Matt Hamon spent 10 days in August as naked as the subjects of his photographs.
Nudity is a requirement at the community in Toronto, Canada, where he'd been accepted for an arts residency called Naked State. The program placed him at Bare Oaks Family Park, which identifies itself as naturist, a different philosophy than nudism. Its followers believe in the physical, spiritual and environmental benefits of life unclothed.
The residency required some adjustment for him. While some naturist groups are "clothing optional," Bare Oaks is not. When Hamon arrived, he had to shed all his garments and head to the co-ed dorm after arriving on a late-night flight. He woke the next day among people who dine, work and recreate uncovered.
While there, he took formally framed, and nude, portraits that contemplated the residency's themes: whether the naked body is always sexual, its role in art, its role in health and connection to the environment. His portraits, which he describes as quite innocent, were quickly banned on Facebook and Instagram, a necessity for artists both to promote their work and communicate with other artists.
But that happened after his return to Montana. While at the residency, he said, "I very quickly realized that the removal of clothing creates a degree of vulnerability immediately."
They are societal benefits as well. Clothing signifies status and creates a persona that we project and others interpret. Shedding it is an "equalizer," as he called it.
Communication and interactions were more authentic, he felt. Since he returned to Missoula, where he teaches at the University of Montana and lives in Potomac with his family, people have asked him questions, expecting stories about an "erotic ambience."
"I've had to repeatedly argue that until you have that experience, it would be hard to understand how comfortable and natural, how intimate and easy to connect to someone once you get over that concealing aspect of clothes," he said.
And, he ended up engaged in a different conversation that directly addresses the purpose of his residency.
In late August, either a bot or another user, Hamon doesn’t know, began reporting his pictures and they were taken down.
Gone was a portrait of Stéphane Deschênes, a board member of the International Naturist Federation, an owner of Bare Oaks, and a scholar on the history of nudity. He stands facing the camera, framed by trees and holding his bicycle in a photograph that's anything but sexualized.
Gone was a portrait of couple, paused in the middle of a house-painting project – the residents of Bare Oaks work, and even dine, in the nude.
Hamon fully acknowledges that Facebook is a private company that can set its own community standards.
"I defend their right to delete whatever they want to," he said.
The site's community standards page is clear about its reasons, which are similar to those of many publishers.
Facebook's page lays out their rules, and a company spokesperson confirmed that his posts broke them.
"People sometimes share content containing nudity for reasons like awareness campaigns or artistic projects," the standards pages says. "We restrict the display of nudity because some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content – particularly because of their cultural background or age."
It goes a little further, too, in explaining exactly which standards Hamon's pictures violated:
"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."
After his photos were pulled from Facebook, Hamon began to engage in what he calls a "subtle protest" on the site. He blurred out the images and reposted them with links to the uncensored photos on Tumblr, which doesn't have as strict of standards.
They're innocent images, Hamon argues. Why should they be banned while harmful, misogynist content thrives? In his first post, he cited the lewd content posted by Cheech and Chong. Recently the stoner-comedians posted a link to a video called "Here's Why These Jiggling BOOBS Are Fascinating."
Really, anybody who's become Facebook friends with the wrong acquaintance likely has seen very offensive posts and photos that have slipped by without censorship.
Some of his friends argued that the blurred images had the same effect as clothing – they created curiosity about what they weren't seeing.
"My experience of that inspired my interest in pushing the boundaries there. That sort of editing and deleting and censorship continues to fetishize the body," he said.
Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, likewise deleted his pictures and sent him a note saying he'd violated its community standards.
While at Bare Oaks, Hamon also photographed a portrait of a 9-year-old girl posing in the nude with her pet bird. (He showed her mother pictures he'd taken of his own family, and told her his planned use for the photo. Like he will with his own daughter, he said he'll remove them if she asks.)
After a portrait of a 9-year-old girl from Bare Oaks posing in the nude with her pet bird was banned, he tried reposting it. This time, he "self-censored" with a strategically placed Instagram logo and note explaining that he'd been censored. It was flagged and deleted.
He then split the square-framed portrait into seven individual pictures. A few of them were flagged and deleted.
Again, Instagram has its own standards, which Hamon clearly violated:
"People like to share photos or videos of their children. For safety reasons, there are times when we may remove images that show nude or partially-nude children. Even when this content is shared with good intentions, it could be used by others in unanticipated ways."
The question of "unanticipated ways" has been brought up to Hamon before by friends and family.
He's photographed himself in the nude. He also photographs his wife and young daughter, the latter of whom often happens to be naked.
They've asked him whether he's concerned that pedophiles could find the pictures on his website, but he maintains that he's not responsible for any interpretation.
"I'll never know how it's being used. I've got lots of images that I'll never know how someone is responding to it in their head," he said.
Photographer Sally Mann drew criticism and controversy in the early 1990s for her portraits of her children, which she published in a book and displayed in a major exhibition. Writing about the experience last year in the New York Times magazine, she said she took her pictures to an FBI agent and asked whether they could be seen as sexual. (He replied that some people are aroused by shoes, too.)
H. Rafael Chacón, a professor of art history and criticism at the University of Montana, said Hamon's depiction of unidealized nudes is part of a long tradition.
"The nude is ubiquitous in art history, primarily as an object conveying beauty in the West. In contemporary art it has been used for multiple agendas which explore the human condition in all its facets," he wrote in an email.
Whether artists should consider undesirable uses of their work, Chacon wrote: "Censorship laws are based on community standards or common, generally-accepted values, but these are fluid; nude baby pictures have been around forever, but in a climate of fear of voyeurism and exploitation of children, our public values are likely to shift against these images. In America, we have seen swings from utter prudery to great permissiveness which speak to the shifting cultural values, not to the inherent value of these images as works of art."
Photographer Nick Ut's famous "Napalm Girl" picture, which captured a nude 10-year-old fleeing a napalm drop in the Vietnam war, was pulled from Facebook earlier this month, but restored after a public outcry over its historical importance. The banning of that picture gained worldwide notice because the site censored a post by the prime minister of Norway.
The entire controversy speaks to the inherent pull that photographs have, and Hamon thought it was curious that photographs of Michelangelo's David are allowed on Facebook while his nudes are banned.
"The qualities of photography that still are so psychologically powerful, for any human being that's come into contact with a photographic image or the apparatus, there's a sense that there's a connection a truth, right? That the light reflected off the object is the equivalent of looking at the object itself, and it's kind of absurd," Hamon said.
He said it's "particularly absurd in the age of digital manipulation" in which any part of an image can be altered or fabricated.
Chacon concurred regarding the perceived "truthfulness" of photography.
"Because everyone engages in photography, the medium seems to be more truthful, when, in fact, it is as manipulated and as subjective as a painting. That misapprehension has been around since the invention of the medium. The general public thinks it's visible truth and the artist knows it's an interpretation," Chacon said.
Hamon, meanwhile, plans to continue posting the blurred photographs, his "subtle protest" that seems to underscore the residency's point.
"My political or philosophical point of view is that the more open the presentation and dialogue and discussion of images of the body happen to be, the greater that will be for our collective consciousness and relationship to sexuality," he said.