Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Exclusive interview with "Virgin Killer" photographer

The row over the blocking (in the UK) of Wikipedia over its use of a controversial 32 year old album cover a few weeks ago reached a pragmatic end when the "independent" Internet Watch Foundation reversed its decision. The issues the affair raised were, however, largely left unresolved. The IWF maintained its view that the image of a naked child was, at least, a "potentially illegal indecent image". The incident threw a spotlight on the hitherto little-noticed role of the body which, while informally constituted and technically merely advisory, in practice censors the web. This, too, remains unresolved; although fears that the IWF might be extending its remit to cover the new offence of possessing "extreme" porn seem, at least for the moment, to have been misplaced.

The whole question of what constitutes indecency remains fraught and, culturally as well as legally, something of a minefield. My own ruminations on the subject caught the eye of Michael von Gimbut, who took the now infamous shot for the Scorpions' album "Virgin Killer": he was kind enough to offer thanks for what he called my "wonderful arguments". Gimbut is still practising as a photographer in Berlin three decades later. I took the opportunity to ask him to share his reflections on the incident.

Heresiarch: I have read conflicting accounts about how the image was received at the time. From your memory, was it extremely controversial?

Michael von Gimbut: There were no conflicts in Germany at the time of the shooting. No problem in Japan as well, where it was extremely successful, in several countries the LP was sold in a black plastic bag.

Heresiarch: Do you think that there are cultural differences between Germany and English-speaking countries with regard to nudity? Would a picture of a naked child automatically lead to fears of pornography and paedophilia, in the way that they do in my country? What changes of attitude have there been in Germany since you took the photograph?

MVG: More and more there are hardly any differences between Germany and the UK in regard to nudity. This is probably different in the USA. A survey in the German newspater Die Welt showed 27% of the readers thought the Virgin Killer picture to be pornographic, more than 70% found the discussion to be rather ridiculous.

Heresiarch: Some people who dislike the album cover believe that the expression on the girl's face was sexual or erotic. The law criminalises "erotic posing" - and the Internet Watch was advised that your picture fell within that category. Do you agree that the picture had an "erotic" aspect - and if so, was that deliberate or accidental? Do you remember why you chose that particular shot?

MVG: During the shooting I never told the girl what to do. To achieve my goal, perfect innocence, immaculateness in nudity and youth, any "erotic posing" would have been counterproductive. I do not see anything erotic in the way the girl looks directly into the eyes of the onlooker. But of course I know there are people who even think pictures of cars or horses are erotic. And yes, pedophilia does exist, but is this the way to to grapple with?

Heresiarch: Has the recent controversy taught you anything you didn't know about attitudes towards children and sexuality? Were you shocked or surprised by the attitude of Internet Watch, or the similar controversy earlier this year in the United States?

MVG: My attitudes have not changed, but I am surprised and concerned that the law finds it difficult to differentiate between innocent and abusive pictures. Perhaps there is a need for this discussion, but I hope that there are more responsible persons involved.

Heresiarch: Do you consider that you have either suffered or benefited professionally from controversy arising from the "Scorpions" cover during the past 30 years?

MVG: I have neither suffered nor benefited from the controversy, actually nobody has even asked. Very likely it was different with the Scorpions. From the beginning they always knew what was happening and did not mind a little bit of extra promotion. Nobody had to persuade them. They benefited from the controversy, and started to dissociate from it when the time seemed right for them.

(Michael von Gimbut's website, which contains an extensive gallery of his work, is here.)

Von Gimbut's point about Japan I found particularly interesting. Süddeutsche Zeitung quoted the album's original art director Steffan Böhle as saying that the Japanese authorities would have had more problem if the cover had featured a naked adult. There is, perhaps, something a little uncomfortable, from a Western point of view, about the Japanese cult of the shojo (tweenage girl) as seen most innocently in the Anime work of Hayao Miyazaki and more questionably in some Hentai erotica. And Japan's own censorship rules, which focus almost exclusively on pubic hair, are peculiar in their own way. But the Japanese are surely right to regard adult nudity as inherently erotic in a sense that that of a prepubescent child is not. To take a neutral picture of a child and to read sexuality into it - even for the purpose of child-protection - is in a real sense to think like a paedophile. And if you start going down that road you'll end up by banning Disney.

2 comments:

Wasp_Box said...

I think you hit the nail on the head in the last couple of lines.

While I was reading this I was thinking that only someone with a pornographic mind could find this picture pornographic. It smells to me of "think of the children" and all the associated bullshit that is linked to this ridiculous CRB culture.

Anyway, excellent blog as usual.

Have an enjoyable Christmas.

Adelle Shea said...

Nudity is NOT pornography, regardless of age. Sexual content is required. Just because someone, somewhere, sometime now or in the future might be sexually aroused by a picture is NOT cause to ban or censor it. Just for the record, this ‘poor, abused innocent’ is now over forty. Wonder what she thinks, not that it matters. “The Law is the Law.” (Judge Dread) If we keep going, no depiction of anyone under 18 will be allowed in any media (print, photo or video). What a not-so-brave new world.