Spencer Elden, now 30, who was featured on the cover of Nirvana’s 1991 album, Nevermind, is now suing the former band members, the estate of Kurt Cobain and several others over the famous naked photograph. In a lawsuit filed Tuesday 24 August, Elden alleges that the band violated federal child pornography laws and claims that his parents never signed a release allowing Nirvana to use the photo, as initially reported by CBS Los Angeles.
In a complaint filed in the Los Angeles federal court, Elden alleges his “identity and legal name are forever tied to the commercial sexual exploitation he experienced as a minor, which has been distributed and sold worldwide from the time he was a baby to the present day.”
According to the suit, the defendants “knowingly produced, possessed, and advertised commercial child pornography depicting Spencer, and they knowingly received value in exchange for doing so. […] Despite this knowledge, defendants failed to take reasonable steps to protect Spencer and prevent his widespread sexual exploitation and image trafficking.”
The album cover photo depicts Elden, 4 months old at the time, swimming naked in a pool as a dollar bill dangles in front of him on a fishing hook. The lawsuit says the photo, allegedly chosen by Nirvana’s late frontman, Kurt Cobain, suggests a “sex worker grabbing for a dollar bill.”
In the recent lawsuit, Elden’s parents alleged they never actually authorised the band’s use of the photo, which was taken at a Pasadena aquatic centre in 1990, and that Elden never received any compensation for it. “To ensure the album cover would trigger a visceral sexual response from the viewer, [photographer Kirk] Weddle activated Spencer’s ‘gag reflex’ before throwing him underwater in poses highlighting and emphasizing Spencer’s exposed genitals,” the suit continues.
Elden’s suit goes on to allege that the defendants “used child pornography depicting [him] as an essential element of a record promotion scheme commonly utilized in the music industry to get attention, wherein album covers posed children in a sexually provocative manner to gain notoriety, drive sales, and garner media attention, and critical reviews.”
As a result, the complaint claims, Elden “has suffered and will continue to suffer lifelong damages.” The suit seeks either $150,000 from each of the 17 defendants, which includes the former members of Nirvana, various record companies, art directors and others, or unspecified damages to be determined at trial.
Elden has recreated the iconic photo several times, once in 2008, when he was 17, and then again in 2016 to mark the album’s 25th anniversary. He wore shorts for both of those shoots. He told the New York Post that he was paid $200 for the 2016 photo, the same amount of money his father in 2008 told NPR he was offered for the original photoshoot that led to the album cover. Some could argue that Elden’s father admitting to being paid in exchange for the iconic photo could count as enough of an agreement.
Nevermind has sold over 30 million copies since its release. That’s a whole lot of people seeing your peepee, but maybe Elden should consider suing his parents instead of Nirvana—although he probably won’t be receiving the same amount of compensation… Smells like something’s fishy.