Ed. note: The images ahead contain graphic content.
"You have breasts, right?"
Admittedly, this was my first interview when someone had asked me to verify the fact that I had breasts. But, when photographer Allen Henson asked, I couldn't help but go along.
"Yes, I do."
"Do you feel like, at any time in your life, you may have put your friends, family, or fellow comrades in danger by having them?"
"Well, me neither. That's crazy. Oh my god. We're the only two rational ones left on Earth."
In May 2013, the NYPD issued a memo reminding officers that women have the right to be topless in New York City. Of course, as the police memo states, "if the actions of any individual rise to the level of a lewd act (e.g. masturbation, simulated sexual act), regardless of whether the individual is clothed above their waist," then it becomes an issue. So, Henson decided to conduct a social experiment to test the waters. On August 9, 2013 he and a model went to the observatory deck of the Empire State Building. The model removed her top, and Henson photographed her.
While no one was arrested for the incident, Henson and the topless model were reportedly pursued by police in Central Park (both officers were subject to an internal investigation) and subsequently ejected from an East Village restaurant. Now, Henson faces a $1.1 million lawsuit from the ESB. The suit claims that the topless photos damaged the landmark's "reputation as a safe and secure family friendly tourist attraction." Because, as we all know, boobs are pretty dangerous. The ESB argues that the area was full of children, and that Henson would use the photos for his own commercial purposes. Furthermore, ESB claims it had to "divert management time, resources, and attention to deal with the inappropriate objectionable conduct and potentially dangerous situation the defendant created."
However, Henson didn't roll up to the ESB, sneak his way up to the top, and begin a full-on photo shoot. "We shot these on a cell phone," he explains. "We paid admission to come as patrons." And, as you probably can attest, taking cell-phone photos from the top of a NY landmark is not illegal. So, what's the real problem with Henson's experiment?
Clearly, the language surrounding the lawsuit is concerning. It's definitely the first time we ever heard of breasts described as "potentially dangerous." Hence, Henson's question about my experience with breasts and the imminent harm they may or may not cause. "They're saying that this woman's breasts caused an unsafe environment," Henson notes. As an artist, he saw the topless rights in NYC as "one of those things that sound great in theory, but the application might be totally different." And, indeed, he was right. "It was interesting to me to see what takes precedence: laws or people's personal values."
When I asked Henson what he would have written underneath these images in a gallery, he said, "'A Visual Discourse On The Inequality Of Women'. Right beside it, I'd hang up a picture of these legal documents [from ESB]...stating that these images provided an unsafe environment." Though he just set out to make this minor social experiment, his images have undoubtedly become a living piece of art that speaks to the injustice women face every day.