The nude photography debate: “Moral decadence or artistic expression?”

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The nude photography debate: “Moral decadence or artistic expression?”

The nude photo shoot of the three Harare ladies taken by photographer Tinashe Sithole and posted on his X, formerly Twitter page, but was later removed. (This image contains explicit content. Image blurring was used.)

Fitzgerald Munyoro

IT was a Saturday afternoon in February 2023 when Tinashe Sithole (alias) packed his wide array of camera equipment  for what was anticipated to be an ‘easy job’ and regular photo shoot in one of Harare’s leafy northern low density suburbs.

At the stroke of lunch hour, a metallic silver Range Rover SUV drove up to the front door of his two roomed cottage in the medium density suburb of Waterfalls. Three olive skinned middle aged women got out of the car. He says he remembers the aroma of lavish living like it was yesterday as they wore expensive Italian jumpsuits, which instantly made him regret the US$100 fee he had previously charged over the phone for what was supposed to be a standard pregnancy photo shoot.

Sithole observed that two of the ladies were pregnant, though one appeared farther than the other.  On their way he says the heavily pregnant woman started the conversation. “I hope you don’t mind. My friends will be joining me for the photo shoot. I wasn’t feeling really comfortable doing this alone. But don’t worry you will be fairly compensated,”  she reportedly said.

Sithole says he casually agreed but inside his head that moment was too good to be true because he had been promised US$300 for a two hours photo shoot. Of which, on a normal weekend, a job that earns US$50 is usually laborious and hard to come by. Sithole says life has not been rosy for the local photography industry citing that it is now over subscribed.

The unexpected nude photo shoot

It however turned out that he would earn every cent of his money in the two hours photo shoot. The clients took him to a picturesque private garden at one of the clients house (Actual location withheld) and explained to Sithole how they wanted to have a ‘Back to the Garden of Eden’ natural garden theme for the photo shoot.

As he was setting up his equipment he was shocked to see the ladies all undressing. Instinctively he looked away rationalizing that the women must have some clothes tucked away somewhere and wanted to change. When one of the women said, “We are ready,” Sithole turned around, to find all three in their birthday suits, just covering their essential parts with fresh leaves and flower petals. That is when it dawned on him that the ladies literally meant being naked like Adam and Eve in the biblical Garden of Eden.

He then realized that this would be his first nude photo shoot experience. In fact, he had not imagined it at all! His trembling fingers struggled to locate the shutter button to adjust the camera lens. Sithole says he remembers being an emotional wreck. But he had to forgo his moral codes because of the staggering US$300 payment.

“I felt like a male prostitute going against my whole belief system for money,” he says.

Sithole’s story is the voice of many professional photographers in Zimbabwe who are now having to accept the emerging trend of nude photography. Once regarded as fabric of Western tradition, nude photography and by extension nude art has breached the tightly woven and rather conservative walls of the African culture according to some critics.

Ronald Zulu a male model who believes nude art is an inescapable reality that should just be accepted by society.

Zimbabweans have traditionally been relatively less liberal in exposing their body in the past, however this is fast changing with fashion trends present-day in the digital era where we are now living in a global village. Could nude portraits be the rebellion of present generations, fraying of society’s moral fabric or just artistic expression? These are the conversations that Easterntimeszim Lifestyle had with players in the photography sector who revealed mixed views on the matter.

The general feelings expressed by most photographers reflected conflict, while on the other hand some local models seem to have embraced the culture of nude art.

Most photographers that were spoken to said they were not comfortable with doing nude photo shoots. Nyasha Chawatama(36) of Chany Media productions said any association with nude art is a virtual death sentence for the career of a professional photographer.

“I don’t want my brand to be associated with such kind of content because it tarnishes my name in the industry. As a professional photographer, it is better if I focus on corporate events,” he said.

Motivate Media owner Anesu Kure based in Mutare says he once did a nude photo shoot at the request of an upcoming model but has reservations about the growing trend.

“We are forced to swallow our morals when the price is too tempting, of which it often is,” said Kure, adding that many photographers take the money but do not post the photographs on their social media handles to avoid direct association.

Traditionalist and culture heritage advocate David Mutambirwa of Mhakwe Heritage Trust said nude art should have no place in Zimbabwean society.

