David Hamilton was known for his pedophilic photography that some called “art,” but was little more than sexualized imagery of teenage girls. What he produced and encouraged should never have been celebrated, as it enabled Hamilton (and likely many more men) to abuse who knows how many girls, normalizing pedophila and exploitation in the process. Yet he enjoyed fame and success for decades — from the 70s right up until the aughts, releasing two new books in 2006. Due to recent allegations of rape, we may pretend to have learned our lesson, but considering the ever-present popularity of men like Terry Richardson and the ongoing sexualization of young women and girls in the media, it’s clear we are still, as a society, unwilling to make the connections necessary to protect girls and women.
The British photographer was found dead at 83, apparently of suicide, in his home on Friday night. Earlier that week Hamilton threatened to sue for defamation after four women came forward with rape allegations against him.
In a book published last month, La Consolation, Flavie Flament did not name Hamilton, but later confirmed he was the man she wrote about, who raped her during a photo shoot in 1987, while on holiday with her parents in Cap d’Agde in southwest France. The cover of her book featured a picture of her as a young girl taken by him.
After the book was published, Flament said she began to hear from other women, who contacted her, claiming Hamilton raped them as well. Three alleged victims gave almost identical accounts to French media. Flament, a radio presenter, told the media that indeed Hamilton was, “the man who raped me when I was 13, the man who raped many young girls.”
Flament stated that she was afraid to speak out earlier, “because the law as it stands doubly condemns rape victims.” She told L’Obs weekly:
“You go from victim to being guilty of defamation… You don’t sleep but your rapist can sleep soundly.”
Indeed, speaking out against abusive men always puts us at risk, as women. It’s so difficult to “prove” allegations in a system wherein women’s words are not trusted and where it is all too easy for men with money and power to silence women with threats of lawsuits.
One of Hamilton’s victims filed a legal complaint against him back in 1997, but after he denied any wrongdoing, the inquiry was dropped. She told Nouvel Observateur that she considered civil proceedings but was told she would have to pay 30,000 francs as a deposit. “I thought he was too protected that the fight was lost in advance, that it would ruin my life,” she said.
Beyond that, in France, a woman cannot file charges if more than 20 years have passed after the rape. These laws, of course, fail to take into account the realities of trauma and abuse — Flament said the memories of the rape came back to her when she was in her late 30s, and by then it was too late to file charges.
It is no surprise at all that Hamilton has been accused of raping girls, considering his work. He was known for trolling the beach in Cap d’Agde, where Hamilton owned an apartment, for young teen girls. Two of the women who say he raped them as teenagers while on holiday there say they would see him every day “walking up and down the beach in search of models.” He would always be accompanied “by a very young slim blonde girl.”
One of the girls who came forward told Nouvel Observateur that he would send his girls off to find a new “mouse” on the beach. “Mouse”, she explained, was the word Hamilton used to describe girls’ genitals.
He would approach the girls’ parents first, to ask permission to photograph their children. Hamilton was so famous and so widely respected that the parents felt honoured when he chose their children, rather than skeptical.
While today we know more than we did in the past about predators, it’s sad to know how brazenly this man promoted his exploitative behaviour and intentions, only for it to be read as “art” — as “erotic-romantic” images. Hamilton even said he was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.
Perhaps all this would raise eyebrows today, but we nonetheless continue to have similar debates about what is “art” and what is pornography, and continue to stubbornly separate men’s “fantasies” from reality.
Hamilton’s behaviour throws yet another wrench into liberals’ empty claims that pornography is just “fantasy,” and in no way has any bearing on reality. When will we tire of these wrenches, though? How many more rapes, assaults, and abuse will women and girls have to endure before we, as a society, acknowledge that the things men fantasize about are real — that imagery sexualizing and objectifying women and girls is also real, and have real impacts.
For Hamilton’s victims, his photographs have long served as a means to retraumatize them over and over again. Yet another woman who says Hamilton raped her at 14 years old said she was reminded of what happened every time she saw the photographs of nude, underage girls in books and magazines, which sometimes included her own photographs.
“It’s unbearable to see that he is still using us,” she told Nouvel Observateur. “Ah those famous Hamiltonian looks of melancholy. Now you know why they were melancholy,” she says.
Flament rightly called Hamilton a coward after he killed himself:
“By his cowardice, he condemns us again to silence and the inability to see him convicted. The horror of this news will never be able to wipe out the horror of our sleepless nights.”
Suicide allowed this man to escape accountability. Meanwhile, Hamilton’s victims must live with his abuse forever, not only in their minds, but as his “art” continues to exist in the public sphere.
One thing we must learn from this case is that men’s behaviour should be taken seriously. It is not acceptable for men to watch “barely legal” or “teen” porn in the privacy of their homes but claim it has no bearing on them, as individuals. It is not acceptable to brush off men’s sexualization of teenage girls as “natural” or harmless. But even beyond that — it’s time we stopped pretending as though misogynist imagery, words, or behaviour can be compartmentalized. Masturbating to to imagery that sexualizes rape, misogyny, violence, and degradation is harmful. Imagery that turns women and girls into male fantasies is harmful. Indeed, these fantasies, it’s clear, are all too real.