Photo Finish

Did Prop. 8 backlash cause art censorship -- or its reversal -- at Brigham Young University? Could be, as BYU photography student J. Michael Wiltbank found when his contribution to a two-week-long art exhibition -- eight pairs of benign portraits, each depicting an LGBT-identified BYU student alongside a supportive friend -- had been removed.

BY Lawrence Ferber

December 23 2008 12:00 AM ET

J. Michael
Wiltbank, a photography student at Brigham Young University
in Provo, Utah, never fancied himself a budding Robert
Mapplethorpe. But in December, just a few days into
“Sixteen,” a two-week-long departmental
exhibition at the school’s fine arts center, he
received a call from a fellow student informing him
that his work had been censored and removed from the
project.

Wiltbank’s
contribution wasn’t exactly Mapplethope’s
shocking Self-portrait With Whip. Instead it
consisted of eight pairs of benign portraits, each
depicting an LGBT-identified BYU student alongside a
supportive friend, without identifying which person is
which.

While the Mormon
Church-owned university honor code forbids gay behavior
or advocacy, Wiltbank’s project didn’t violate
that code. Simply identifying as gay or owning up to
gay feelings is permitted.

“I knew
exactly what BYU’s stance was,” he says,
“and I brought it up during the conceptual
stage. My professor even had the project approved
before I was able to begin photographing.”

After confirming
with the school’s administration that his portraits
had been removed, Wiltbank vented about the affair on
his blog. His story made its way to a number of gay
blogs and some news sites, and a few days later
university administrators came calling.

They offered to
reinstate the portraits, attributing their removal to a
“miscommunication” within between the dean of
the college and the fine arts department.

When asked
whether the censorship -- and reversal -- had anything to do
with the anti-Mormon backlash that followed the passage of
Prop. 8, the California anti-gay-marriage measure
supported by many members of the church, BYU media
relations manager Michael Smart said, “That is a fair
question. The reason it was resolved quickly is that it
shouldn’t have come down in the first
place.”

Smart would not
specify who made the initial decision to remove the
works.

On December 9,
Wiltbank’s work went back up -- though it
didn’t remain untouched.

“There was
a part in my artist’s statement about how I see a bit
of myself in each of the portraits,” Wiltbank
says, “and we had to reprint it because someone
wrote, ‘He’s gay too’ on it.”

Tags: Art

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