When I opened Facebook this morning I found an alert. The HIPUganda page had to be reviewed. Someone had spotted and reported content that did not meet ‘community standards’. I was not surprised. This was bound to happen sooner or later. Over the past five years we have posted photographs showing people who are not wearing clothes because, well, they were photographed not wearing clothes. And they were not wearing clothes simply because they did not wear them. As far as we know they did (where these particular photographs are concerned) not take them off for the occasion.
The photo in question was, according to the caption and available information, made in Fort Portal, Uganda in 1936. It shows two women. One of them seems to be pregnant, the other one is carrying a baby on her back. Their genitals are covered, their breasts are not. In the collection there are more photographs that were taken (or should I say made) in more or less the same location. The photograph is credited to the Matson Photo Service. This service was the successor firm of the American Colony Photo Department that operated more or less for the first half of the 20th century from Palestine. The photographs are free of copy rights and, in different resolutions, downloadable from the Library of Congres database.
I roughly knew what Facebook’s community standards are, but looked them up for the occasion. This seems to be the relevant part:
We remove photographs of people displaying genitals or focusing in on fully exposed buttocks. We also restrict some images of female breasts if they include the nipple, but we always allow photos of women actively engaged in breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures.
Reading the words I wonder, when are people ‘displaying their bodies’, and when are (or were) they simply living their lives. Who are we, here and now, to problematise what was (not so strange considering the climate in which they lived) normal? Wouldn’t not including these photographs be a matter of overwriting part of the past? While it is understandable that Facebook as a global community is constantly negotiating its stand(ards), we try to stay critical and follow / develop our own standards.
According to those standards the power structures surrounding the production of photographs are more problematic than the visibility of breasts. Questions that could and should be asked would then include for instance were these women asked for their consent before the photograph was taken? Were they in a position to refuse to be photographed? Why were they not given names in the caption? Did they ever see their photographs?
Their gazes towards the lens at least show that the photograph was not ‘stolen’, as in taken secretly. These gazes also give them agency, and some control over the way they are depicted.
We did not share this photograph or other pictures containing breasts or genitals to cause offence. But maintain the position that these photographs document a past that should be available to, and questioned by those interested in, and relating to it.