When I noticed the model and activist Nyome Nicholas-Williams on social media early last summer, I felt hugely appreciative of how confident she was in her images. She was celebrating who she was. I base a lot of my work around photographing women and trying to encourage self-acceptance, which is motivated by my own low confidence. I lived through the 90s and 00s heyday of gossip mags and size zero. So when I saw Nyome, who is confident in front of the camera and boldly herself as a plus-size black woman – a marginalised and censored group of people – I reached out because I really wanted to capture her.
She came to visit me in Cambridge in July, when we were recently out of the first lockdown. I shoot only with natural light, in a barn that is open to the elements along one side. I hang my backdrops in there, and the light enters from one direction only, like in studio photos. I prefer it because it creates the most beautiful, diffused light, with depth and a soft feel to it. I would never have thought it possible to create photos like this – you don’t need a big fancy studio! Shooting out of a glorified shed is an ice-breaker, too. I have to move the bikes to one side and we’re looking out into the garden with the dogs running about, which makes everyone relax and that has an impact on the photo.
Models can be self-conscious; one of my favourite things about Nyome is that she is completely free with herself. After the shoot, we both felt that we had captured something really cool, which is why what happened next was so frustrating.
Nyome shared one of the images on Instagram, and then I uploaded one that was slightly more revealing. Nyome said she’d really wanted to upload that one but was nervous it might be taken down. I told her I had put other images up that were way more revealing, but in fact Nyome was right. When she uploaded it – the same image – it was taken down from her account.
The same photo on my account stayed up, and I encouraged Nyome to try again, because I thought something had gone wrong. In the picture, she was completely covering her breasts and she was wearing shorts – I’d photographed myself wearing less and posted it, along with plenty of images of white plus-size women, and those images were staying up. Eventually the image of Nyome was censored on my Instagram account, too. We both tried a different image of Nyome from the same session but that got taken down as well.
I encouraged my followers to post the picture as an experiment, because they went against no Instagram guidelines. They all got taken down. Then my friend Gina Martin, the activist who had been instrumental in outlawing upskirt photography, got on board, and asked more people to post the images to their feeds. They all got taken down. Soon the Observer ran a news story, and more and more people were getting angry and shouting about it. Gina suggested writing an open letter to Instagram and within 24 hours, the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, emailed Nyome to apologise and arrange a call.
We were told the problem was to do with breast-holding. There is an algorithm that flags images where breasts are being squeezed. Plus-size women’s breasts are bigger, which can sometimes flag things even when they’re covering all the necessary parts, so they are deemed sexually explicit when they’re not. Another alert had apparently been triggered for aggressive grabbing of breasts, but none of that was going on in these images.
In October, Instagram agreed to change its algorithms, and we are still working with it on trying to eliminate the censoring of plus-size women, and black plus-size women in particular.
This image of Nyome was taken soon after the initial algorithm update, in a second shoot we arranged to celebrate and test it, but also because we wanted to see each other and make art together again. She’s in front of one of the vintage 1970s sheets I’ve been obsessively collecting lately. There’s something playful about them – I’m aiming to create a feel of retro wallpaper with them.
We have both successfully posted this picture on Instagram, and it is more revealing than those that were originally censored. I love that in every photo of Nyome she has a strong, unapologetic expression, which is exactly what she should have – there’s no reason her image should be censored or discriminated against. I feel very strongly about that. It has been a stressful time and I’m really proud of her.
Born: Cambridge, 1986.
Influences: ”Films, light, music, people, photographers, art, life.”
High point: “Any time I send someone a photo and they come back saying they love it.”
Low point:”Having my entire [collection of] photographic equipment stolen out of my car.”
Top tip: “Master the light and you’ll master the photograph.”