I hadn’t planned to write about the recent court case involving Graham Ovenden but as more and more was revealed I realised that it was essential to much that I have written on this blog.
First let me fully acknowledge that much of the information has been more than adequately covered at Artist on Trial and at Graham Ovenden: Fall from Grace? What I intend to do is place these events in the context of two of the themes of this blog; the childhood culture wars and the naked child in art.
In particular I want to make reference to Suzanne Ost’s Child Pornography and Sexual Grooming (see one, two, three, four, five). In that book Ost takes a close look at how the British justice system looks at the issue of child pornography and child sexual abuse. What she finds is a system driven by moral panic which leads to clear examples of injustice (especially to children).
This is a complex and sensitive subject and to deal with it properly I will break it down into sections and, I apologise, be somewhat repetitive.
1. Vindictive police and a salacious press.
It is important to note that the media’s extensive coverage of paedophilia generally has evoked a powerful public reaction. Child abuse experts have commented that nearly all media coverage of paedophilia is sensationalist and counter-productive.
Or so warns Suzanne Ost, yet despite this warning (I doubt any of the people involved in this case have read her book) the recent Ovenden case was a textbook example of everything Ost suggests is wrong with the British justice system and especially the British press.
According to that bastion of journalistic ethics, The Daily Mail:
[Mr. Ovenden’s] portraiture formed part of a ruse for abusing girls, making them dress in Victorian clothing before removing it and committing indecent acts. Witnesses described how the artist would take his victims into his studio and make them wear Victorian-style clothing, before it was removed. He would also cover their eyes before abusing them, they told the court.
Unfortunately The Guardian fared no better (the Guardian report was repeated in Australian newspapers).
Witnesses in the trial described how Ovenden would take the complainants into his studio before removing the Victorian-style clothing. It was alleged that Ovenden covered the girls’ eyes with tape and tricked them into taking part in oral abuse…. One complainant told the court: “I would then be made to take my clothes off and put on some kind of gown. I would have my eyes stuck down with black tape. We would have to go through this strange ritual.
These allegations have since been spread all over the internet with many people assuming that he was guilty of these bizarre, ‘ritualistic’ offences.
However, as the court transcripts clearly revealed, these charges were in fact dismissed. Despite this, three days later the Daily Mail decided to report on the evidence given by prosecutor Ramsay Quaife (who plays a pivotal role in this farce).
“The defendant would put tape over her eyes,” said Mr Quaife. “She could not see anything. The tape was black, stretchy and smelt of glue. Although she could not see, she could hear the defendant and she could remember the sound of his belt buckle. The defendant would tell her she would do a taste test and would get 10p for every taste she got right. He would then push something into her mouth . . . he told her it was his thumb.” In fact, Ovenden was performing a disgusting indecent assault on the girl. Prosecutor Mr Quaife also described how naked girls with taped eyes were moved into different positions and photographed so that their genitals could be seen.
I repeat. These allegations were not substantiated. Ovenden was instead acquitted of these charges. So why did the Daily Mail report these incidents as if Ovenden were guilty?
But there is another, more sinister point to be made here. Note that the Daily Mail takes the trouble to detail certain acts, thus choosing to titillate the reader with the suggestion that Ovenden put his penis in the girl’s mouth. Are we not entitled to suggest here that the instigator of this ‘pornographic’ and lurid interpretation of events is in fact the prosecutor Ramsay Quaife, with cynical journalists more than eager to indulge in salacious details? Sell more papers anyone?
And who is Ramsay Quaife? Well, he was the prosecutor in the previous attempt to charge Ovenden for possession of indecent images of children, a case that was dismissed in farcical circumstances that were highly embarrassing to Quaife. Might it be that Quaife is engaged in a campaign against Ovenden? And what must Quaife be thinking now, given that it was demonstrated in court that events that he described so luridly never in fact happened? More humiliation?
So what did happen?
Well, as it happens, the two women who testified (JB and LD) were dressed in Victorian-style clothing and did wear blindfolds, but there was no sinister intent. They were in fact posing for a series of commissioned drawings for collector Harry Lunn around the theme of justice
2. A cruel irony
Elsewhere on this blog I have talked about Jungian symbolism, especially in relation to the Anima and Kore archetypes. One of the symbols of this archetype is the goddess Justice (based on the Greek goddess Dike and the Roman version, Justitia). We all know the image of Justice because she appears on court building everywhere in the Western world. In many of these versions she is depicted – wait for it – wearing a blindfold.
As the drawing clearly indicate the girls were dressed as symbolic representations of the young Justice – as the names of the works clearly indicate.
The titles more than clearly indicate that Ovenden had a serious artistic purpose in mind that makes a sophisticated reference to classical mythology. He depicts the girls as Kore and as ‘innocents’ being manipulated.
