Beware! What follows includes thoughts on photos of human bodies without clothes

 

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.

 

 

2 responses to “Beware! What follows includes thoughts on photos of human bodies without clothes”

  1. Stan Frankland says:

    Good to see that Facebook are enforcing their warped moral code onto the world! That said, this raises many serious issues about how the past is used within the present. Should ‘we’ view these relics of colonialism with contemporary eyes? The questions you raise are interesting ones and provokes a further one. What does ‘consent’ mean in the context of colonialism? You say the reversed gaze gives a degree of agency and control, but the background contains clothed Ugandans which points towards a colonially derived ethnic hierarchy in operation which would have limited that agency. Who were these people to say no? This may explain why they are not given names, but are simply ‘captured’ as an ethnic type. To what extent is refusal possible from a position of weakness? I see anger in the eyes of these women – especially the one on the right.

    • Thank you for your comment and additional questions and suggestions. More has been, and is to be said about all of this. We now made a (rather short) statement, and hope to continu the debate here and elsewhere.

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