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Crossing the Fine Line: The Case of Concetta Petrillo

Photography has inspired more hysteria and censorship than paintings .... examines the situation in Perth Western Australia with child pornography and the photographs of Concetta Petrillo.

Author: Allison Archer | Feature

Photography has inspired more hysteria and censorship than paintings in Perth over the last few years. In June 1995 the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective opened at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. When this exhibition toured the eastern states of Australia only three complaints were received, prompting the curator, Germano Celant, to comment that "Australian audiences had more vision and were less conservative than their American counterparts."(1) Perth was not quite so congenial, with the debate of the moral validity of Mapplethorpe's photographs gaining publicity months before the exhibition opened, followed by several letters to the local newspaper, The West Australian, once the exhibition commenced.

Twelve months later, several Perth citizens were again outraged, this time at the photograph of a naked John Lennon, curled in a foetal position around a fully clothed Yoko Ono, that was used to promote the Annie Leibovitz exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

In 1995 another artist offended a member of the Perth public to such an extent that the police were summoned, and the photographer, Perth based artist Connie Petrillo, was charged with indecently recording a child under the age of thirteen years. Her charge of child pornography came at a time when moral censorship of art was a publicly debated issue in Perth, and this may have prompted the over-reaction to her photographs by the police and photographic laboratory that developed her films.(2)

Allegations of indecently recording a child are a very serious issue and, when the art world becomes involved, the fine line dividing artistic freedom of expression from indecency or pornography becomes very faint and easily crossed in the eyes of the law or the ever vigilant public. In the arts the moral censors are usually firstly the artist, followed by the curator or the gallery in which the work in question is displayed. If the public find it distasteful, they can alert the local police. It is then left to the police to make a moral judgement, usually without any artistic knowledge or background. In this case however, the first outsider to see the material was the photographic laboratory, who viewed the work out of context from its aims, seeing only the raw material for the proposed finished artworks.(3)

Perth is not alone in having unreasonable, and often illogical, reactions to photographs of nude children and allegations of child pornography. During the mid 1990s to the present, Britain and the United States of America has had several cases that have inflamed the debate of what constitutes child pornography. The strangest is "Knox versus United States" in which Stephen Knox was found to have a video that went on to be classified as pornographic. This case set a legal precedent because the children were fully clothed and not involved in any explicit or implicit sexual conduct. However, the tapes were obviously made for pornographic purposes, by a company called Nather, as their titles and marketing descriptions reveal.(4) As in most pornography cases, it is the images that stand accused, rather than their misuse and the practices that structure the meanings of images.(5)

The debate about what constitutes child pornography also centres around the issue of child sexuality and the presumption of childhood innocence equating to a lack of sexuality. Today's society has heralded childhood as the last bastion of innocence and purity, and as such it must be protected at all costs, often resulting in over reactions to artworks. Well known examples that have raised these issues range from Robert Mapplethorpe's 1976 photograph of Rosie, which became as controversial as his homoerotic images, to Sally Mann's photographs of twelve year old girls and naked studies of her own children, and Jock Sturge's photographs documenting a nudist family. Yet when Edward Weston photographed his son Neil in 1925, in a series of nude still life images, they were heralded as photographic masterpieces. Today they would be classified as pornographic by those who live in fear of trespassers into the sanctity of childhood.

Connie Petrillo's case went to trial. Her nightmare commenced in early 1995 when she started an art assignment, in which she hoped to combine her two major study areas, painting and photography, as a mature age student at Edith Cowan University in Perth. She had recently just given birth to her fourth son, and became inspired to include her children in a major art assignment. She photographed three of her sons, then aged eleven, nine and five, in nude poses from famous paintings.(6) She planned that a more complete set of photographs would be bound into a book that she could give to her sons as a keepsake from their childhood. After collecting the images from the photographic laboratory she was followed by an unmarked police car as she drove to her father's house, where she was to collect one of her sons. They pulled into the driveway behind her, and discretely searched her car under the pretext of helping with a nonfunctional tail light. After the photographs were discovered she was driven to an unmarked building in West Perth where she was extensively questioned for three hours then taken home. She was not permitted to telephone her family, who had by this stage reported her as being abducted.
She was charged a few days later, on 14 April 1995, with indecently recording a child under the age of thirteen years. Local members of the Perth art world were incensed, but believed that the charges would be dropped once it was explained to the magistrate that she was a diligent art student, loving mother and not part of a child pornography ring. This was not to be the case. There then ensued two years of preliminary hearings, at which the prosecution sometimes did not attend, (in effect prolonging the case), seventeen thousand dollars in legal fees, and the personal cost to her family and health. When the case was finally brought to trial, in April 1997, the judge was visibly stunned that the case had proceeded so far. The jury was not so understanding, and after the one and a half day trial took several hours to declare her not guilty. A second charge was finally dropped some four months after her trial.

