Sylvia Kouveli is a photographer and activist
based in Athens, Greece.
Her project #bOObs raises awareness about breast cancer and the risks associated with our embarrassment of the breast.
1. Can you briefly explain what was the inspiration for the project?
I felt that there was a need -especially in my home country, Greece- to break the taboo of talking and seeing the female body in its natural state (topless bathing, not wearing a bra, changing/showering in front of other women in gyms/pools, being naked/topless at home with family members -daughters, cousins, etc.). This cultural shyness, combined with the taboo of the C-word (Cancer) has caused a dangerous health landscape for women of all ages who don't feel comfortable to touch their bodies, to go to the doctor, to talk to family/friends about any suspicious changes, ultimately resulting in delayed diagnoses of breast cancer (a very common cancer in adult women), thus decreasing the options for and success rate of treatment.
My "aha moment" was: we need to see more boobs! The more unretouched, unaltered (digitally or by certain clothing), out of context, anonymous, boobs we see, the more comfortable we -as women and eventually as a society- will be to talk about them and take care of them -us.
2. How do you hope to empower women through it?
Knowledge is power. I use the medium of photography to lighten the mood on a serious subject. Through meet-ups, photo shoots, social media posts and physical exhibitions, I provide information (medical facts, as well as personal stories) from and for women about their bodies.
3. What are some obstacles or difficulties you've encountered while running the project?
Locally, many people struggle to understand the impact of my project. In physical exhibitions I've had women come up to me and ask "But why would someone want to talk about their mastectomy?". It's empowering to be the narrator of your own story, to be able to make decisions on a subject on which you've often been told "you have no choice but to...", it's a big part of the process to get it all off your chest (pun intended).
Funding has also been a challenge. I've had some sponsorships for physical exhibitions, but by and large this has been a self-funded project. This of course has an impact on how much time and energy you can invest in a project that doesn't even come close to covering the material fees, let alone paying for your time.
Last but not least, I've had censorship issues on social media platforms that have restricted the potential reach of my work.
4. How have you worked through/around them?
In terms of understanding, I try to make my point come across as clearly as possible. Personal stories from participants also tend to do that on their own.
I have still not overcome the challenge of funding. I am now starting to sell some of the prints I had made in the past and am targeting doctors/plastic surgeons who might want to add one of my works to their office (and definitely have the money to support that).
Censorship on social media is still a gamble, but I usually work around it by sharing already-censored work.
5. How has the project changed over time (if it has)?
Initially #bOObs was more open. Awareness for ALL women was the main target. It quickly found a niche with women who are going or have been through a cancer journey. They need and want an outlet for their stories. Awareness is still a main goal, but sharing women's stories and promoting the diversity of women's chests regardless of what their boobs may look like or may have gone through, is also a target.
6. How often do you use your own body or the bodies of other women in your artwork?
7. Have you had your artwork or other posts censored for showing female nudity?
8. Has your body been censored or otherwise judged regardless of your intent?
Yep. Intent is ignored and never part of the equation.
9. So very often, when women with "normal" bodies post images of themselves online, they are described as "brave". This word perfectly highlights the problematic prejudices swirling around the female body -- even within our own minds. Luckily there are many activists and artists trying to knock down this wall between our culture and reality. How would you describe the feelings you feel when you see "revealing" images of "normal" female/femme bodies? (ie empowerment, nothing, surprise, envy, anxiety, shame, confusion, reflection, pride, thrill, etc)
I feel proud. I see myself and all of my subjects as having "normal" bodies. If we look for imperfections we'll always find them. The point is to love ourselves for who we are, treat our bodies with respect and love, and let beauty resonate from within. It's not an easy feat, so I feel proud when more women choose to "reveal" their "normal" bodies, instead of aiming for superficial perfection.
10. Do you find yourself self-censoring your posts and/or artwork?
Yes, definitely! Either at the time of the creation of the photo/artwork, ie. by covering censored areas of the body with objects, or adjusting the light/shadows, or by applying a pixelated mosaic layer before publishing a post.
11. If yes, why do you do it? (ie to what end, or for whom)
Right now, I do it because it's the price to pay in order to get my work and my voice to as many people as possible. Even if it's contrary to my beliefs.
12. How does self-censoring make you feel?
Shitty. Haha It makes me feel frustrated and I always half-swear under my breath as I censor a photo before I post it.
It puts me in a mind frame that's contrary to my beliefs and I often have to step back and think: How would I actually do it if the primary display space for this work was my living room wall and not the internet? That tends to calibrate my self-censoring, but the result is often to create duplicate work (censored and not censored), which is far from ideal.
13. Any story you'd like to tell or comment you'd like to make? Feel free to say whatever you'd like here!
I was recently thinking about something that happened exactly one year ago at a #bOObs exhibition in a gallery in Los Angeles. This particular gallery had a store-front window, so we had chosen to place one of the larger-than-life photos there. We went with the "safe choice", which was a photo of a mother nursing her baby. Both were nude, but all you could see from their nudity was part of one of the mother's nipples. There is a lot of tenderness expressed in this image, by the way the mother is wrapping her arms around her daughter and in the way that the baby girl is cradled, also holding her mother with one of her hands.
On the 2nd day of the exhibition, as I arrived at the gallery, I noticed that the photo had been taken down. When I asked what had happened (assuming that one of the hooks came undone or something of that sort), the gallery owner told me that the neighbour(s) complained about the image because their children walk by the gallery and see it. I was dumbfounded. If there is one type of acceptable nudity for children to see, it's a child being fed by its mother. Are we leading our children to think that nursing is obscene? Have we asked ourselves how many scenes of violence our children are exposed to before we rush to take down images of nude mothers feeding their babies?
Censoring on the internet is not the issue. We are the issue: people who get offended by nature; people who would much rather watch a film or play a video game with explicit violence, than see a mother nursing her child on a park bench or a restaurant.