Visual Culture

Inside Spencer Tunick’s Massive, Nude Photo Shoot to Challenge Facebook Censorship

Kelsey Ables and Brianna Rettig
Jun 3, 2019 10:00PM

Photo by Stephanie Keith / Getty Images.

As the sun rose over Astor Place in New York City on June 2nd, the scene outside of Facebook and Instagram’s office looked something like a cultic ritual honoring the nipple.

Under the direction of photographer Spencer Tunick, over a hundred people laid on the pavement, women wearing male “nipple pasties,” and everyone covering their genitals with enlarged prints of male nipples—some of the images donated by artists Andres Serrano and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Bravo host Andy Cohen, and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. A collaboration between Tunick and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), the final photo will be posted to Instagram and Facebook to challenge their Community Guidelines, which infamously ban “female nipples” and restrict photographic nudity. The art action is a part of the NCAC’s #WeTheNipple campaign, which has garnered signatures from over 250 artists, museums, and arts organizations—including artist Betty Tompkins and photographer Nona Faustine, as well as the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and PEN America.

Photo by Stephanie Keith / Getty Images.


Tunick is known for the mass nude installations he has staged around the world. This shoot marked his first installation in New York City in nearly 20 years, since the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a case against Tunick in 2000 that attempted to halt a photo shoot under the Williamsburg Bridge. (Before, Tunick had been arrested five times by the NYPD for staging nude photoshoots without a permit.) But Sunday’s sunrise shoot, his first large-scale project on the streets of Manhattan in 20 years, was different. “This is actually a clothed photograph,” Tunick said after the event. “People are just clothed in male nipples.”

As Tunick photographed, his entourage of assistants made sure that participants’ policy-violating body parts stayed covered. The composition technically complies with the platform’s controversial policy, while also emphasizing its arbitrary nature: There is no way to distinguish between so-called male and female nipples.

While Facebook does allow images of nudity in paintings and sculpture on both platforms, the artistic nudity exception does not extend to photography. The policy is particularly difficult for photographers like Tunick; he spends hours meticulously removing countless nipples in his works. The company also gives no warning to creators before removing images or entire accounts, leaving photographers to either navigate the automated appeals process or take on the cumbersome task of rebuilding a following from scratch.

In an open letter to Facebook, as part of #WeTheNipple, the NCAC outlined the stakes of the current policy, which, they argue, “imposes the beliefs of some Facebook users on the entire world, stifles artistic expression, and enforces gender discrimination.” The tech giant’s rules have also come under fire for disproportionately targetting transgender and gender-non-conforming users. To flesh out the issue, the NCAC requested a meeting between stakeholders and Facebook to propose the company adopt a filter system to give users the ability to control the nude content they see.

Many of the participants were motivated to demonstrate not just because of social media censorship, but because of broader cultural issues such as how female, transgender, and non-binary bodies are treated by society.

For Dawn Robertson, a participant who directs the women’s voter initiative Grab Them By The Ballot, the policies pose “a philosophical question about women’s bodies and shame around nudity and sexuality.” And it’s one she ties to the current political climate. “This is why we have 25 men in Alabama making decisions about women’s bodies,” she said, referring to the state’s new law that restricts abortion in nearly all cases.

Photo by Fox Fay.

Photographer Savannah Spirit bonded with Robertson at the shoot. Both have faced uphill battles—Spirit with posting nude fine-art self-portraits and Robertson as an activist for women’s rights—by having their content and accounts repeatedly removed without explanation.

Spirit says she still gets nervous about posting images of herself online, a feeling she believes is “compounded by the censorship and the shaming that comes with it.” But on Sunday, being surrounded by other artists and creators fighting for change, she felt differently. “It was really powerful and energetic.…There was no time to be self-conscious,” she said. “Everyone’s bodies are so different and so beautiful and so rich. You just you forget about your own self-consciousness about your own body.”

Melissa, another participant, had a similarly profound experience: Posing with the group was like being awash in “a sea of humanity,” she said.

At the event Sunday morning, word circulated that Facebook had agreed to respond to the photo. However, as of that evening, over 500 recent Instagram posts had been removed from the #WeTheNipple campaign hashtag. By late Sunday night, all posts under the hashtag were restricted, but reappeared Monday afternoon. In response, NCAC posted on Instagram: “Censorship is so often invisible,” and asked followers to “help (NCAC) make sure it stays visible this time.” For Tunick, such censorship only amplifies that which it aims to diminish. “Every pixelated nipple only succeeds in sexualizing the censored work,” he said.

Kelsey Ables
Brianna Rettig