FOR the contemporary photographic artist, freely creating and exhibiting work is in danger of becoming a thing of the past. In recent years there have been many public outcries over images produced by Australian photographers. This, in combination with new laws that prohibit photographers from shooting freely in public spaces, has had devastating effects on all forms of photographic practice. Censorship prevails, not only through policy, the media and institutions, but more significantly from artists themselves.
From my personal experience as a photographic artist, and from conversing with many diverse Australian photographers, the most common change in the creation of art now is self-censorship. This submission is a widespread tactic, irrespective of the mode of photography.
Photographic artists already feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility to ensure their work is not misinterpreted and that the medium is not further vilified. The significant public criticism of photographers in recent years has led to the crushing of artists’ confidence and a fear of acting suspiciously or feeling ”dirty” for photographing their experience of life.
Uncontroversial subjects such as architecture, landscape and street scenes are increasingly difficult for artists to capture due to laws prohibiting photographers shooting in public without a permit, placing the artist under the same jurisdiction as the commercial photographer. Such regulations are unnecessary as there are already laws that prohibit photographers from misusing a person’s image or private property. A lack of general knowledge or available resources that explain the laws regulating photographers is generating a public paranoia.
Most artists I have spoken to experience direct hostility from the public about having their property or person photographed, leaving artists fearful of litigation and aggressive encounters due to misunderstandings of what constitutes ”credible photographic interest” and the right to be photographed. The danger of post-September 11 anti-terrorist campaigns inciting fear and giving the public and police authority to deem what is appropriate artistic behaviour ignores the problem that the public is unlikely to understand the motivations of the artist and will be judging them under the same conditions as a commercial or tourist photographer.
Particular topics that attract the ”critical hysteria” of politicians, the press and the public, are now ignored by artists due to the hassle and harmful association, which may threaten to damage their careers, or be a complete waste of time and resources if their works never see the light of day. The negative ramifications and struggle for permission to exhibit the images are quite clear to the artist. Is it not more damaging to our society that these subjects are not represented at all than it is to manage the possible minimal risks for the subject?
Another major problem for photographic artists is that they are considered morally and ethically responsible and liable for their image making, which is pretty intimidating when images can be so easily misunderstood and taken out of context. Photographic artists are keenly aware that controlling the context of their work is necessary, but the explosion of available photographic devices and the ease of spreading images through the internet makes controlling context nearly impossible.
The same accountability is not placed on artists using other media covering similar subjects due to photography’s close reflection of reality.
The academic path has become a basic requirement for artists trying to establish and continue their practice. However, even here, ethics committees, postgraduate supervisors or local government bureaucrats discourage photographic artists from exploring tricky subjects such as children, the indigenous or the sexualisation of women.
How do we as a society learn, see contradictions, understand, and empathise with subjects and reflect on ourselves, if they’re not represented or discussed? Will the resulting censored artwork be uninteresting, unchallenging, or so abstract and theoretical as to be rendered unapproachable for a wider audience?
Linsey Gosper is a photographer and manager of the Colour Factory Gallery in Fitzroy.