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One Man’s Mission to Get Every Woman in New York Topless [INTERVIEW]

Topless New York

In 1986, several women in Rochester, NY were arrested and convicted for picnicking topless in public. Since then, passionate women have been raising awareness about the right to bare in public places where it’s already permissible for men to do the same.

Topless New York, as it came to be called, launched a Kickstarter campaign to help women go braless and wave their feminist flag (or, just go topless because they just felt like it!). We talked to Jeff, the Topless New York photographer and organizer, about the females baring all, the photos and the law.

What exactly is your project about ?

In 1986, a group of women in Rochester, NY decided to picnic topless in a public park, and they were arrested for it, because NY state law at the time defined “indecent exposure” as exposure of male genitalia, or exposure of female genitalia OR breasts.  They challenged their arrests on constitutional grounds – and in 1992, the highest court in the state, the Court of Appeals, struck down that part of the law that made it illegal for women to bare their breasts in public.  They said it was a violation of the state constitution’s equal protection clause to allow men, but not women, to go topless in public, and the state had no rational reason to make the distinction on the basis of gender - so ever since then, women have legally been able to go topless in public anywhere in NY state that men can be topless.  When I learned about this several years ago, I was surprised more people didn’t know about it, and that more women didn’t exercise that right.  So I decided to help raise awareness by photographing women topless in public.

So we’re guessing most women offer to go topless for your shoots. Do they all do so for the same reason or does it vary?

Their reasons have varied – some believed strongly in the equal rights argument, some were curious to see people’s reactions when they take their shirts off in public, and some honestly just wanted a paid modeling gig and had no qualms about being topless in public to do it.  Now that I’ve done “enough” shoots to get the project off the ground and I’m no longer offering paid shoots, the women who volunteer for shoots now are doing it for free, so mostly they just want to be involved in what they see as an exciting and important gender equality movement.

Why did you decide to do this project in particular?

I didn’t really choose this project over a number of other possibilities; I really just decided one day that I wanted to do this, and never looked back.  I’m not a particularly experienced photographer, and I don’t have any aspirations to do it professionally, so I doubt I’ll start any new projects after this one gets some real exposure; if anything, I’ll just keep photographing women topless in public as long as they’re willing to volunteer for it.

Topless New York

Did you feel it was your life calling to photograph topless women or is this a hobby turned career?

It’s purely a hobby; I have another career.  That’s why I’m running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to get the exhibit, calendar, book, and website off the ground – I’ve paid a few dozen models to shoot for this series, but I haven’t made any money from it (with the exception of a magazine in Germany that paid to run a few photos a few years ago), so I’m in the red right now.

How many women have volunteered so far to be part of your project?

Close to a hundred women have volunteered, but not all of them have followed through.  I’ve done close to forty shoots, and I have a few more scheduled at the moment.  Most have been in the five boroughs of New York City, but I’ve also shot in Ithaca, Saratoga Springs, Albany, Binghamton, and Bear Mountain.

Have any women changed their minds mid-shoot or gotten cold feet?

Yes.  A bunch of women have backed out of the shoot in advance, deciding that they couldn’t go ahead with it, which I understand – and a few just plain didn’t show up, which is frustrating.  But of the women who’ve actually shown up, only one had difficulty with it – she was willing to open her jacket, but she was unwilling to take it off. There was only one decent I really got from that shoot, which was in the Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens.

Topless New York

What kinds of responses (positive or negative) has your work received so far?

The work itself has received mostly positive response – people are intrigued, surprised, pleased, and generally entertained.  I don’t consider myself a great photographer, so I don’t expect too many compliments on the artistic merit of the work, but I’ve had some nice compliments on that as well.  It’s the shoots in progress that receive negative response in the moment; members of the public don’t always appreciate what we’re doing, and a few observers have yelled at the women modeling for me, which is a shame.

How do you think the public will respond to your project since you’re hoping for a future exhibit about this topic?

Well, a number of websites have run articles about my Kickstarter campaign and my photos, and so far in the comments sections, the reaction is pretty well split.  Some people think bare breasts are a horrible thing, that these women are opening themselves up to getting raped or assaulted, that children will be corrupted and traumatized from the sight of bare breasts, and that it’s the equivalent of a man walking around with his penis hanging out of his fly.  Someone even suggested that because a devout Muslim is supposed to commit suicide if he sees a woman other than his wife naked, we’re encouraging people to kill themselves.

Topless New York

Seriously?

Thankfully, a lot of other people think that first group of people is ridiculous.  Frankly, I think the only reason that anybody thinks women’s breasts are “naughty” is because someone once told them so – and a large part of the reason I started this project in the first place was that I believe ANYTHING that puts women into a more “shameful,” more marginalized category than men is divisive and wrong.  My hope is that the Topless New York series will help ease people – in New York AND in other states, where it’s NOT yet legal – into the idea that everybody’s got breasts, and there’s nothing “right” about men’s breasts and “wrong” about women’s.

How many have you caught just wandering around topless versus the women who ask to pose for you?

None – though apparently that’s been happening more lately, thanks to Moira Johnston, a NYC resident who’s been wandering around topless the last month or so.

Why do so few people know about the equal protection clause? Do you feel like chaos will ensue and women will start burning brassieres if word got out?

I just don’t think anybody’s made a big deal of it yet.  Certainly more people know about it now thanks to Moira Johnston, and thanks to “The Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society,” another group that’s been making public appearances lately.  But the only way to spread the word is, well, to spread the word.  And no, I don’t think chaos will ensue; the whole idea of spreading the word is to “normalize” public toplessness.  If my project succeeds, in a few years, nobody will still be shocked or offended by a topless woman in public.  My work will have become unnecessary and moot – and I’ll be perfectly happy to see that happen.

[NOTE -- We had to censor the actual photos for this website, but to check out the originals, check out the official Topless New York website or their Model Mayhem page.]

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