Freedom of expression is a concept we often take for granted in a country where new ideas and thought-provoking opinions are encouraged. I mean, could you imagine what it would be like if we weren’t allowed to express ourselves? There would be no art, no movements aiming to make our world a better place, no leaders who inspire us to see new and different perspectives. It’s almost as if progress would cease to exist.

Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe saw firsthand what happens when we’re no longer allowed to tell our stories. That’s why upcoming HBO documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is extremely important — it will give viewers a chance to learn of this man’s journey, without the censorship he constantly faced throughout his lifetime.

You’ve likely seen the cover of Patti Smith’s Horses which features a portrait of Smith taken by Mapplethorpe.

While that portrait was taken in the mid-’70s, as the years went on Mapplethorpe’s work got more and more controversial.

Because much of his work work focused on real, raw forms of sexual expression, Mapplethorpe’s photos faced an immense amount of criticism. In 1989, his The Perfect Moment exhibit singlehandedly started a culture war when North Carolina’s Republican Senator Jesse Helms learned that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) had given a Philly museum $30,000 for Mapplethorpe’s works. He was upset because the exhibit featured a section of homosexual S&M images and famously shouted to the Senate, “Look at the pictures! Look at the pictures!… Don’t believe the Washington Post!Don’t believe the New York Times! I’m going to ask that all the pages, all the ladies, and maybe all the staff leave the Chamber so that senators can see exactly what they’re voting on.” (This quote also inspired the documentary title.)

After gathering 100 Congressmen together, Helms helped pen an angry letter to the NEA. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. consequently cancelled Mapplethorpe’s upcoming exhibit on their premises. This all occurred a few months after the photographer passed away, due to his battle with AIDS, but that didn’t stop the onslaught of discrimination. In fact, his work later traveled to Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) and the director Dennis Barrie was charged with obscenity (and later acquitted).

According to Patti Smith – his romantic partner, who later became a close friend – Robert Mapplethorpe “took areas of dark human consent and made them into art. He worked without apology, investing the homosexual with grandeur, masculinity and enviable nobility… He was presenting something new, something not seen or explored as he saw and explored it.” Based on Smith’s description, the famed photographer’s work can not only be seen as a tribute to freedom of expression – one can also call his work sex-positive, since it aimed to shine a light on the natural desires that are a universal part of our beings.

To tell the artist’s story as he’d want it told, filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Robert Barbara (Inside Deep Throat, HBO’s Wishful Drinking, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and RuPaul’s Drag Race) will have full access to The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation’s archives. They want to include never-before-seen content so they can be as candid as Mapplethorpe himself. “Even his most shocking and forbidden images are included without blurs, without snickers – in other words, exactly as the artist intended,” they said in a statement.

As a whole, the documentary will follow the photographer’s dynamic life, starting with his enrollment in Pratt. It will cover his romance and friendship with Patti Smith, explore his connection to BDSM culture in 1970s New York, delve into his 1986 AIDS diagnosis, and end with his passing in 1989. Several people, who knew the artist during his lifetime, will be interviewed, including his sister Nancy, brother Edward, Fran Lebowitz, Debbie Harry, Carolina Herrera, and Brooke Shields.

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures will debut exclusively on HBO in April 2016, giving the artist the expressive platform he always sought to find.

Related reading:

[Images via Twitter and Amazon]