Photography controversy: 'I hope these photos of my daughter are provocative'

The Spitz gallery in London has shut its exhibition featuring these pictures after complaints, reopening the debate over art, children and pornography. But, as Scotland Yard investigates, should such work be on public display?
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Betsy Schneider Artist

Betsy Schneider, artist

Why are we afraid of nudity in childhood? Why do we accept children being treated in the way we treat them?

In America, and it's true in Britain, we live in fear for our children. We pass on that fear of things such as children going to the park or playing outside.

The question is, are pictures of my naked daughter - an exhibition of which at the Spitz gallery in east London has resulted in its closure and a police investigation - going to make this worse or better? I hope this discussion will make it better.

I want my work to provoke thought. That's what one wants as an artist and I didn't expect the exhibition to be without problems, but I didn't expect it to be this big a deal.

Britain shares many things with America, including attitudes towards children and the body. I live in America but spend the summers in Norway and would have been really shocked if this reaction had happened there because they have a much more balanced idea. They value children more. Their social policies reflect that. And their attitudes towards the body are different, too. They're not as paranoid.

The idea for the work (to photograph my daughter Madeleine twice a day every day from her birth) came to me a week before she was born. I wanted to record what happened. I'm a photographer, I know time is inexorable and I had this idea that this was how I was going to hold on to it.

When Madeleine arrived, there was this physicality that I was so unprepared for and the sense of having complete responsibility for this teeny thing. I wanted to document her, just to record this being growing. I was a practising artist and I thought this was something that hadn't been done before and it had a lot of potential.

First, it was for a year but it kept going. I kept on waiting for her to say: 'I don't want to do this any more.' But it's become an integral part of her life every morning. She gets me out of bed now and wakes me up to do it.

I think there is some tension there, some edge. But I think I'm a good enough mother and there's enough of a discussion to be had about this that it is worth it. This is the first time I've shown this work in any context other than a lecture. I haven't asked her what she thinks, but she helped me roll up the prints. She knew that was why I was coming here. She's quite aware. I like to think it's on the table and open for discussion.

The work reminds me of stages and things I forgot. I'm interested in things she has lost on the floor and the way she holds herself differently some days. It's about movement, time, development and change.

The show was organised and curated independently of the gallery and the opening went without a hitch. But then the people who work next door at the restaurant seemed a little upset. They were talking about it - maybe they didn't even know I was the artist - and they were just going to cover the images up.

I tried to let them know that the police had seen my work before and the child protection teams had decided it was not illegal and not indecent. I had had a student who was arrested and she mentioned in the course of interrogation that she had a teacher who photographed her kids. I was terrified and I didn't know if they were going to put me in jail. But as soon as I talked to the child protection team they said the images were not indecent. And, three months later, in 2001, I had gone to the processors with my daughter to pick up my pictures and I was arrested. Apparently they were overwhelmed by the nature of the images. But I was quite confident that time because I knew the work had been seen by the child protection unit before.

Anyway, I tried to explain to the staff, but there was a lot of confusion. They closed the gallery and put plastic on the windows and they called the police. I guess the police suggested they should take them down.

I was angry, because I was disappointed. I had worked really hard on this. And I have a really hard time with reaction like the NSPCC's. I'm respectful of what they have said, but if I was them, I would be complaining about little girls dressing up like Britney Spears. To me, that stuff is so much more horrifying. But we need to have this discussion and what the issues are.

There are so many issues and to me, this is not an issue compared to these other things. I worry a lot more about the influence of too much TV. Like everything, you've got to make a choice at a certain point. Being an artist puts me in an unusual position. I've decided to use my children because they are the thing with the most meaning for me in my life.

I love getting the pictures back and I love looking at them. I am very proud of the work, it's so connected to who I am and who she is. If my parents or my sisters or certainly my husband had had really strong objections, I perhaps wouldn't do it. But it gives me a certain kind of confidence that they support me in this. It's been going through my head what I'm going to tell her when I get back. I've always been quite open with her but I'm going to have to be very careful.

When I was arrested and she was with me, she asked why they were worried about the pictures and I tried to explain that they were worried she was being hurt. I'll tell her, but I don't want her to feel ashamed.

In time, perhaps, that sense will come and I can't control that, but I don't want it to come in an aggressive way so that she feels she's been betrayed by me and that there's something wrong and something to be terrified of. I don't think that's how children should grow up.

Philip Dodd, ICA: 'This is nothing compared to images on the internet'

The director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts said: "It is interesting that it is artists working with images of children that seem to attract the police's attention at a time when the internet is full of some appalling images of children. The offence caused by this artist, if an offence at all, is nothing when compared to the net, or the trafficking of children across Europe.

