What To Do When You Find Naked Photos of Yourself on The Internet
On my 28th birthday, back in 2010, I picked up my iPhone 3GS and downloaded Grindr. I was newly single, had just moved into an apartment with four (some nights, five) roommates in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and everyone was talking about a new phone app that made hooking up with guys easier than ever before.
The app was groundbreaking in that it used GPS to show you the profiles of other gay men nearby, sorted by distance (e.g. 737ft away) and in addition to photos it listed their interests and preferences.
I made a profile with the username AdamMacAttack, said I was looking for dates, and used a photo of myself smiling earnestly.
I came home from my raucous birthday celebration and having recently become single was feeling lonely and a bit “wanting,” so I opened the app. I had a few messages from guys in the neighborhood and got to chatting with a handsome guy less than a mile away with a bright face, sparkly eyes, trimmed beard, and a hairy chest. (This is categorically “my type”.)
The messaging quickly became salacious; what I imagine phone sex was like in the 80s & 90s with vivid descriptions of what we would do once together. Nowadays, this type of messaging is commonplace on dating apps, but the reason I remember this conversation vividly is because I placed my phone just below my chin with the camera facing down, pulled open my underwear to reveal my erect penis and snapped a photo that I sent as part of our conversation. After sending the photo the guy on the other end of the chat said:
“Hot. My name is Sean Fader. I’m an artist. You can look me up online. I’m doing a photo project where I go to guy’s apartment after I’ve met him on a dating app and upon entering I immediately set up my camera equipment and take a portrait of him as I imagine him to be based on the avatar and persona I’ve gotten to know while messaging with him. After the photo is taken, we can have a proper date, hang out, maybe have a sleep over, but after I’ve gotten to know you a little better I take a second photo that’s more of who you actually are and people can see those photos side by side to asses the effects of gay dating apps on our identities and our community.”
I, very drunk, immediately responded with, “I LOVE THIS! VIVA LA ART! WHAT IS GRINDR GOING TO DO TO GAY DATING WORLD? WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO GAY BARS? CAN’T WAIT TO DO THIS. PASSING OUT TALK TO YOU LATER K BYE”
The next morning I woke up hung over and checked my phone, re-reading the exchange. I scrolled up to see previous messages and was shocked to see that I’d sent my first “dick pic”. I wrote to Sean, “Yikes, that’s really unlike me to send a dick pic. Please don’t share that.”
Sean agreed to keep the photo private and asked if I was still game to do the photo shoot. I agreed and invited him to come over that evening. Ever since college I’ve thought about the differences between our online avatars and our everyday selves, about what’s captured in a photo versus what’s happening when the photo is taken. I found the premise worth exploring and I got excited to meet Sean.
He arrived that evening, we exchanged pleasantries, went up to my room, set up his lights and camera, and I got into my underwear. We decided I should recreate the moment of taking and sending that first dick pic. I said, “Well, that’s not really me though. That was the first one I’ve ever sent. Am I an exhibitionist? I’m not really sure if I am.” Sean stared back at me and said, “It’s who you were last night. It’s who you were on Grindr.”
He took several full body photos from a side view. The image he captured is busy but still. There’s a lot happening on the sides of the image and you see a boy trying to pose and simultaneously capture a photo of himself. It’s self-assured yet vulnerable. And, you can see some of my erect penis coming out from the top of my underwear.
After that Sean and I put down our camera and phone and had a sleepover.
The next morning I woke up with anxious ambivalence. It was the type of morning where my inner monologue was too loud to have another person in the room for fear they’d somehow be able to hear what was happening inside my head. After Sean got up to go to the bathroom I sat on the side of my air mattress (remember, I had just moved) fidgeting with my phone still connected to the charging cord thinking: “What have I done? Is this porn? Will that photo be on a wall in a gallery? Will it be on the internet with - the holy grail of online embarrassment - my erect penis and my face in the same image? Oh boy, this guy has got to get out of my apartment…” and in that instant when I looked up Sean was crouched down next to me with his camera and when my eyes caught his lens he snapped a photo.
