Skegness artist accuses SO Festival organisers of censoring ‘sexual’ photo title

John Byford's 'A Mouthful of Sperm' was deemed inappropriate for family audiences.
John Byford's 'A Mouthful of Sperm' was deemed inappropriate for family audiences.

Organisers of this year’s SO Festival have been accused of ‘stifling art’ by withdrawing a photo exhibit due to the title’s ‘strong sexual connotations’.

John Byford’s image of two children peering into the gaping jaws of a dead sperm whale washed up on Skegness beach had been scheduled to appear in an exhibition at Horncastle on Saturday.

However East Lindsey District Council and the festival director requested its removal, fearing the title - A Mouthful of Sperm - ‘would not be fitting to put in front of a family audience’.

Mr Byford was so incensed at the ‘censorship’ that he refused to take part in the show, claiming 12 more pieces, including a picture of a man drinking wine in his underpants, had been subject to similar demands.

“It was too much,” he said.

“It was supposed to be a block of work and they were asking me to remove more than a quarter of it.

“I think they were scared of the backlash they may have faced - but with art you have to take risks sometimes.”

The overall collection had been entitled ‘Horniness’ - a combination of ‘Horncastle’ and ‘Skegness’, and a term representing the excitement he hoped to convey with the pictures.

Having already featured the controversial whale piece in his ‘Peep Box’ exhibit at the SO Festival in 2010 when Mr Byford says it was viewed by more than 8,000 people, with ‘not one complaint’, he has questioned why audiences in Horncastle were being treated differently.

“If it was good enough for SO Festival 2010, surely it was good enough for the people of Horncastle,” he said.

“Do they think the people of Horncastle are too reserved because they live out in the sticks in a sleepy little antiques town and aren’t ready for anything that’s slightly edgy?”

Mr Byford found the decision particularly strange coming from an authority which had previously commissioned him to work on a provocative publicity campaign, denigrating the rival seaside resorts of Blackpool and Brighton with unflattering images.

“It just seems strange to me that they think I’m good enough to be chosen for a controversial advertising campaign, good enough for SO Festival 2010 but suddenly I’m not good enough for an art exhibition in Horncastle,” he said.

Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, which was hosting the exhibition at its Banoavallum House, had also expressed concerns over the title, though Mr Byford says his compromise - A Mouthful of Sperm Whale - had been approved.

ELDC’s media team leader James Gilbert claims the decision to withdraw the image was made about the original title and the compromised suggestion had not been brought forward by Mr Byford.

He has also explained that greater caution was required over the Horncastle showing than the Peep Box display, due to its more prominent display, projected onto a large building.

Festival director Robin Morley has countered Mr Byford’s claims of censorship, insisting he ‘did not have an issue with the man in his underpants’.

However both he and ELDC felt the sperm whale photo’s title was inappropriate for family audiences, particularly as it featured images of children.

“This situation is not about censorship or banning art, it is about displaying artwork that is appropriate to the audience that will see it,” he said.