Q&A: Censorship (round one)



Following on from Alasdair Foster’s interview with Armani Nimerawi on the subject of censorship, CDC asked artists and colleagues around the world three questions:

  1. Have you ever been censored?
  2. Can you give an example of justified censorship?
  3. If you ruled the world… how would the issues that lead to censorship be addressed?

In each case, restrictions because of issues of national security or incitement to hatred were excluded from the frame of the questions. The responses, which are many and various, will be published on this site over the coming weeks.

Here, in the first round of answers, are ideas and experiences from New Zealand, Mexico and the USA



Stephen Mayes

Stephen Mayes is Managing Director of VII Photo collective and has been secretary of World Press Photo competition since 2004. He has worked with photography, art and journalism for 25 years, and writes and broadcasts regularly on the ethics and realities of photographic practice. His previous roles include Creative Director at Getty Images, Photonica and Eyestorm.com, and CEO of Network Photographers London, Amana New York and the Art + Commerce Image Archive.

Have you ever been censored?

I have two examples of actual censorship that occurred in 1993 and which still amaze me.  I produced a photographic project on the subject of HIV and AIDS in UK at a time when the subject was very charged politically and socially.  Amongst the studies of grief and loss, religious responses, sex and other subjects I included a chapter called “Another View” that featured the views of extremely unsympathetic public figures.  “How long are we going to support spurious AIDS charities for those who brought this awful curse upon themselves?” and other similar positions.  Each statement had been made publicly and we quoted them with a portrait of the commentator.  It was factually correct and there was no editorial spin given to the presentation, but one of the protagonists decided that putting his words in the context of the wider project was effectively defamatory because it made him look bad.  He came at me with legal force that I was in no position to defend and I pulled the chapter from the exhibition.

In the same project, the cover of the book featured a picture of John, a young gay man, in his hospital bed with his partner cuddled next to him.  On either side of the bed sat John’s parents in a warm and gratifying family scene.  They all signed model releases.  John subsequently died and the parents appealed to me to withdraw the image because they had suffered violent attacks on their home.  As they were John’s next of kin I felt compelled to comply.  Immediately Michael, John’s partner, called me in a frustrated rage accusing me of homophobia: “If we’d been straight we’d be married and I’d be the next of kin – this is discriminatory.”  Moreover he pointed out that John had deliberately chosen to put himself out there as a face of the epidemic precisely because of the social responses that plagued his parents.  I relented and reinserted the image

Can you give an example of justified censorship?

The media routinely censors the identities of its sources on the principle that important information would not be revealed if the sources feared reprisal.  On balance, it must be acknowledged that there is a greater public good in having sensitive information made public than in adhering to the strictest observance of non-censorship.  It follows that the reader/viewer must decide if they trust the integrity of the media they consume.

If you ruled the world… 

The issues of censorship might be resolving themselves organically as the Internet develops to become our dominant cultural platform, but it’s too early to tell.  Some years ago Lawrence Lessig observed that the Internet has all the potential to unleash unencumbered communication; however it also has the potential to become an extension of state and corporate control, which we see very obviously in China for example.  But our information in the West is already subject to the insidious control of the filters imposed by the dominant online curators: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple, etc.

If I ruled the world I would prioritise the development of de-filtering technologies.  The result would be a cacophony of information and simultaneously the opportunity for assiduous readers to establish a reliable framework of deep information.  The shift in thinking must be to move away from the idea that information is controlled by others and instead to accept our individual responsibility to research and validate the information we need.



Julia Durkin

Julia Durkin is the Director of the Auckland Festival of Photography (AFP) in New Zealand. This is New Zealand’s largest photographic event and presents around 80 exhibitions every year. Under the banner of ‘culture, identity, art and participation’ AFP encourages active involvement. Its programs seamlessly weave work by the country’s leading photo-artists with imagery created by the community, including Auckland Photo Day in which everyone is invited to photograph the city in 24 hours.

Have you ever been censored?

Yes, in varying degrees, many times. Censorship of words or images or ideology happen all the time through the way we communicate and how we choose not to use certain images or words or ideas in order not to offend, in order to appease.

If an actual example is needed, I photographed a boy in Auckland in 2005 at the Diwali Festival in the central square; he was playing with his mates on a public art work holding a toy gun. At the moment he took aim in play whilst atop the highest point of the statue, I snapped him. This image is very provocative in its framing of an Indian child with a toy gun (though it looks pretty real) situated within an anonymous location; he could be any young hood in any city in the world. As part of the Auckland Festival of Photography in 06 I tried to use this image on a bus shelter advert for our annual public competition Auckland Photo Day, using the copy “Get Ready to Shoot”. The company who manage the advertising on bus shelters refused to show it. They considered they would get complaints and feared vandalism of the shelters.

