Zoe Strauss

Zoe Strauss


After I finished work on my book, America, one huge problem came up. Not a little problem, but a problem that could have prevented it from being published at all. The book was censored by the printer. Not the publisher; the printer refused to print two nude images. The book was about to go to press when I got a call that they refused to print the images. If the publisher, AMMO, moved it to a different printer, the book would be pushed back six months, which was actually a big, big problem for me. The timing was central to the publication of the book, and was a part of process in how I made the image choices. I planned the book to come out right around the election.

If you know me, you know that I was losing my f*#!ing mind. First of all, what was happening was a refusal to print a photo of a penis. Are you f*#!ing kidding me? I was, and am, furious. There’s no need delve further into what’s wrong with this entire situation: it’s obvious. There’re approximately 150 million men in the United States and I’m going to venture a guess that the great majority of them have penises… but the three penises that were visible in the book were three too many for the printer.

You can’t imagine the extraordinarily difficult deliberation during the two day period in which the decision of what to do had to be made. I went over every scenario.  After all was said, and believe you me there was a lot said, I decided that the first edition could be published without the nude photos, and that I would make the photos available at full size, high resolution, for people to download. I planned to send out the hi-res photos to my email list, and I still hope to make them available on my gallery’s website, and will encourage all to print them out and keep them with the book. I went over and over and over the book without the photos and felt very strongly that it was rock solid, and should get out at election time.

I have hopes that the ensuing discourse regarding the censorship will be important to my process, as well as to the understanding of how the human body is regarded, how the male body is regarded, and how the male nude is still considered taboo. Friends, while I am familiar with the patriarchal structure of the Western art canon, I am honestly shocked that a pecker is consider so offensive that a Chinese printing press refuses to print a male nude. Seriously, shocked.

Here’s what I said in the introduction:

“…I’ve incorporated some of the stories of the people I have photographed in the book. I was a little hesitant to include text about how these photos came about because I want the viewer to make their own narrative about these images without any descriptive text; the images are really meant to be seen without captions. But the more I thought about the importance of transparency in the project, along with my interest in demystifying the process of how the photos are made, and how in so many ways this book is a work in progress, it seemed appropriate to talk about the images.”

Ironically, the one photo I discussed in the entire introduction is one of the censored photos. I did a last-second rewrite to reflect the absence. Of course, during the multitude of discussions of what I could do, my preference was to replace the text on the pages where the images were removed with something like “THIS IMAGE CENSORED BY PRINTER.” This would have changed the tenor of the book, but would open up a completely new discussion of what imagery is found “indecent.” The printer refused to have any acknowledgement or reference to their censorship.

From the original intro:

“…I made a photo that came from a second meeting that I was unable to include in this book, of two guys showing their tattooed penises. One of the men in that photo was someone who I had met the year before on Broad Street at the [Mummers] parade, and he showed me that his penis was tattooed with the Harley-Davidson logo and I made a few photos of him. I saw him the next year at the parade and was super excited and thanked him for letting me make his photo. I told him how great it was that he would let me make such an intimate photo of him on the street, and then he blew my mind by telling me he was with another guy in the brigade who also had his penis tattooed with a Harley-Davidson logo, which led to a photo of both of them showing their tattooed penises. It was great moment, and one that told a lot about America.”

As an aside, when I heard that the book was being printed in China, I really wrestled with it. But I found that the idea of a book of photographs about being American, that’s titled America, was being printed in China spoke directly to so many of the images of the absence of industry that I hoped to address. It was the reality of the two false factories I had included, the cinderblocks in Chicago and the salt pile in Camden. For a while, I actually wanted to change the title to America: Printed in China, which would have been awesome.
Published October 2008

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America by Zoe Strauss