“Zimbabweans are a people who value their culture, norms and values. Despite our primitive dressing in historical times, a woman’s body was always highly respected. Even in Christian or Muslim practices, nudity is not something that is condoned. What we are seeing at present are the machinations of western culture that has penetrated the impressionable minds of our young people,” said Mutambirwa.

Renowned celebrities such as the American multi award winning tennis icon  Serena Williams in 2017 made headlines after her nude photo of her with her pregnant belly was on the cover of the August 2017 issue of Vanity Fair, an extremely popular magazine in the United States of America. Since then, this is becoming a trend not only by celebrities but ordinary people all over the world, Zimbabwe included.

Some local models have however welcomed nude photography as an artistic expression. Freelance model Nozithelo Moyo(23) said that though perceptions are gradually changing, the majority or Zimbabweans still have a misconstrued view of nude photography.

“People have different views of nude photography. Some understand whilst some don’t understand. In Zimbabwe there are those who consider themselves as conservative and identify Zimbabwe as a conservative society so it’s hard for them to understand. They think it is encouraging pornography or selling your body and they have this negative stigma around it. This is the thinking of the majority of Zimbabweans who are conservative in thinking,” says Moyo.

Nozithelo Moyo (left) a 23 years old model in a nude photo shoot (This image contains explicit content. Image blurring was used.)

“On the other hand we also have people who understand art and the modelling industry and they get it. They understand that it is part and parcel of fashion and it is here to stay. After all, modelling is a form of art and communication, just like music where freedom of expression should be allowed. If we allow sexually suggestive content in music then the same standards should apply to modelling,” she said.

South African based Zimbabwean male model Ronald Zulu (23) says nudity in art goes beyond morals and should be viewed as an artistic performance that is divorced from the confines of conventional societal norms and ethos.

“It is acting put on a picture as I would be playing a character. It has got nothing to do with who I am. It is a scene I am in and I follow the script of what I should do. A lot of people appreciate it and at the end of the day, it is all art. People accept body painting but with nude photography, they become skeptical. However, the American industry is normalizing nudity and Africa is slowly embracing this as well,” said Zulu.

 The legal perspective on sharing nude images

The contrasting views present a unique challenge for media, society and policy makers to map a way forward for the phenomenon of nude photography. At present in Zimbabwe, two acts of legislation speak on nudity but do not specifically address the idea of nudity as an artistic form of expression.

The Censorship and Entertainment Act talks about the prohibition of importation, production and dissemination of undesirable publications, pictures, statues and records. The law, in this case, prohibits a person from importing (that is bringing from elsewhere), print, publish, manufacture, make or produce, distribute, display, exhibit or sell or offer or keep for sale any publication, picture, statue or record or publicly play any record; which is undesirable or which has been declared by the Censorship Board to be undesirable.

The Act goes on to state that should anybody be found guilty of such conduct, such a person will be sentenced to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years to both such imprisonment and fine.

The second legislation recently enacted is the Cyber Security and Data Protection Act (Chapter 12:07) which criminalizes the sharing and distribution of images or video content showing genitalia.

Nompilo Simanje, a legal expert on media issues says interpretation of semantics might criminalize what is being perceived as an art form and there is need for specific legislation that deals with nude art.

“Access to Information and Freedom of expression are virtues which are enshrined in our national Constitution. If it can be proven that nude photography is a form of artistic expression that does not trample on other fundamental rights and freedoms then there is grounds for a new act to be tabled or a code of conduct to be formulated within the affected sectors that governs that,” says Simanje.

Adding, “With our existing laws, it is a grey area which can be misinterpreted and criminalizes an otherwise widely practiced art form.”

Nude art finds its roots in the Ancient Greeks and came back in the late 15th century with ‘The Vitruvian Man’ a piece by the famous artist Leonardo da Vinci, which is still one of the most celebrated art works in the world.

Europe based Zimbabwean musician Vimbai Zimuto became a social media sensation in 2018 after she shared nude pictures of herself on her Facebook platform. South African artists Zodwa Libram a.k.a Zodwa WaBantu and Skolopad have gained acclaim as champions of liberation of the body often posing their nude or semi nude photos on social media.



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