During the two years awaiting her trial, she worked towards finishing her degree, embarked on a postgraduate degree at the University of Western Australia and held her first solo exhibition, declaring that "I worked better than I've ever worked before, it just made me more determined".(7) She rephotographed her sons and produced a stunning series of photographs, printed onto paper using an early gum bichromate method that softened and diffused the detail out of the images. These photographs were also printed, and painted, directly onto canvas and she replaced their modern suburban backdrops with the backgrounds from various famous paintings, forming a curious dichotomy in which the present embraced the past.

What she did not expect to find was that even after being found not guilty, she would have the ongoing problem of being censored. She, and I were unable to ascertain her current legal standing in regard to what restrictions are to be applied when writing about her case. One would assume that as she was found innocent of one charge and had the other dropped, she would be free to identify herself. Apparently not. Legal advice on this case was not forthcoming, even from her own lawyer and The Arts Law Centre of Australia. We eventually decided to "respect the spirit of the criminal code" under which she was charged, and not release any information that may identify her children.(8) Sadly, whilst these restrictions must be respected, they imply that she was guilty no matter what verdict the jury returned. Most lawyers consulted stated that as there is apparently no legal precedent for this case, they were unable to provide accurate legal advice. Fortunately several people, including a local lawyer, were generous with their time and informed opinions, and advised caution when publishing. The fact that no one was prepared to give concrete legal advice on this case reveals both an ongoing fear of reprisals in this very sensitive area as well as the law itself being unable to provide appropriate guidelines.

When the Perth artist was arrested she was charged under the Criminal Code (section 320, subsection 6) rather than the new Censorship Act that came into effect the following year in October 1996. The new Censorship Act, partially based on the 1959 UK Obscene Publications Act, predictably failed to provide a system of classification for indecency or pornography in the arts. Under this new Act, artists can be fined up to ten thousand dollars, and galleries up to fifty thousand dollars, if the public find their standards of decency being offended. Artists and galleries, if charged, can defend themselves on the twin grounds that their work of art has 'artistic merit' and that the work was 'created for the public good'.(9) The latter is a very tenuous basis for defending an artwork and is presumptuous in assuming that artists have the public good as their primary agenda.
The leading commercial gallery that represents the artist held a fundraising auction for her legal costs in May 1997. It coincided with the opening of her solo exhibition, featuring photographs and paintings based on her experiences since being charged, and a group exhibition titled Censorship. Despite the support of artists and collectors at the auction, the artist found very little assistance from Perth art institutions, including the University where she was enrolled as a student at the time of her arrest, or from people with the power to make a difference. Fortunately there were some exceptions. Local art dealer Brigitte Braun offered her unconditional support throughout the ordeal, accompanied the artist during the trial and alerted many people to the case. Another exception was Professor. David Bromfield who wrote letters of support, was a witness at her trial and promoted her cause in his weekly review column in The West Australian. He astutely pointed out that the current legislation left the police with the power to make decisions as to whether artworks were indecent or obscene, and that they were not necessarily the appropriate members of society to do so. He feared that Western Australia was "slipping back to a fearful oppressive culture of the kind last seen in the '50s, for want of a little political backbone."(10) Whilst there is legislation in place to protect the children, there was nothing to protect the artist, or gallery, from being harassed, intimidated or censored by a small group acting in the 'public good'.

It is shocking that in today's society an artist can be dragged through the courts for two years and accrue enormous legal bills for defending their innocence. Everybody who works in, or with, the visual arts is susceptible to this while the police have the power to prosecute an artist or gallery with a decision based on their own moral standards. We are living in a climate of fear, where images are no longer being judged by their artistic merits, but rather on the desires that they may arouse.