Completely startled I said, “What are you doing?”
“That’s the second image. That’s who you really are.”
Sean and I hung out once more a few weeks later. We talked about art. We exchanged texts and emails for a while but never dated. He had a gallery show about a year later that included images from this project. The work was now called “SUP?” a play on the way many Grindr exchanges begin, with an abbreviation for “what’s up?”
Images of me weren’t in that first gallery show but they were on his website and when the Huffington Post ran a feature on Sean there was a link to more of the boys he’d been on dates with. After that article came out another of the boys Sean photographed asked for his photos to be taken down.
My boyfriend at the time of the Huffington Post article was concerned I had these photos out there and thought I should do as much as I could to get them scrubbed from the internet. He said, “This isn’t your brand. Imagine getting passed over for a job because these photos are out there.”
I saw his point but said, “I believed in the project. I fully consented to the entire experience. If I don’t get a job because of it, did I really want that job?”
However, I reluctantly emailed Sean and asked him to take down the photos of me.
This experience made me curious about what else is out there that didn’t “fit with my brand.”
The Misshapes are a DJ trio that hosted a weekly party at the famous New York club Don Hill’s in an era before social media completely changed the way we relate online. They had popular MySpace pages and their website, Misshapes.com, was filled with photos from the parties and became a popular destination for gazing at youthful fashion and the remnants of a waning Club Kid culture before Instagram or Pinterest were invented and while George W. Bush was still in office. I attended this party more than a dozen times in my early 20s and after fishing around a bit I found a series of photos of me in the basement of Don Hill’s in various states of undress, really letting loose.
I have a vague memory of when these photos were taken. I was probably experiencing a compounded high of being drunk, coked out, and being looked at; the rock star feeling every 25 year old is looking for when they go out in New York City looking to see, be seen, and feel the flash of a camera.
In reality, it was less glamorous. I’m embarrassed by how sloppy I look. I’m embarrassed to have been photographed getting naked and I’m left wondering why I felt the need to take off my clothes. What made me think this was a safe space for that? Many of us have had nights like this. Some would argue it’s a healthy pressure release and a normal growing pain. I take full responsibility for my actions in the photos while having a deep remorse that a moment I wish was transient and ephemeral was instead captured in a series of photos now online.
I found a contact email on the website and wrote to the Misshapes team asking for the photos to be removed. I said,
“It has come to my attention that there are several photos of me on your website that I wish to have taken down. Not having signed a model-release for these photos to appear on the website, and considering their nature, I request their removal. I've attached small jpegs of the images in question.”
After a year of follow up I received confirmation they had been taken down. I was surprised and relieved.
This left me with two experiences of my naked body being online and my discomfort with the way the past is interacting with my present and potentially my future. Both experiences left me uneasy and uncomfortable with examining my past, but I had an opportunity for recourse and was successful in both instances having the images removed from the internet.
I felt lucky.
Since then there have been countless photo hacks and leaked images of celebrity nude photos. In response to her iCloud account being hacked and images were released online the actress Jennifer Lawrence went on the record in Vanity Fair saying:
“Anybody who looked at those pictures, you’re perpetuating a sexual offense. You should cower with shame. Even people who I know and love say, ‘Oh, yeah, I looked at the pictures.’ I don’t want to get mad, but at the same time I’m thinking, I didn’t tell you that you could look at my naked body.”
She continued with a message for the tabloid community: “You have a choice. You don’t have to be a person who spreads negativity and lies for a living. You can do something good. You can be good. Let’s just make that choice and—it feels better.”
In 2012 when Matt Lauer interviewed Anne Hathaway after she had upskirt photos published online he asked "What’s the lesson learned from something like that...?" and she answered,
"I was very sad that we live in an age when someone takes a picture of another person in a vulnerable moment and rather than delete it and do the decent thing, sells it...And I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants."
I am coming out about my experiences in order to stand up against what Lawrence and Hathaway went through. I would like to advocate for a high bar to determine when something is newsworthy and demand consent for images and recordings of people’s bodies that are intended as private communication or sexually compromising.