But manipulated by whom? Clearly in this case, the Mammon of the title would include the British press, who have taken the innocence of these images and made a perverse interpretation in order to sell more newspapers. As for prosecutor Quaife – no doubt just a dumb cop unable to understand such symbolism.
As the court case developed the memories of JB and LD were contradicted, especially LD who provided most of testimony. Photographic evidence was provided that proved the sinister remembrance of the events was mistaken. LD claimed that she had heard the sound of a belt – but Ovenden never wore belts. She claimed their eyes were taped with black electrical tape – it was white cloth. She claimed she was locked in a room alone with Ovenden – the door could not be locked and they were never alone. She claimed they were photographed in explicit poses – yet no such photographs exist. She claimed she had objects placed in their mouths – it didn’t happen.
3. Family feuds and impartiality
There is an interesting aspect to the Ovenden case that was never once reported by the press and that is that a number of women who posed for Ovenden have spoken in support of his character and his art.
In relation to the unsuccessful case brought against him in the US one model said:
The portrait which the United States has charged as indecent is a portrait of me as I was eight years ago. I am not acting in a sexual way in the picture and Graham never asked me to be sexual or treated me as a sexual object. The accusation that the image is ‘obscene’ is, to me, an accusation that I am ‘obscene,’ something to which I take offense.
Another model, Gillian stated:
I was one of Graham Ovendens’ ‘models’. This beautiful man, was a perfect photographer. He was kind and patient, while I sat wearing clothes that I chose. At no time did he touch me in any way. This man is a wonderful artist and human being. Any allegations should be taken off this site. If any abuse has taken place; then the accuser should take this to the correct authority – the police…If I was ever naked and a photograph was taken, I knew what was happening and was free; not sexualised in any way. I wish Graham a happy, healthy, carefree life (here)
During his career Ovenden has worked with many child models. If he did, as the press reported, use his art as a pretext to abuse girls, why did this recent court case fail to find one instance where Ovenden had abused his models? And why have some of them come forward to defend him?
As anyone who has studied paedophilia and child abuse knows it generally falls into two categories: serious, serial abuse by a paedophile and opportunistic abuse by a normal adult. If Ovenden were a paedophile as prosecutor Quaife declared, then we would expect to see multiple victims and a pattern of abuse. Running parallel to this case and contributing to the moral panic in England is the case of the entertainer Jimmy Saville, which does fit the pattern: multiple victims over an extended period of time, all fitting a clear pattern.
However, in this case here’s what actually happened.
The prosecution claimed that Ovenden had sexually abused a total of four girls.
Two of the girls testified that Ovenden never touched them (thus causing the prosecution considerable embarrassment – sounds of panic as case collapses).
The most serious accusations involving the two other girls and ritualistic blindfolding were dismissed.
Ovenden was found guilty of two offences against just one girl on two quite separate instances unrelated to her acting as a model.
So, let me repeat. Ovenden is accused of using modeling as a ruse to abuse girls but the prosecution is unable to prove even one instance; four girls are called to testify, but he is only charged with offences against just one of the girls not related to modeling.
So what was he found guilty of?
That when one of the girls (JB – who had also accused him of abusing her in the ‘blindfold’ incident) was 6, he got into a bath that she was sharing with another girl and asked her to wash his ‘John Thomas’ – years later she recalled that he had an erection. She did not testify that she touched him, only that he asked her to.
That when she was 10, he grabbed her around the chest when she was ‘fully clothed’ and said, “come on let’s have a feel.”
That’s it. That’s what Ovenden was found guilty of. He has photographed numerous girls and produced numerous portraits of girls, and after three arrests and two court cases (in the UK), that’s it.
However, it does not finish there. Ovenden has strenuously denied that these events ever happened and an appeal has been lodged (apparently new witnesses have come forward who contradict JB’s testimony).
This deserves a closer analysis because there is something amiss here.
So first a bit of background. The incidents for which Ovenden was found guilty happened some 30 years ago when JB, the daughter of one of the members of Ovenden’s circle known as the Brotherhood of Ruralists, frequented Ovenden’s house, Bartley Splatt. As such she became good friends with Ovenden’s children, especially his son Ned, going on to marry Ned’s best friend. Unfortunately, as I understand it, there are allegations of a bitter family dispute and of Ned pressuring friends and family to testify against his father.
It seems that the larger circle is split between two groups: friends and former models who support Ovenden and those who support Ned (with a group caught between). The allegations of abuse have come from the latter, which means we must question motives.
So, is JB impartial? It would seem that the jury did not hear of this detail, otherwise, given the other circumstances of the case, how could they have found Ovenden guilty?
And why was the fact that he allegedly grabbed her around the chest when she was fully clothed and, at age 10, did not have tits, even considered an offence? If this was a stand alone allegation it would not have gone to trial.
I think it is important to note here that JB did not testify that he ever touched her sexually, except for the one instance when she was fully dressed. Remember, he is alleged to be a serial paedophile and that the only moderately serious accusation is the bath incident.
