In August 2013, Allen Henson, a veteran-turned-photographer, visited the Empire State Building with his girlfriend. Henson took a topless photo of her on the observation deck and never imagined what would follow.
In 2014, the Empire State Building filed a lawsuit against Henson for over $1 million, arguing he used the premises for commercial purposes (though Henson insists it was not a photoshoot and was exclusively for personal use) and ruined the building's "reputation as a safe and secure family-friendly tourist attraction," reports the Huffington Post.
But Henson is not to be silenced. He is countersuing for $5 million and is focusing much of his art on fighting censorship, including a topless photoshoot Thursday at the New York Supreme Court.
"There are a lot of serious issues, and I don't know if this is one of them. But as an artist, I find it threatening to have this kind of censorship. To have a private entity come after me for expressing myself freely is deeply troubling," Henson told Mic.
On Thursday, Henson took a bold stand against censorship of art and the female form by conducting a photoshoot of topless models on the steps of the city's Supreme Court, a symbolic move given the courthouse's literal embodiment of the law.
"Social media is supposed to parallel dialogue in real life, but I've had my accounts deleted at least five times. If we can't censor conversations and exchanges of ideas in reality, why can we here [on social media]?" Henson inquired.
"Look how big [sites like] Instagram and Facebook are affecting how we think and what's taboo," Henson said in reference to women's breasts. "Performance art in the '70s involved literally reading ticker tape poetry [unraveled] from a vagina. Feminism was alive and well then, but now women's bodies are so heavily censored."
Henson echoes the sentiments of many activists behind the #FreeTheNipple movement, which endeavors to desexualize women's bodies in an effort to promote gender equality. It is also a movement about women reclaiming their bodies and was in part born from social media sites enacting gender-biased restrictions on what part of the female body is permissible in photographs. For example, Instagram's ban includes "photos of female nipples," unless they're post-mastectomy or actively being used for breastfeeding.
"I really respect what they're doing — they've got a great angle and there are a lot of parallels to my work. We're definitely trying to achieve the same thing" Henson said of the #FreeTheNipple movement. "I use the hashtag all the time because, well, fuck yeah!"
His latest book, Editorial on the Rocks, includes many photographs in a similar vein, pushing back against censorship. For now, these are the results of his latest creative protest at the courthouse: