To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye, all are classics of American literature that have shaped our nation’s culture. They’re also all books that have, at one time or another, been banned. In fact, so many books have been banned, the American Library Association (ALA) created a Banned Books Week, a celebration of titles deemed too naughty for general consumption. Now local photographer Kimberly Butler has gotten in on the fight for freedom of expression. To stress the importance of the First Amendment, this summer Butler shot nude models, all Charlestonians, painted in phrases from some of the banned books list. She says causing some controversy is all part of her plan.
“That’s the whole point,” says Butler. “It’s to push the question of the First Amendment to the next level.”
One of her models, local playwright Michael Smallwood, was onboard with the project immediately. Smallwood posed for both Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, a book that’s been banned several times for its use of “the N-word” which appears 219 times in the original text. Some versions replaced that word with “slave,” which Smallwood believes is no better. “The word shouldn’t be taken out of that book,” he says. “It’s a disservice to the art itself and to the history.”
For Butler that’s the purpose of the project, to expose the meaning behind so-called controversial phrases and magnify them on human flesh. “I want to take it to the next level and actually paint the human body with either what these parents would perceive as offensive or a statement from the book that would speak to me personally,” she says.
Butler selected several books to represent, ranging from Slaughterhouse-Five to Where’s Waldo? In case you didn’t know, the illustrated childrens’ book became one of the most banned stories of the 1990s due to complaints over a topless woman in a beach scene.
“It’s so ridiculous. The part that really upsets me is that it will be one mother, or two mothers,” says Butler of the people who typically call to censor a book. She adds that young people are exposed to a lot on a daily basis through TV and social media. “They’re getting more off Facebook and the internet than they’re ever getting out of Huck Finn. Please! What are we worried about Tom Sawyer for?”
Stephanie Acevedo, who depicted William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, agrees. For Acevedo’s photo, Butler shot her full-frontal in war paint. But it wasn’t Acevedo’s original intent to be in the collection. After body painting some of Butler’s subjects, Acevedo later volunteered to model. “I’ve always wanted to do something meaningful with my body-painting skills, so I wanted to use my artistic ability to help Kim in her project,” she says.
Others signed on after hearing about some of Butler’s other projects. The photographer splits her time between Charleston and New York, and has photographed celebrities from America Ferrera to Stephen Hawking in addition to shooting ALA’s READ campaign — which features celebrities holding their favorite books — since its inception in the early 1980s.
“I was excited to work with someone who is good at what she does,” says Daniel Jones, a Charleston actor who represented John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. By coincidence, Jones was cast soon after as Lenny in Threshold Rep’s upcoming production of the play based on the novella. Both experiences hit home for the actor, reminding him why he believes access to art should never be restricted. “If you don’t like it, don’t pick up that book or don’t turn on that TV show. But everyone else has the right to access it,” he says.
Even with ongoing censorship issues such as last year’s College of Charleston controversy over the lesbian comic book Fun Home, Butler recognizes that Americans are lucky when it comes to freedom of expression. Butler’s adopted daughter Caitlin, who was also involved in the project, comes from a former communist country where everything was censored. Because of that, she says her daughter values the freedoms we have — and often take for granted — here in the U.S.
“We’re America. We have to keep evolving as a society,” says Butler. And that evolution she believes requires discussion about topics we disagree on. “If you don’t put this stuff on the table, if you don’t openly discuss it, it festers.”
Future plans for the photos include a book and exhibits in Charleston, New York, and Los Angeles. You can see some of them now on her website kimberlybutler.com and in her column at the Huffington Post.