Spencer Tunick Stages a Mass Nude Photo Shoot Outside Facebook HQ to Protest the Platform’s Nipple Censorship
The action was held in partnership with the National Coalition Against Censorship.
As dawn broke on Sunday and most of New York City was still asleep, 125 people gathered outside Facebook’s headquarters in Manhattan, stripped bare, and posed for photographer Spencer Tunick. The performance wasn’t merely exhibitionism—these nude models had a mission. They were launching a movement known as #wethenipple, a protest against social media’s prohibition on the female nipple, a policy that has bedeviled artists and art historians for years.
The participants convened at The Bean coffee shop a few blocks away from Facebook’s Astor Place HQ, where they got a pep talk from Tunick as well as some basic instructions about how the shoot would go down. At about 5:15 a.m., the group—the majority of whom were women, with a handful of men for good measure—traipsed over to the plaza, dropped trough, and assembled in front of the social media giant’s nondescript building.
By 5:45 a.m., it was over.
A collaboration between Tunick and the National Coalition Against Censorship, the shoot was designed to call on Facebook and Instagram to reconsider their policies regarding nudity and artistic expression. “We’re here to protest against the pretty harsh rules against nudity and censorship,” Tunick said. He suggested that Facebook and Instagram could follow the lead of YouTube, which has “a verification process for artists, a platform for them to share their work.”
As the community guidelines now stand, women’s nipples are not allowed to be displayed, unless in certain contexts, like breastfeeding, or to depict the aftermath of mastectomy surgery. Men, meanwhile, have no such rules applied to their bodies. In a cheeky bid to avoid running afoul of Facebook’s policies—and to illustrate just how ludicrous they believe they are—the models in Tunick’s shoot covered their private parts with nipple stickers created by the NCAC.
A handful of artists and activists around New York City generously donated images of their own nipples to the cause: Andy Cohen from Bravo, artist Andres Serrano, actor-photographer Adam Goldberg, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and Spencer Tunick himself. The images supplied by the donors were magnified and assigned to participants based on their skin tone and areola size.
Last spring, Facebook released an updated policy toward nudity, which allowed for paintings and sculptures that depict nude figures. (In the past, even major museums have found themselves in social-media jail for posting photos of antique sculptures including the Venus of Willendorf.)
Under the current terms, however, work by photographers remains vulnerable to censorship. New York-based photographer Farah Marie Velten, who has taken part in many of Tunick’s shoots, said this one was especially meaningful for its direct address to Facebook and Instagram, which have both removed her work in the past.
Similar experiences drove photographer Savannah Spirit to participate. Spirit has been kicked off of Facebook so many times she ultimately “gave up on it,” she told artnet News. The artist, whose work often focuses on her own form, jokes that Instagram inspired her to transform her artistic style. “Because of them, I changed my practice and became more creative with my nude portraiture to avoid the censorship,” she said.
For his part, Tunick has been fighting for the right to display nude photographs for decades. In 2000, he won a lawsuit against New York State to legally stage and photograph his mass installations. This action was his first New York-based shoot in more than 15 years.
After the shoot, Tunick thanked the few early-rising members of the press “for being here, and for pushing your newsrooms to publish this, because you’re going to come up against some tension.” But he emphasized, “This is a clothed photograph—the participants are just clothed in male nipples.”
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the demonstration. In an open letter to the social-media giant, the NCAC laid out its demands for a more inclusive nudity policy. Read the full letter and see more outtakes from the shoot below.
Instagram and Facebook have dramatically increased artists’ ability to reach audiences and have opened new possibilities for artistic exploration and expression. Artists who lack access to traditional distribution channels can reach global viewers as never before. Museums and art institutions are able to broaden access to their collections and promote exhibitions on an unprecedented scale.
Yet Facebook and Instagram, while permitting nudity in sculpture and painting, ban photographic representations of the nude body. The nudity ban is punishing for photographers and particularly harms artists whose work focuses on their own bodies, including queer and gender nonconforming artists. It also affects museums and galleries that have difficulty promoting photography exhibitions featuring nudes.
Facebook has the legal right to impose content restrictions. Yet, as a company with over two billion users, and one billion on Instagram, Facebook’s actions impact culture on a global scale. The company’s extraordinary expansion and success has made it a worldwide power serving a large diversity of communities with different, and often conflicting, values and beliefs.
We acknowledge that moderating content for billions of users with diverse values presents unprecedented challenges and that drawing the line between art and images that are not art is notoriously hard. But this challenge does not justify banning all photographic images of the nude body, a ban that imposes the beliefs of some Facebook users on the entire world, stifles artistic expression, and enforces gender discrimination by permitting images of male nipples while prohibiting female nipples.
Over twenty U.S. and international arts and free speech organizations and hundreds of artists have joined us in urging Facebook and Instagram to become welcoming platforms for the arts (ncac.org/we-the-nipple). There are many possible solutions to the challenges of serving diverse communities, including allowing individuals the ability to block all nudity and creating filters to screen nudes that may appear unexpectedly in users’ feeds. Such mechanisms would allow user control, rather than forcing Facebook to judge what content is permissible.
As a commitment to changing its policy on photographic nudity, we propose that Facebook convene a group of globally representative stakeholders including artists, art educators, museum curators, activists, as well as Facebook employees, to develop guidelines that transparently balance the competing interests of the many different communities Facebook serves. By engaging with relevant stakeholders who share a commitment to change, Facebook and Instagram can implement a policy that recognizes the value of one of their core communities: creative artists.
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