Whether it’s nipple censoring or body hair, East London based photographer Steph Wilson knows how to tackle a taboo head-on and turn it into beautiful, politically empowering work. She put crispy fried eggs on a pair of boobs for Dazed as a reaction to Instagram’s (in her words, “bogus”) sanitisation of the female form and explored bodily functions with Lily Newmark for Vice. When she’s not dismantling stigmas surrounding sex, periods and everything in between, you can find her hanging out with her sidekick - pet parrot Tomato.
She’s fronting up a new breed of young photographers who are demonstrating the importance of work which has a narrative - after all, what’s the point of a pretty picture if it’s not saying something with deeper meaning? With a good dose of humour, intelligence and feminist ideology, we thought it only right to pick this pioneering artist’s brains. Read on to find out what she has to say.
Was photography something you were always interested in or did you have different plans?
For most of my younger years I planned on being a painter, as all I did was paint. London soon made me realise that it’s a little harder than that so photography naturally took over as my main creative output.
Your emoji series challenged the censoring rules on Instagram. What was it about Instagram’s censoring rules that you thought needed challenging?
The bogus idea that male nipples are acceptable and women’s are explicit. I felt it only perpetuates a problem that shouldn’t be one in the first place.
People talk a lot about “freeing the nipple” - what are your views on the subject? Will women ever have total freedom over their own bodies?
In the West perhaps, one day (although Trump has delayed things in the US and, likely, globally) but to have an international, global change that allows women to be in total control of their own bodies is probably not going to be within my lifetime. Free the nipple is great. I love how it’s now so commonplace and a “household hashtag” as it shows the majority seems to be in support of it. The fact it’s become everyday, however, means it may have lost it’s momentum in actually creating a change to Instagram’s censorship rules.
What is it about traditional ‘taboo’ topics that fascinate you and how do you aim to approach them through your work?
Taboos in a culture generally dictate what is still “unacceptable” and shameful. Many are totally absurd and I find enjoyment channelling that into a theme of a shoot. I like to think that the more a taboo becomes boring, the less of a taboo it is, so the repetition and exposure of those taboos probably helps to lessen them.
We took another read of your Forbidden Fruit essay + image series recently, where you discuss female body hair in length - what is it about this particular taboo that intrigues/baffles/annoys you?
It’s a very old series, that one! Basically my first. Since then it’s barely crossed my mind about body hair, I haven’t shaved or waxed in so many years I actually find it stranger when I see a perfectly smooth armpit on a lady on the bus. People generally don’t seem too bothered by it anymore, I think the general public find they have bigger things to worry about (either that, or I no longer noticed the raised eyebrows!)
Why is there one rule for men and one for women?
People take comfort in knowing their place, and over thousands of years men have asserted both sexes positions in society quite happily. Now we’re realising the limitations of that binary existence people are beginning to embrace the change it or defend what has always been. Bit of a divider!
When it comes to the girls you shoot, what sort of stuff do you look for? Are they often friends?
It totally depends. If it’s “street cast” I’ll go to friends, if it’s high fashion editorial then I’ll go to casting agencies but will be quite picky about the girls I choose. I don’t tend to like the generic “model” models, but someone with a good dose of quirk.
What do you do to unwind?
I play with my parrot. And no that’s not an innuendo. (Not always, anyway.)
Favourite East London hangouts?
I tend to go to Barber and Parlour for morning meetings A LOT. I have also always loved the Moroccan Cafe on Brick Lane, which hasn’t changed since forever.
Interviewed by Lucy Vincent
All images: Steph Wilson