Pin It
Stephanie Wilson Emoji
Lizzie wears knickers vintage, boots MoschinoPhotography Stephanie Wilson, styling Tara Greville, set design Laura Little, makeup Holly Sillius, hair Yusuke Morioka

Has censorship gone too far?

Parodying our use of emojis on social media platforms, these photos enlist real kittens, hearts and snails to hide genitals, bums and female nipples

An image can say a thousand words – but sometimes all you need is an emoji. Whether it’s the cheeky monkey, sassy girl or tearful cat, the cute pictograms have become part and parcel of our digital vernacular. Since the rise of social media apps and the concurrent lockdown on “inappropriate” content, however, emojis have also come to serve a different purpose. And it's the antithesis of expression – censorship. Indeed, wherever you stand on the debate about what should(n't) be allowed on social media – usually anchored by Instagram’s guidelines – you would be blind not to notice your daily feed strewn with art and fashion imagery using emoji pussy cats and phallic fruit to cover up female nipples, bums and genitals.

In her most recent series, “EMOJI”, London-born photographer, artist and founder of Lemon People Collective, Stephanie Wilson targets, what she believes to be, an infringement on artistic expression. “I wanted to portray the absurdity of using emojis as censorship, especially on very elegant and thoughtful nudes”, she explains. “It kinda fucking ruins them and makes them into a farce”. Gathering a bunch of friends and casted models, like Lizzie Farrell, aka Glacier Girl, brave enough to bare just about all, Wilson wittily reimagines emoji-censored images with real-life kittens, snails, fruit, fried eggs, flowers and mystic balls. Below, we speak to the photographer about striking a balance between humour and broaching one of the biggest discussions whirring about the art world right now.

Tell us about your latest “EMOJI” series, its inspiration and overriding message?

Stephanie Wilson: The series was an idea that had been bubbling for a while. I remember seeing a stunning shot on Instagram taken by my good friend Eleanor Hadwick of her boyfriend, nude, on a cliff edge. His arse crack was censored with, what Elle coined, a “sparklefart” (the sparkle emoji). It made me laugh but also made me incredibly frustrated that such a striking, artistic image had been made into a farce. I wanted to play with that as a theme, and, for once, use emojis as censorship to my artistic advantage. 

How do you feel this kind of online censorship affects the creation and dissemination of artwork?

Stephanie Wilson: The effects of making it increasingly hard to express and share artwork that uses the semi-nude female form, compared to a semi-nude male, concerns me. It just seems very archaic. Why are vulvas, tits and arse so utterly terrifying? I'm interested in knowing whether, because of this high level of censorship (Instragram, Facebook), are less nudes being taken as a result? And as a secondary ripple effect, is it making nudity shameful? Is our acceptance of nudity regressing? 

Your shoot raises all these kind of questions, but first draws you in by its tongue-in-cheek approach. How important was humour to the series?

Stephanie Wilson: It's a real thing that bugs me that so much “feminist art” is often shrouded in seriousness which can sometimes be detrimental to getting a message across. Humour gets through to people quite successfully, I find. Obviously if it's based on FGM or racism it's a different story... But something like this could do with a few lols, along with a more serious message based on the effect it has on the notion of nudity.

Do the emojis you used draw on specific cultural tropes? The eggs remind me of Sarah Lucas’s work, and I like the use of the mystic ball over the vagina – the ancient “mystery” of “Mother Earth”, “womb of the world”, Pandora’s box…

Stephanie Wilson: It wasn’t quite as intentioned as that, although I wish it was. Generally, if not completely, I chose the emojis based on their frequency of use on instagram to censor nudity, and also on the aesthetic of the item paired with the styling.

“Why are vulvas, tits and arse so utterly terrifying?” – Stephanie Wilson

Who are the subjects of your series, and how did you go about selecting them for the shoot?

Stephanie Wilson: Chanie and Dominique were from agencies; Bea, Danny and Lizzie were street cast. Because of the nature of the shoot it proved pretty difficult to cast via agencies, raising further issues in my mind with the “taboo” of nudity. Why is it seen as so damaging? Why is it still such a delicate subject to approach professionally? Luckily I have some incredible friends who, like myself, look for any excuse to get naked and stick a snail on their tit or a sparkler up their arse… I was also very lucky to get Lizzie Farrell, aka Glacier Girl, on board. I admire her cause and work so much that it seemed very fitting having her there. 

How would you personally differentiate between artistic images of the naked or semi-naked body and pornography? Do you think the two can coincide?

Stephanie Wilson: I think for the censorship argument concerning Instagram, pornographic imagery and artistic imagery need to be very separate. There’s a big artistic debate I could get into, but for the sake of allowing nipples, vulvas and dicks in an artistic light onto instagram I think any connotations of porn need to be removed. I know, where do you draw the line? What determines porn and art? Can they be both? Who has the right over who? Is porn damaging? Is it liberating? It’s a big discussion.

You often use the medium of fashion photography to express social or political messages. What makes it an effective mode of political, and particularly feminist, expression?

I used to shoot purely fine art photography, but I got the sense I was preaching to the converted. I like the notion of reaching an audience that wouldn’t necessarily have taken interest in my past work. Fashion also has a strange tendency to designate what is deemed desirable at the time, and what isn’t. It can be a pretty evil thing, that aesthetic dictatorship, so to use it for an adverse effect is something that really interests me.

Set design Laura Little; makeup Holly Sillius; hair Yusuke MoriokaModels: Chanie, Profile Model Management; Dominque, Established; Bea, Danny and Lizzie street cast

See more of Wilson's work here and on Instagram. You can also see more of Lemon People here