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A picture of prudishness

A college disciplinary case over a lecturer showing students some edgy photographs reveals how fear of offence trumps academic freedom today.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Free Speech

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Subcultures, seedy underworlds and eccentric communities have provided many a photographer’s muse since the invention of the medium in the 1830s. Perhaps the most graphic illustration of photographers’ fascination with marginal individuals is the work of Del LaGrace Volcano, a self-ascribed ‘part-time gender terrorist’ who explores the life and sexuality of transgender people. Now, Volcano has become the inadvertent source of controversy at a college in Surrey, England.

Simon Burgess, a former student of Volcano’s and a photography lecturer at East Surrey College, is due to appear at a disciplinary hearing after introducing Volcano’s work to second-year students on a higher national diploma course in digital photography.

According to an email currently circulating the web from Dr Eugenie Shinkle, a senior lecturer in photography at the University of Westminster, the East Surrey College management has deemed Volcano’s racy, sexually graphic images inappropriate. For Shinkle, ‘apart from being censorious, backward and homophobic, [the] management’s stance displays a remarkable ignorance of contemporary debates and image-making strategies’.

As no one at the college was available for comment yesterday, spiked cannot confirm the exact details of its accusations. However, elsewhere the management has confirmed that a ‘thorough internal investigation’ is underway following a complaint from a student (1). Burgess has also refused to comment on the action ahead of the proceedings, which, according to the British Journal of Photography, were prompted by one or a number of students complaining about being shown ‘pornographic material’ (2). As Shinkle explained in an email to spiked, Burgess’ union representative has advised Burgess and his supporters not to speak to the press about any aspect of his case until the hearing has taken place. According to Shinkle, if the complaints are upheld, Burgess could face the sack.

So the details around the case are not clear. But if the allegations really centre on Burgess simply showing a photography student the work of a recognised artist, and that student finding the images offensive, the college’s recourse – submitting one of its staff members to a degrading disciplinary hearing – is rather perverse. Surely, such a matter could be resolved internally, through a simple chat with the individuals concerned?

Volcano, as well as some 200 academics, have rushed to Burgess’ defence, posting messages of support online. Volcano said: ‘I am asking for a favour. A man who used to attend my lectures as a photography student is being threatened with redundancy because he recommended my work to a student doing a project on gender and sexuality. If you value the work I and others like me have done over the past 25 years please stand up and say so!’ (3)

Regardless of what you make of Volcano’s work, which is currently on display at the Glasgow Museum of Contemporary Art and has been shown at such seats of high culture as London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the censorious reaction of the East Surrey College management to the complaint of a prudish student should worry anyone who values the open exploration of ideas in art and in higher education.

After all, if any potentially offensive material was to be erased from photography courses, lecturers would be left with nothing to teach. Perhaps such photographic masters as Brassaï whose The Secret Paris of the 30’s is full of prostitutes, pimps and lesbians in drag should be omitted from photography syllabuses, too? And why not erase American photographer Diane Arbus’ ‘freaks’, including nudists and transvestites, from the photographic canon? Perhaps the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, who is known for his stylised homoerotic photographs, should be banned from college libraries? It is also conceivable that students could take offence at British photographer Martin Parr’s satirical portrayals of the tastes and habits of the middle classes. Others could be unsettled by Magnum founder Robert Capa’s documentation of the Spanish Civil War, and some may find Henryk Ross’ images from the Warsaw Ghetto too upsetting. Should colleges be allowed to ban lecturers from showing these photographs, too?

For nearly two centuries, photographers have captured, documented and expressed human experiences and so, inevitably, their images are sometimes unflattering, hard to look at, difficult to understand or objectionable. But how are students of photography to judge what is good, bad or ugly if a few sensitive souls are allowed to dictate what their teachers should or should not show them?

Considering that East Surrey College claims to cater for people who are looking to enter university or the world of work (4), they really should be encouraging their students to engage in adult conversations about their chosen fields of study. But instead of encouraging a dialogue between Burgess and his disgruntled student, so that the misunderstanding could be resolved in a civil and adult manner, the college management chose to drag one of its lecturers to a disciplinary hearing.

Whether or not Volcano’s work is radical, empowering, tasteless or glorified pornography is – our at least ought to be – debatable. Conversely, the East Surrey College management’s handling of this situation is undoubtedly in bad taste. The assumption that there is something necessarily salacious about a lecturer suggesting a young photography student look at controversial images (which anyone can access easily on the photographer’s website (5)) reveals the college managers’ own perverse mindsets.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild argued against the Baltic gallery’s ban on Nan Goldin’s ‘Klara and Edda’. She thought a film about Diane Arbus flattered the photographer of ‘freaks’. Elsewhere, she tried to make sense of the controversy surrounding a portrait of teen star Miley Cyrus by Annie Leibowitz, who, as a documentary has shown, is more than a celebrity snapper. Or read more at spiked issues Modern life and Free speech.

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(1) Redhill lecturer in storm over work of ‘gender terrorist, Surrey Mirror, 14 August 2009

(2) Photography lecturer faces discipline, 10 August 2009

(3) Photography lecturer faces discipline, 10 August 2009

(4) See the About the College section of the East Surrey College website.

(5) See De Lagrace Volcano’s website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech

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