"There is no doubt that the internet has provided those who want it with an opportunity to re-circulate images meant for one purpose, for an entirely different purpose. If someone wants an image of a naked child, they do not have to go into an art gallery to find it. They are circulated everywhere. They are in most people's family albums. In contemporary society, most of our anxieties tend to circulate around children. Under these circumstances, art is a space that people are going to want to monitor, but the simple truth is that they are monitoring the wrong thing.

"Art such as this seems to be replicating reality television, people's private lives have become the object of public attention. This can be very powerful but you have to judge each case individually."

Tink Palmer, Barnado's: 'It sparks issues about your children's privacy'

The specialist on child sexual exploitation at Barnardo's said: "If you want to take spontaneous photographs in a home setting of your child growing up and then put it on display in your home, I'm fine with that.

"But when it is on public display, it sparks lots of issues about your own children's privacy. I would not dream of displaying photos of my children in such a public way. Forget the issue of sexual abusers exploiting such images, I think it is an irresponsible way to use images of a child. Parents are supposed to safeguard the privacy and dignity of their children, not use them in a public display.

"I do not think this can solely be an issue about art, it is also about this child's development, which includes her sexual development, and she is pictured naked. While I would not say it is pornography, it is inappropriate and it could do added damage through people coming along who are looking for sexual gratification.

"In a sense, that is the responsibility of the artist. And of course she is not just an artist but a mother who has a duty of care towards her child."

Antony Gormley, artist: 'I would be loath to stand on the side of censorship'

The artist said: "It is difficult to discuss these particular images without having seen them but in general, I think human justice is obviously about protecting the innocent from exploitation but also that artistic motivation has some importance. Artistic freedom has to be balanced against the protection of other people's liberties, particularly those who are vulnerable.

"I believe that artists who spend a long period of time exploring their own vision have the highest possible artistic motivation. I would be very loath to stand on the side of any form of artistic censorship. Artists on the whole do not produce works that are not fulfilling their vision and they do not do things at the expense of other people.

"The idea that other people can film or reproduce images in a gallery is an issue of copyright and it is not the artist's responsibility to make sure the images are not misused. I think everybody knows the difference between work that is made for sexual stimulation and something that might use sexuality in a much more complex way.

"Sexuality has always had a very important part to play in depictions of energy and the body."

Catherine Pepinster, The Tablet: 'The images could be turned into pornography'

The editor of the The Tablet Catholic newspaper said: "An artist's chief concern is with her work's intentions but society has to concern itself with the art's consequences. Betsy Schneider says she wishes to depict time and change in these photographs but with the use of digital cameras and computers, these pictures could be rapidly reproduced on the internet in order to stimulate erotic feeling. We have to consider how we protect the children. Today we are understandably concerned with the protection of children, and this exhibition has fallen victim to that concern.

"Society can have a debate about children's sexuality without dozens of images of naked children on show. I cannot see what the images add to our understanding of children or our appreciation of art. They seem rather banal, but perhaps that is what the artist intended.

"Pornography is in the eye of the beholder, but there is the inevitable fallout of the way people experience images in a gallery. The artist's endeavour does not end when she puts them on display but it continues through people's response of them."

Anna Somers Cocks, 'The Art Newspaper': 'Shame is in the eye of the beholder'

The group editorial director of The Art Newspaper said: "I am reminded of the statement made by Edward III in the Middle Ages, which has become the motto of the Garter Order. A lady's garter fell down and, after helping her with it, his courtiers began whispering, to which he replied 'shame fall on the one who has evil thoughts'. I would think that is very relevant in this instance - shame is in the eye of the beholder.

"Unless children are sitting in graphically sexual poses or deliberately posing in Marilyn Monroe, coquettish poses, it is not pornography. Think of Lewis Carroll, taking endless photos of Alice Liddell. No one thought anything of a grown man doing this but now it always seems to be at the forefront of our minds. We see evil everywhere. Having said that, given that Betsy Schneider lives in the modern age, she cannot have been unaware of the public's likely response when she exhibited these photographs. I would say the photos are perfectly pure but, given the way modern society is sensitised to such images, she may well have anticipated the reaction they have produced."

Martin Stephen, Headteacher: 'An important issue is the consensual element'

The headteacher at Manchester Grammar School said: "I cannot help but make an analogy to the arguments of armament manufacturers who say, 'We simply make the guns; other people choose to use them'. The answer to those who say other people choose to misuse things is, 'Yes, but...'

"It is terrible that images of innocence are now interpreted as images of experience. But it is exceptionally hard for children to be allowed their existence and space in a family situation and I would presume to say that the children of those artists, or anybody else for that matter, who use their children as part of their career, have not had the happiest of childhoods. An important issue is the consensual element on the part of the child, which you obviously cannot obtain from a one-year-old.

"My personal morality is about accepting responsibility for all one's actions, and, as much as I worship art, I don't think any human being can divorce themselves of the consequences of their actions. But the idea of burly policemen invading an art gallery and perhaps confiscating pictures does have an element of the ludicrous."