Feminist Artist Rupi Kaur, Whose Period Photograph Was Removed From Instagram: 'Men Need To See My Work Most'

Artist Whose Period Photo Was Removed From Instagram: 'Men Need To See My Work Most'

While you may not recognise Rupi Kaur, you'll certainly remember her work. Earlier this year an image from her photo series, Period, went viral after it was removed from Instagram - not once, but twice - for "violating the site's community standards".

The photograph, which has since been viewed millions of times and provoked heated debate about Instagram censorship, showed a woman laying on a bed facing the wall, her period had leaked onto her pyjamas and bed sheets.

Rupi, 22, uploaded the photograph to Instagram on a Monday back in March as part of a university project to see how people interpret the same piece of art in different settings - within a few hours it had been removed, ironically.

Shocked and appalled she put the photograph up a second time and within eight to ten hours it had been removed again.

"When the photo was removed a second time it became more than a school project, it became a fight," she tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle.

For Rupi this incident was about far more than one photo, it was about the way that women's bodies are portrayed - and censored - on Instagram.

Using the Instagram account of popular pornography site Porn Hub as an example, which is seldom censored (if at all), Rupi asks: "How in the world could Instagram remove an image that doesn’t actually violate anything, but at same time host images that are so sexually violent?"

The period photograph, by comparison to the pornographic and degrading images that litter the site, depicts a typical female experience.

As Rupi rightly points out, half of the world's population get periods and, chances are, all of these women at some point have woken up to find their period has leaked to their underwear or pyjamas.

As her anger grew, she decided to upload the censored image to Facebook, along with a photo of the notification message that users receive when an image is taken down. By the time she woke up the next morning, her story had gone viral and she was being contacted by media from around the world.

That evening Instagram allowed the image back on the site and emailed Rupi with an apology. They claimed the image had been removed "by mistake".

But, Rupi remains adamant that "you don't make the same mistake twice" and, besides, the story was already bigger than she ever imagined.

Photo: Baljit Singh

The reaction to her censored image was - and still is - mixed. She says the majority of comments about her work were negative, but that the positive changes she has observed around the world made the risk "worth it".

Rupi, who lives in Toronto, Canada, is from a Punjabi community, where, she says, menstruation is a taboo subject that is seldom discussed - particularly among men.

But her photo has had a profound effect, with people from her community sharing the image at the time and openly discussing the issues around its censorship.

Rupi recalls a call from female friend who wanted to tell her how much of an impact the photo had had on her brother and his male friends.

When the men first saw the image they had recoiled. But after much discussion they began to see the disparity between the way in which men talk and joke so openly about masturbating, while society rejects something as natural as menstruation.

"It's interesting to see how the men came up with that argument by themselves and then discuss it with their with mum and sisters," she says.

But not everyone has been so open-minded.

Photo: Baljit Singh

"Some men from my community have been very hateful. They've created fake social media accounts, and taken my face and photoshopped it onto pornographic photos. They also started talking about my breasts or about what I was doing sexually," she says.

"I know that 50-60% of all comments on every site that covered the story were negative, but that didn’t affect me much. What upset me was that people I knew first hand were reacting badly. These were guys from my own community, who I'd been to high school with, and they were trying to tarnish me rather than the art."

She adds: "Their reaction just goes to prove how much my kind of work is necessary."

Luckily, she had a dedicated group of women around her who were working tirelessly to make sure the accounts were taken down.

"I had a very strong group to fall back on and after the whole experience my skin is just so thick," she says. "You can do just about anything you want and it doesn’t affect me at all."

Rupi says her father supports her work entirely, but he anticipated the backlash over the period photo. "When I showed him the photo he said he was proud, but he also told me to be careful. He became very protective and suggested my sister accompany me to community events."

While she may disagree with its censorship policy, Rupi is still an avid user of Instagram (now with 213,000 followers). But why does she still use a platform that has censored her work, albeit temporarily?

Unlike her spoken word events and gallery exhibitions, "which attract progressive liberal types", Instagram allows her to connect with hundreds of thousands of harder-to-reach people.

"Otherwise, I'm just preaching to the choir," she says. "At end of day I want my work to create progressive change."

She adds: "It’s kind of hypocritical [to stay on Instagram after what happened], but I might as well help create a balance of positive more intelligent imagery, rather than completely disappear."

"People always say my work is so great for women, that it is feminist art. But for me, it’s men that need to see it the most. Because it’s the misogyny that we need to address, rather than the feminism."

Rupi's work is provocative by its very nature. She deals with female trauma, such as domestic violence and sexual violence, and her debut book 'Milk & Honey', which is a mixture of poetry and illustration, charts the cyclical nature of such traumatic experiences: from trauma itself, to how to heal from trauma, to learning to embrace positive relationships again and eventually looking at how to cope if those positive relationships break down.

"Milk & Honey is about the growth of a woman. It’s very universal but I write from female and a minority perspective within the Western world."

Rupi started writing in an attempt to find words for her own personal trauma.

"I was in a very very dark place for a long time, I was doing performance poetry but when I started to write it was all about expressing myself and finding words for my trauma."

She decided to post some of her poems online and the "outpour" of young women who connected with her work completely blew her away.

One woman told Rupi: "Your work makes me feel like a woman."

Not all of the experiences in her book are real, Rupi writes about her own experiences as well as those of the mothers and daughters around her.

But still, she is cautious of writing about experiences that are far removed from her own. "Some women ask me to write about somethings, but I can’t as I don’t have any experiences that are even close to the request. I can’t stand in the shoes of someone else, I don’t think it’s my right to intervene in that space."

"Collectively, I believe the emotions that women experience are very similar, so often I am able to get them spot on," she says.

So what does she want her work to achieve?

"Poetry gave words to my pain and that’s all I want to do for people," she says. "Book sales and fancy events are great, but when someone comes up to me and says 'you put words to my pain' that’s a beautiful thing."