mann’s renown. I explained that the police could google her and readily download every single one of these images from countless photographic sites. I was asked if I believed these photographs were child pornography. I said they most definitely were not. They were child photography – photos that Mann had taken of her own children growing up. Any sexual overtones were a perversion in the mind of the beholder, not what the photographer had intended.

I was advised that further investigation was required and I remained under suspicion of possessing and distributing child pornography. At the conclusion of the interview, I was fingerprinted. I had been fingerprinted once before, in the early ’70s after being arrested for smoking pot. Back then an officer rolled my fingers on an inkpad and pressed them onto a card. Now my hand was pressed to a computer scanner. The detective adjusted my fingertips until the screen confirmed an accurate print.

I was driven home. My partner’s laptop was returned later that day but my computer was retained for forensic examination. The detective explained that what was considered acceptable photography in the US might not necessarily be so in Australia. He added that any information I could provide about Sally Mann’s reputation in the Australian art world might help speed things up.

The next two days I worked hard, using my iPhone, to compile a potted history of Mann’s influence. She exhibited the collection in Sydney in 2001. The University of Melbourne’s library has held her book, Immediate Family, since 1998. Published by Phaidon, the book is distributed by Penguin Australia and appears on its website. I ordered a copy to demonstrate how freely available it is. I borrowed another from the University of Melbourne’s library.

The police duly dropped the matter the following week and my computer was returned. Still rattled, I was moved to revisit the Bill Henson case of 2008, when police closed down an exhibition of his photographs. Commenting on that farce, Alan Leek, a former Cabramatta police commander of 34 years’ standing, and a gallery proprietor for 25 years, told the Sydney Morning Herald:


I am gobsmacked and bitterly disappointed that a police force which is far better than the one I joined all those years ago and far better educated, still fails to see when it has been ambushed by the purse-lipped paragons of public morality, those zealots who can’t separate nudity from sexuality … Let’s face it: most police would not know their Ansel Adams from their elbow.


Which is understandable. Most painters, photographers and writers would not know law enforcement from their elbows. What happened to me was not the fault of police. After the Henson case, there were recommendations to create a body of experts from both sides of this grand divide. The government ignored them. All that is needed are some art-savvy police – people who know the difference between child photography and pornography, between innocence and intent. Otherwise anyone might expect that knock on the door.

Joe Dolce

Joe Dolce is a singer-songwriter, poet and essayist.

Cover: April 2013
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