Because the project features photographs of nude women and girls, the university is facing pressure to call off or adjust the exhibit, as the University of North Carolina at Wilmington did last year, when it removed the images of girls as a condition of allowing the program to proceed. But Louisville has declined to demand changes and is standing behind the exhibit, saying that its message has been distorted by critics and that principles of free speech and academic freedom are at stake.
Shirley Willihnganz, provost at Louisville, said in an interview that she has been approached by people in the local community and by state legislators angry about the exhibit. And she said that while she is happy to explain the context of the exhibit, she is not willing to cancel it or to order its modification.
"I don't know what else to do it but talk to people," she said. But she added that part of what she explains is that "the core of the university is the idea of freedom of expression and freedom of speech."
Critics, galvanized by a professor at Oklahoma State University, say that the exhibit exploits women and girls and encourages violence against women -- charges vehemently denied by the photographer and the university.
The Century Project consists of more than 100 nude photographs of women and girls of all ages, accompanied by their stories. The statements deal with the women's lives and bodies. The project's Web site says that one of its goals "is to effect change in societal attitudes towards women’s bodies. Its method is to give voice to women through pictures and words, which project, among much else, courage, vulnerability, strength, diversity, multiplicity, and uniqueness." (A sampling of the photographs -- including one of a birth, some of young girls, and of women as old as 94 -- may be found here.)
The most controversial part of the touring exhibit is the inclusion of young girls. Frank Cordelle, the photographer, explains on his Web site that all girls are only photographed with both their consent and that of a parent, and that they report that their inclusion was a positive experience for them.
The leading opponent of the exhibit is John D. Foubert, an associate professor of college student development at Oklahoma State University and a consultant on college and other programs to prevent rape. Foubert has created a Facebook group and some publicity about the exhibit, and that in turn has led some conservative groups and legislators in Kentucky to protest.
In an interview, Foubert acknowledged that the photographs in the exhibit are "legally not child porn." But he said that wasn't the key question. "This is about full frontal nude pictures of children. What is the educational value of showing nude 12-year-olds on their campus, and how is that helpful?"
Foubert said that extensive studies show that exposure to pornography can encourage men to rape or exploit women. Asked why that research was relevant, given that these photographs are not pornographic, he said that some of the studies weren't based on extreme pornography but that of the sort published in Playboy. And while many viewers might think these photographs are unlikely to turn up in Playboy, he said that what matters is the image of those photographed "in the eye of the beholder," who in this case could be a male Louisville student. "You have men walking through this exhibit, looking at pictures of women and girls. What goes on in their head when they look at these pictures?" Foubert asked. "How does this affect what they look at and fantasize about?"
A self-described "controversial academic," Foubert said he believes in free expression. "I'm a strong proponent of the First Amendment. I'm using those rights to bring attention to how they are abusing children. It is because of my First Amendment right that I can speak out about what they are doing," he said. Foubert said he wouldn't protest someone giving a lecture about the photographs, but that showing the photographs shouldn't be viewed as free expression.
"What people don't understand is that there are limits on free speech. You can't make threats against someone else," he said. "They are threatening the safety of their own students by bringing this exhibit."
Willihnganz, the provost, rejected all of the talk that the show is exploitative or pornographic, and she noted that a previous showing at the university yielded "positive reactions."
She said that "if you take out the context, it sounds horrible and I can understand how people would be upset and uncomfortable, but this is part of a week about helping women develop more positive self-images about their bodies," she said. "This is not about objectifying women," but about telling their stories. "This is about as opposite of pornography as you can get. This is about women coming to terms with their bodies."
And Willihnganz noted that while the discussion may be awkward for some, institutions that have censored some of the images have also had awkward discussions. Blocking some or all of the exhibit, she noted, does not make the controversy or the issues go away.