YOU CAN’T SHOW THAT! Photography and the Removal of Images by Miranda Gavin

At a recent group art exhibition, ironically titled Passion for Freedom held at The Mall Galleries in London, I was handed a sealed envelope by one of the organisers of the event. Inside there was a postcard with a photograph from a series of seven photographic light box images ISIS In Sylvania by London-based artist Mimsy that had been removed because they were deemed by the police to have “potentially inflammatory content”. The image shows a group of toy Sylvanian Families in an idyllic country scene having a picnic while a group of armed black-clad Jihadi Sylvanians stand behind them on the brow of a hill.

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Front and back of postcard showing one of the works from ISIS in Sylvania by Mimsy from her work submitted to The Mall Galleries Passion for Freedom show.

The text reads: “Far away, in the land of Sylvania, rabbits, foxes, hedgehogs, mice and all woodland animals have overcome their differences to live in harmonious peace and tranquillity. Until Now… MICE-IS, a fundamentalist Islamic terror group, are threatening to dominate Sylvania, and annihilate every species that does not submit to their hard line version of sharia law.” The police had informed the gallery that if it didn’t remove the work, it would have to pay £36,000 for six days of security for the duration of the show. The gallery responded by taking down the work using a clause in the contract that allowed it to request the removal of an artwork.

It was certainly an ironic response given that the work was part of a group art show espousing freedom and creative expression, which included The Great Wall of Vagina, a nine-metre plaster cast of 400 vaginas by Hove-based artist Jamie McCartney. However, the problem in this case appeared to be one of money and the cost of protection, not necessarily censorship per se. The work was featured in the printed exhibition catalogue and was further disseminated by those involved in organising the event, albeit surreptitiously. Mimsy’s satirical work garnered publicity in the national media and gained perhaps a wider audience than that it would have achieved, but not all censored works receive such attention.

The charge of causing offence is debatable, and context is everything, yet artistic freedom of expression appears, at times, to be hijacked, not by terrorists as such, but by institutional fears. How often does the removal of such images, particularly photographs, which are deemed likely to cause offence, actually occur? It’s not an easy question to answer as unless the removal is newsworthy, few people will be any the wiser. Fear of causing offence to audiences, fear of upsetting funders, and fear of images based around sensitive issues is difficult to track, yet rather than encouraging open debate around such work, some photographs are simply absent, ‘hidden’ or censored.

Photographs may be easier targets for those voicing concern, fears or dismay, because of their verisimilitude, even though the numerous decisions made when taking and producing a photograph, including post-production manipulation, indicate how malleable the medium really is. We understand that a painting or drawing is at a remove from reality, yet when it comes to photography this relationship is often less transparent.

In a recent group art exhibition shown in a private gallery as part of the Coastal Currents 2015 visual arts festival in Hastings, I looked at a body of work Closer taken during the late 1980s and early 1990s in Belfast by former paratrooper Stuart Griffiths who served in Northern Ireland during his teenage years. In the show, which also included drawings and ephemera, there was a close-up photograph of a soldier with the barrel of a gun in his mouth. This photograph was to be included last year in an end-of-project installation Frames of Mind presented by The Craftimation Factory and Recovery Partners at the Towner art gallery in Eastbourne. However, the gallery requested that the creator of the work remove this image, and another of Griffiths dressed as Hitler, a day before the opening.

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Portrait of Stuart Griffiths beside his work by his daughter Lucy Grace Griffiths. Photo by Stuart Griffiths © Stuart Griffiths, 1991. Paratrooper with loaded gun was taken in an armoured ‘Humber Pig’ troop carrier en route to a Nationalist area in West Belfast 1991, while responding to the raising of a state of alert i.e. terrorist activity meant soldiers had to have a round in the chamber. The photograph was used in the exhibition Closer as part the Northern Ireland Archive, curated by Val Williams and two books on army photographs by Griffiths, Pigs’ Disco and Myth of the Airborne Warrior.