Can you give an example of justified censorship?

I guess the Films, Video and Publications Act here in NZ handles the justification for censorship of things. The test in this Act is whether this book, film, image or publication does “harm” or is it “injurious to the public good”. In relation to justified censorship in the arts, perhaps it is justified for bad art or bad films or boring books?

It’s such a huge arena that it’s impossible to give a single example. It is so subjective. I don’t really support censorship in the arts so…

If you ruled the world…

Education and debate are the keys here. How about initiating a worldwide competition for the most offensive work of art and see what happens? Or is that happening under another name somewhere in the world already?

Issues that cause censorship are different in each country, but usually can be put into three categories: religious belief, sexual practice and extreme violence. These issues are not easily resolved. How do you expose and exploit those subjects in art without causing offense to one or another sector of society? So, if I ruled the world it would be compulsory to be an atheist that loved peace and practiced celibacy…

OK that’s been done too. Hmm…

…If I ruled the world I give this job to someone else!



Pedro Meyer

Mexican artist Pedro Meyer is one of the pioneers and doyens of digital photography. He was the founder and president of the Mexican Council of Photography and later established the influential website ZoneZero. In 2007 he created the Pedro Meyer Foundation to support research and interpretation of the image within the context of digital technologies. In August 2012 the Foundation will open Fotomuseo 4 Caminos, anticipated to be Latin America’s largest museum of photography.

Have you ever been censored?

Not much!!!

Of course, no-one who does anything in public life can say that they have not been censored at one time or another. I have been censored all my life, how can it be otherwise if you are very active. As an example, the worldwide retrospective of my work in 2008 was called ‘Heresies’ for the very reason that, from day one, my championing of digital technologies brought negative opinions from many with more traditional tastes. And, again, the exhibition itself was, in various instances, censored in terms of what images were selected in each location; the National Art Museum of China, for instance, decided not to include any of my nudes.

Can you give an example of justified censorship?

‘Censorship’ is a very loaded word to begin with. What is censorship to one person is a defence of interests from the perspective of another. It is seldom a clear cut issue. And don’t we need to add self-censorship in here somewhere?

I also think that all too often people use censorship issues to portray themselves in the role of the ‘victim’ and so gain unwarranted attention. It is important to be wary of those who adopt the ‘victim role’ in order to elevate their work beyond its due in the name of ‘free speech’.  And, of course, censorship and free speech issues are being exploited in just the same way by both political sides – right and left.

But, when it comes to the internet, censorship makes no sense when you have a mouse in your hand or fingers on the screen of the iPad, because in this case you just ignore it and move on to find what you need elsewhere online. That said, I do believe that bullying, whether online or by other means, should never be accepted.

I must confess to having censored my son’s perception of reality until he was 10, by endorsing the existence of Santa Claus; and until he was 11, of the existence of a nocturnal mouse* that purchased his teeth as they fell out if he hid them beneath his pillow.

If you ruled the world… how would the issues that lead to censorship be addressed?

I would select a committee of seven women and two men to decide on such matters.  Eleven so they can vote easily and there can be a majority; and a majority of women because they have a better sensibility than men in such matters. However, men must also be represented, so two would cover that need.  Their debates should be open and transparent, and live on the internet. But their voting should be in secret so that no one would know who finally voted for what, following their public debate.

* The Mexican equivalent of the Tooth Fairy
[text revised by author 07 May 2012]


John & Michael’ © Gideon Mendel
‘Boy with Gun’ © Julia Durkin
Cover of the Spanish language version of Pedro Meyer’s book ‘Herejias’ (Heresies) [Lunwerg Editores, 2008]


The lead article for this short season on censorship is ‘On Liberty and Censorship’, an interview by Armani Nimerawi with Alasdair Foster, sections of which were published in Capture magazine in May 2012.
You may also be interested Helen Grace’s 2004 interview with Alasdair Foster for ArtLink magazine, in which they discussed ‘Staring in the Dark’, an exhibition about artists who engage pornography.
Also related to this theme is the article written for The Bakery Art Centre in Perth: ‘Normality is not a Virtue’


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  • The majority of the texts on this site are by Alasdair Foster and represent his opinions. However, in order to facilitate a useful diversity of views, some texts have been invited from artists and colleagues around the world, while others appear as independent comments. These opinions and comments are not necessarily those of Alasdair Foster or Cultural Development Consulting (CDC). All data and information on this site is provided on an as-is basis. While every effort is made to be as thorough as possible, neither Alasdair Foster nor CDC make representations as to accuracy, completeness, currency, suitability or validity of any information on this site and will not be liable for any errors, omissions or delays in this information or any losses, injuries or damages arising from its display or use.
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