He grew up in Berkeley, California, and was a competitive swimmer from grade school through college. He studied photography at California State University, Long Beach, learning pre-digital photographic techniques, before changing his major to film making. The short film he wrote and directed, Alien (1992), was screened in film festivals around the world. He graduated first in his class and Phi Beta Kappa with a Fine Arts degree and then worked as a flight attendant and real estate agent before beginning his career as a photographer. He was also the CEO of a small corporation, Three In One Concepts, Inc.
Stokes’ photographs have been featured and discussed on various television shows, such as Good Morning America, The Today Show, The Tonight Show, The View, and The Talk. In addition, his fashion and fitness work has been featured on America’s Next Top Model and twice graced the cover of Men’s Health Italy.
In 2012, he published his first hardcover male figure study book, the now-out-of-print Masculinity, which included photographs of French singer, actor, and model Quentin Elias. His second book, Bare Strength (2014) featured a section on wounded war veterans, specifically amputees. The book’s success led him to donate $10,000 to the Semper Fi Fund, a charity that provides financial assistance to post-9/11 wounded, ill, and injured veterans and their families. Stokes told The Huffington Post that his interest in war veterans came about after meeting U.S. Marine Corps vet and amputee-turned fitness model Alex Minsky. "I had already studied as many amputee photos that I could find. I noticed that most of them emphasized the lost limb, and that the mood was often sorrowful. That was not the vibe I was getting from him, so I decided to simply photograph him as if he were not an amputee, photograph him exactly the same way I would any of my fitness models."
In 2014, Stokes’ collection of vintage photographs of nude WWII soldiers was published by Taschen as My Buddy.
His third book, Always Loyal (2015), is devoted exclusively to wounded United States veterans, while Exhibition (2015), is a continuation of his celebration of the male figure. Both books were produced with the help of a single Kickstarter campaign that funded in one hour and fifteen minutes. The campaign's original goal was $48,250 but it ultimately raised $411,134. Pre-sales of both books will result in a donation of $20,000 to the Semper Fi Fund by the end of 2015.
Stokes garnered worldwide attention when he began publicly challenging Facebook's censorship policy after a photo was removed from his public page, which to date has more than 792,000 likes. The photo in question, of Minsky nude but covering his privates with an athletic cup, was deleted in February 2013 by the social network, who claimed it violated their ban on nudity. In protest, more than 4,000 of Stokes' followers shared the photograph and made it their profile picture. After Stokes questioned the photo's removal in various media outlets, saying it did not depict exposed genitalia or female nipples (two examples in Facebook's official definition of nudity), the photo was reinstated and Stokes received an apology stating that the removal was an error.
In December 2013, Facebook removed another photo of Minsky from Stokes' page, saying it violated their Community Standards, and banned the photographer's page for 30 days. Stokes told The Advocate he suspected this action was personal. "I believe I know who reported the photo. It was most likely a gay graphics designer who stole one of my photos and used it for a bar ad. He and I were going back and forth on what he had done, and his employer made him pay a license fee for image usage. So, Facebook's reporting system is an effective revenge tool."
In January 2015, Stokes was locked out of his Facebook account and told that his personal page and his professional one were to be forcibly merged for violating the network's policy of discussing work on his personal page, a claim Stokes adamantly denied. After an appeal, Stokes' two pages were not merged and he was once again granted access to both. After still more photos were removed, Stokes questioned why Facebook permitted ESPN to post nude athletes with full buttocks showing while he couldn't show a nude man shot from the side with nothing revealed. In protest, fans of Stokes began reporting the more revealing photos on ESPN's page, but Facebook declined to remove them or ban the sports network. At this point, Stokes told The Advocate, "we concluded that one way you can post male nudes on Facebook is if you are a big brand or if you advertise on Facebook."
In July 2015, Facebook issued Stokes a warning after he posted a photo called “Mary, The Venus,” which depicts topless female Army veteran and amputee Mary Dague. In an interview with The Independent UK, Stokes said he believed the photo would be acceptable because it shows breast scarring, which Facebook does not prohibit. Two months later, Stokes was banned from the site for 30 days after posting a photo from his book Masculinity that showed a man nude from the side, lighting a cigarette. The photo was later reinstated and Stokes received an apology but not an explanation.
Stokes believed the sudden reversal was prompted by a media request from The Independent UK, who had asked Facebook to publicly comment on the removal. When the photo was removed a second time shortly after its reinstatement, Stokes tried to contact Facebook's PR department but received no response.
Stokes cited the hypocrisy of Facebook's censorship saying, "We’re allowed to see Angora rabbits stripped of their fur live, but we can’t see a man nude from the side."
Michael Stokes lives in Los Angeles.