One of the concerns, according to a member of the group who had contributed to the creation of the group installation, was that it was felt that the photograph could “trigger” those who had attempted suicide previously, as well as those with latent suicidal tendencies. Given that the work was advertised to be “created by adults with mental health issues, who were encouraged to ‘show the world inside your head’”, the removal of these images seemed particularly ironic. Griffiths could join the army as a 16-year-old and kill and be killed, but as an adult recovering from the trauma of war—he is now involved with Veterans for Peace—these challenging photographs taken in the context of life in the barracks were considered to be too problematic.

That the gun image was considered unsuitable for the audience, particularly children and young people attending workshops and those with mental health difficulties relates to another side of photography’s apparent verisimilitude. It can be seen, as with representations in film, TV and video games, to encourage copycat behaviour. These behavioural effects have been studied and debated by researchers ad nauseam, some of whom believe that there is a direct, causal link between seeing violence in the media and its effect on subsequent behaviour.

However, by simply removing such images the opportunity for considered debate around contentious imagery, in this context the high proportion of mental health issues to be found among former members of the armed forces, as well as the role of acting out and ‘gallows humour’, was scuppered in favour of silence. The message seemed to be: we want you to show us what’s inside your head, but not if it’s too inflammatory.

Are we now going to rush teenage girls past John Everett Millais’ death of Ophelia (1851-2) at Tate Britain just in case someone with mental health issues goes out and drowns themselves? Probably not, as this is a historical painting depicting a heavily romanticized suicide rather than a contemporary ‘realistic’ photographic depiction. A post-Second World War advert for Charles Antell Formula 9 shampoo (1952) used an illustration of a suicidal woman holding a bottle of poison, with a noose around her neck and a gun to her head. The copy in the advert reads: “If my hair looks such a mess one more night, I’ll kill myself!” The idea that anyone would do this over the state of their hair is ridiculous and isn’t taken seriously even though it appeared just seven years after the end of the Second World War. I venture to guess that had this been a photograph, then the reaction may well have differed.

At a time when government funding for visual arts is being cut, arts organisations are, increasingly, seeking private sponsorship and funding while rallying behind the important role of creativity and the arts for “well-being” and mental health. Yet, there is a danger that this notion can become a smokescreen for creative works that become increasingly safe and reliant on conceptual approaches. The presentation of work, particularly documentary photographs, without captions is also a consideration. In many cases words provide a vital context for photographs that are ambiguous when they standalone: would the inclusion of a caption with Griffiths’ photograph explaining the precise context have made a difference?

Galleries have a couple of options with regard to the exhibition of potentially disturbing, offensive or explicit photos. Instead of paternalistic removal, they can display the work with a notice advising that offense may be caused, or suggesting parental or guardian supervision. This was the case at the recent graduate photo show Fresh Faced and Wild Eyed at The Photographers Gallery where a sign, placed at the entrance to one of the main galleries, warned of images of nudity and scenes of a sexually explicit nature. Here the responsibility for looking was handed over to the family, and not solely the gallery.

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LEFT: Warning sign, Fresh Faced and Wild Eyed, The Photographers’ Gallery. Photo by Miranda Gavin © Miranda Gavin, 2015. RIGHT: Charles Antell Formula 9 and shampoo advert (1952). © Charles Antell.

However, in many other cases the audience may never know the story as to why images are removed—if they become aware of the absence at all—because it goes on behind the scenes. This way no one, bar the makers of such images and the gallery, is any the wiser as the decisions are left up to the individual institution, unless someone slips an envelope into your bag explaining why the image has been removed, or addresses the omission in later talks and discussions about the work.

Yet, to have this debate openly and constructively, we need to see the image in the first place. The recent shortlist of four images for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2015 includes a portrait Hector by Anoush Abra of a naked, white baby boy, set against a completely black background. If this portrait wins first prize it will be interesting to see whether it will be shown on the London Underground and in other public places, as is usual with the winning photograph.


Hector by Anoush Abrar ©Anoush Abrar. Shortlisted for Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2015. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

The arguments for the right to freedom of expression versus the right to be protected from offense or harm appear irreconcilable. Surely, what we need now to achieve reconciliation, more than ever, is the freedom to discuss these sensitive issues, the vocabulary to debate them and a desire to understand photography’s specific relationship to visual culture. These arguments need to be examined and discussed, on a case-by-case basis and in respect of their context, so that we don’t conflate the multiplicity of reasons that may lead to the absence or removal of photographs.


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