One incident with only one girl that happened over 30 years ago that is not related to his art. No serial offending. No multiple victims. Just one girl and one isolated incident.
JB’s unreliable memory was further tested when the defence produced a photo taken by Ovenden of her naked when she was 11, a year after the ‘lets have a feel’ incident. The court heard that she asked Ovenden to take the photo and furthermore, that it was published in his monograph States of Grace. She claimed that she did not remember the photo or sitting for Ovenden. But how could she forget such an event?
This is the photo, described as “JB posing unabashedly naked, hip cocked, arm behind her head”. As can clearly be seen at age 11 she was in the early stages of puberty and had minimal breast development. A year earlier she would have had no breast development and therefore no ‘tits’ for Ovenden to feel.
4. New rules for photographers
If this were not disturbing enough, Ovenden was found guilty of three charges of producing an indecent image. These charges were not part of the original brief but were introduced during the trial and only after two of the four women declined to accuse Ovenden of any form of sexual abuse.
This sounds like a prosecution attempting to prop up a case that was rapidly collapsing. It seems they were determined to get Ovenden, for something, anything.
The circumstances in which he was found guilty ought to frighten any photographer, artist or writer. Why? Because he was found guilty for images that he had never printed, let alone published.
All of this goes back to two previous, ‘failed’ attempts to get Ovenden for producing child porn.
In 1993 officers from the Obscene Publications Squad raided Ovenden’s house claiming to have smashed a child porn ring. This was high farce. No charges were ever laid and all the material was returned. When the material was finally returned it was put in an exhibition called The Obscene Publications Squad Versus Art. Did this embarrass the police? Not half…
In 2009 Ovenden was again charged with producing indecent material. This case was also high farce, eventually being dismissed when two key police witnesses failed to show. Did this embarrass the police? You bet…
Two of the negatives that were taken during both the 1993 and 2009 raids, and which had been returned, were the subject of two of the guilty verdicts.
Now here’s the scary thing.
They were negatives that Ovenden never printed. They were part of a film strip that every photographer would be familiar with. The photographer develops a roll of film and then cuts it into strips for storage. She then makes a proof sheet, which she then uses to select the image she will print.
This is common practice. I have folders of old negatives and proof sheets and most photographers would believe that ‘publishing’ a photo means actually selecting it, printing it and then seeking to display it in some form.
Not in this case. The court case revealed that not only were the ‘obscene’ negatives never printed, the negatives still had water marks (again, something all amateur photographers would understand). This means that Ovenden had never intended that these images be seen by the public. They were simply part of his archive.
It was in fact the police who published these images.
The third image was a draft art work that, again, Ovenden never published.
This would now set a new standard for charges of obscenity. It is now not about publishing or distributing a photo but about taking it in the first place, even if, afterward, you decide not to print it. Might the reason Ovenden chose not to print the negatives be because he thought they were inappropriate? You may ask why he did not destroy the negatives – the fact is that few photographers would.
As Suzanne Ost says in her book, they keep changing the goal posts. She warns:
If popular social discourses focus on the danger of seeing children’s nude bodies in public because of the way such bodies could be viewed by those people who have a sexual interest in children, this becomes the way children’s bodies are viewed generally. The repression of childhood nudity encourages a perception that what is being hidden is something sexual and dirty; what we have constructed as childhood innocence becomes perverted. In other words, this discourse frames the way in which we construe children’s bodies, with the result that children’s naked bodies become sexualized. In such a climate it is imperative that legal discourses differentiate between images of child pornography and images of naked children.
As social constructions of children’s sexualized naked bodies take hold, it is even more disturbing that such constructions could have a harmful effect on children themselves in terms of the way they perceive their own bodies…
To be honest, I don’t expect either the police or the press to be sensitive to these issues. They much prefer blunt moral outrage. It is clear that there is a vendetta against Ovenden run by police who have so far been embarrassed by being unable to prove that he is a sinister, serial paedophile using his art to entrap girls. Instead we have a sordid tale that seems to involved a bitter family dispute. In other words, it seems to be a classic ‘stitch up’.
In any case, an appeal is planned.
Perhaps the final word should go to Ost.
Children are defined, confined, moralized and exploited by adults in this social and legal world. They are constrained and made vulnerable by an unrealistic, dangerous ideal of purity and innocence and sexualised by a taboo we have placed on their naked bodies.
But wait – perhaps the final word should go to one of Ovenden’s images. Isn’t this what he was trying to say in representing girls as the Kore version of Justice?
Update 7/6/13 Graham Ovenden was sentenced to 12 months with a two year suspended sentence. In other words he will not go to jail. This sentence is commensurate with the weakness of the case against him. Ovenden however, maintains his innocence and will appeal to clear his name. Meanwhile the press continues to misreport this case and there has been a public outcry over the leniency of the sentence with the public still believing he was found guilty of abusing all four girls whilst they modeled for him. As I detailed above, this is not the case.