Photographers' Blog

Nude without the nudity

December 5, 2012

WARNING: SOME IMAGES CONTAIN NUDITY

San Francisco, California

By Beck Diefenbach

Photographing the nude body in America presents many challenges. So when Reuters editor Mike Fiala asked me to shoot the latest chapter in the public nudity ban in San Francisco, I knew I would have a lot of factors to consider.

GALLERY: SAN FRANCISCO’S NO TO NUDE

Different parts of the world react differently to nudity in the news. In America, it is often considered taboo to print a photo of frontal nudity even if it is considered newsworthy.

If you are unaware, San Francisco does not have a city ordinance banning nudity in public. It is just one of those San Francisco-ism everyone else in the country likes to joke about. Until the last year or two, this clothing optional lifestyle never really caused much of a kerfuffle. But recently, store merchants in the city’s Castro district have requested that the city put a stop to bare skin.

Castro District Supervisor Scott Wiener has been trying to change the city code to eliminate the daily nudist activity. He proposed a ban that would prohibit nudity in most public places, but would still allow it in particular parades and street festivals (we are in San Francisco after all). The final vote by the 11 city supervisors was set for Tuesday and I was assigned to photograph it for Reuters.

In previous city legislative sessions, nudist have disrobed in City Hall’s legislative chambers in protest of the proposed ban. I was pretty much certain this would happen again. Before the vote, I had two things in mind: 1) stay away from full frontal nudity, 2) the setting of City Hall’s legislative chambers was crucial to the picture.

So when the legislative session began, I decided to stay in the back of the chambers so when someone did disrobe I would see their backsides as well as the setting around them.

When the supervisors voted 6 to 5 in support of the ban, about 7 or 8 people stood up from the gallery and immediately removed their clothing. My heart raced as I attempted to snap images of the nude protesters before they were covered with blankets by the San Francisco Sheriff’s deputies. It was only a matter of seconds before nearly every nudist had been covered and were being escorted out of the chambers.

I rushed to follow the blanket-covered nudists as police rushed them to the elevators (we were on the second floor). The TV news people had the elevator lobby so crowded, I didn’t even try for it. I never like jousting elbows for a picture. Who cares about your picture if everyone else has the exact same image? I saw the arrow above the elevator was pointing down, so I ran downstairs to the basement level and caught up with the police as they moved the nudists to a loading dock where they could put their clothes back on.

While running down one of the basement hallways I caught up with a naked elderly man with a cane being moved by a sheriff’s deputy. Swaddled in a blue blanket, the naked older gentleman asked the officer to slow down as he was struggling to walk so quickly. The officer obliged and they adopted a slower pace to the loading dock.

Years ago, I was in an interview for a photo internship at a small Midwestern newspaper and I was asked what I would do if I had to photograph a nude person walking down the street. My answer was that there are ways of showing a person is nude, without actually showing they are nude.

My prospective employer was looking to see if I had developed journalism sensitivity. In my book, not everything is black in white. I see a lot of grays when I shoot news. And although the best image may involve the full monty, it may be so distracting to more prudish viewers, that the message doesn’t get across.

It is a delicate dance photographers and editors do every day. Only this time it involves the rare naked human form.

Comments
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stone age was better when clothing was only related to weather. now most are so habitual of seeing clothed peoples in public that when we see a nude person, first thing that comes in mind is bedroom and sex. nudity =/= sex simple thing but hard to persuade to complex thinking minds.

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