I strongly believe free-speech is essential to democracy and what makes America so extraordinary. The internet and the new ability to rapidly share information about a person against their will requires us to examine what consent means online and find ways to balance consent with freedom of speech.
If a celebrity or elected politician has a sex tape that they consider private I do not believe anyone should be allowed to publish it without their consent. It would not be considered newsworthy based on the fact it was a consensually made video recording intended as a private communication.
Publishing paparazzi photos of naked celebrities on hotel balconies would be considered a sex crime because they did not know the photo was being taken and it violates their right to their own body and image while on private property.
If a celebrity decides to go for a jog on a public road and take their shirt off, that would remain fair game considering it’s a public dwelling space.
If someone takes a sexy selfie to send to a partner and it leaks to the media it should not be allowed to be published unless the person in the photos grants consent.
If an actress is simply getting out of a car and asks that photos of their genitals not be published they should have that request honored.
However, the issue of someone like Anthony Weiner sending naked images to an underaged woman would remain classified as newsworthy and important to publish if it was determined that an elected official was breaking the law.
In 2015 I started to develop the idea of being Post Shame: finding something in your past you fear could be hacked/leaked and used against you. In releasing the potentially “shameful” story on your own you can disarm its power. Furthermore, if you can find a stance of leadership based on what you learned from the experience you can inspire people toward productive change and help dissolve shame for those who may be suffering from something similar.
PostShame.org is intended to be a safe space for people to share their stories and post images or recordings they would like to release in order to disarm a potential scandal and find a community supportive of the new stances of leadership they wish to stand for.
The only way Anthony Weiner could have become #PostShame would have been years earlier and before he engaged with an underage woman (and was truthful in his desire to only connect with women of consenting age) and said something to the effect of:
I am coming out as a person who likes to anonymously message with women and share naked photos of myself with them. I have broken no laws and all parties involved have granted consent for photos to be exchanged. I have shared this information with my wife and the way we deal with this is private to our relationship.
Of course, that type of public admission would require a huge amount of self-reflection and honesty within a marriage.
Millions of people have sent graphic images in private text conversations. “Sexting” has become a common way of connecting for people with smart phones.
I believe Anthony Weiner was an effective politician and stood up for many worthwhile causes. If he wanted to continue on that path of leadership and standing up for others it would have served him to examine his past and look for opportunities to become #PostShame and share his story.
I am #PostShame as a person who has appeared in photos naked, aware that some of them are online, and there are many more that I’ve sent in private communications to consenting adults.
I am coming out about this in order to halt any attempts to hack and leak images or recordings of me while I advocate for strong protections for private communications, a more robust conversation and legislation regarding consent online, and laws to prevent the posting of revenge porn.
I’ve included links at the end of this article to Sean Fader’s artwork and a link to the photos from the Misshapes website intended to only be viewed by those over 18 years of age.
In 2017, I attended the opening of a group show in that included a new assortment of images from Sean Fader’s “SUP?” project. As I walked toward the back of the gallery I saw an older woman and a young man standing directly in front of the before-and-after photographs of me which now included an additional panel of text from my Grindr conversation with Sean.
The young man turned around and recognized me. With a grin he asked, “Is that you in the photo?” I blushed, took a deep breath, and said, “Yes. I was younger then with less grey hair.”
The older woman appeared surprised and gestured to the man as though they’d been discussing the photographs together and she said, “Well, which image is the real you?”
I was so surprised by the question and the fact it wasn’t about my being naked. I said, “They both are, I guess. It’s funny, these photos have resulted in me examining my past and creating a project called Post Shame where you can find strength and cultivate a new type of leadership based on being honest about your past. I’d like to run for office one day.”
She looked surprised and said, “If you’re going to run for office, you better get used to having all your dirty laundry out there. Might as well have your bits hanging on a wall in a Chelsea gallery and get it over with.”
I agreed. “Yeah. Do I have your vote?”
Adam MacLean is founder of PostShame.org and is on Twitter & Instagram @adammacattack
By clicking the following link you confirm you're 18 years of age. Photos from Misshapes.com can be seen here.