For someone who is interested in how people communicate with pictures, Instagram (IG) is a fascinating environment. Where else can one get easy access to such a wide range of photography? But there’s a rub. Much like anything offered by corporate America, *certain restrictions apply. These restrictions are mostly invisible for those who don’t run into them. I post images on the platform, a mix of cat pictures, pictures of photobooks, occasionally my own photographs, and general silliness, and I have not (yet?) run into the restrictions. None of my posts have been taken down (effectively: censored). I have, in other words, no first-hand experience with having to deal with a platform that will not allow my pictures to be seen.
But I know that other people have, even though it’s very hard to tell that something like this is happening on IG. After all, posts simply disappear, and occasionally accounts do, too. It’s the “nothing to see here, folks” approach: for most users, Instagram looks just like a normal platform, and they can’t tell that certain things simply aren’t allowed or that they might have disappeared. Occasionally, someone will re-post a photograph, often manipulated in some way to hopefully evade the platform’s censorship mechanisms, with a short note added. Thus other users get a glimpse into something that Instagram prefer to do in the background.
It’s not even “just” that. I remember, a little while ago, I was looking for an artist’s account. I tend not to remember IG handles, so I went to the Search function, typed in the artist’s name, only to receive “No accounts found”. The artist is a young woman who focuses on diaristic work around both herself and those close to her (lovers, friends, …). I knew I remembered the name correctly, and I also knew I was following the artist. So I went to the list of accounts I’m following, and there she was. A quick Google search then taught me that there’s a term for what I had just run into: it’s called shadow banning. It makes people disappear without doing it completely. They still have their accounts, but other users cannot access their hashtags, and when one searches for them, they don’t show up, either. If this reminds you of stories from totalitarian states, then that’s exactly what it is: Underneath IG’s surface (that’s constantly being updated with all kinds of completely unnecessary additions) lurks something pretty ugly. And we’re all part of it if we’re on IG.
Many aspects of IG’s censorship aren’t a secret. Every once in a while, a well-known photograph gets removed or an artist manages to raise enough of a stink for an article to appear. There even is a book entitled “Pics or It Didn’t Happen: Images Banned From Instagram” (Prestel 2017), edited by Arvida Byström (@arvidabystrom) and Molly Soda (@bloatedandalone4evr1993). I have a small collection of images that were deleted on my phone (I save a screenshot when I see an image that I suspect will be censored and check back later). But thinking only about pictures has always left me wanting more. I wanted to know what all of this meant for photographers whose work or accounts have been deleted or shadow banned: if you want to show your work on the most popular social-media platformed that is exclusively tied to photography but you can’t because it falls foul of some “community guidelines” (that, to be honest, aren’t that clear to me) then what does this mean for you? Do you self-censor your work to show simulations of the work? Do you change your work? If your work centers on very meaningful intimate aspects of your life what does IG’s censorship do to you?
I think well all owe it to ourselves to find out more about this. IG for sure aren’t going to tell us. In fact, the first thing I decided when I thought about writing this piece was that I would not contact the company. I think it’s very clear from their past behaviour that they simply don’t care. And I wasn’t going to have my intelligence insulted by receiving one of their usual passive-aggressive bullshit statements (assuming they would even have bothered to respond). The second thing I decided was to assemble as large a range of voices as I possibly could. I contacted a number of artists and writers/curators who I know had had their work censored, and I put out a call on Twitter. Colin Pantall (@colin_pantall) kindly spread the word, and many other people generously shared either Colin’s or my own call or pointed out artists to me. I then sent out emails to the artists, in which I asked four very simple questions: “What part/role does Instagram have/play for your artistic practice?”, “Have you encountered censorship by IG? If yes, what happened?”, “After having encountered problems with IG have you changed the way you use the site? Are you limiting the types or amounts of images you share?”, and “Do you view IG as a viable and good platform for artists such as you?” (the fourth question was slightly longer, I’m just giving the main part here). People were invited to provide any information relevant for what they had encountered.
The artists/writers/curators who graciously found time to deal with my request are (in alphabetical order) Andy Adams (@flakphoto), Naomi Harris (@mapledipped), Blaire Hawes (@imagesbyblairecatherine), Jannica Honey (@jannicahoney), Dragana Jurišić (@dragana23), Jordanna Kalman (@rabbitsparrow), Juliana Maar (@juliana.maar), Celeste Ortiz (@celesteoch), Margo Ovcharenko (@margoovcharenko), Colin Pantall (@colin_pantall), Sophie Mayanne (@sophiemayanne / @behindthescars_), Siddhant Talwar (@realsidt), and Yatender (@yaonthemoon). I’d like to thank them all for the time they took to send their words, some straight from where they were on vacation. I believe that given IG is doing its best to silence their voices these artists must be given an opportunity to speak about their experiences.
With my first question I attempted to understand the role IG plays for different artists. Responses were very similar, here are some representative examples:
Dragana Jurišić: “I find that if you use it wisely, Instagram is a platform in which you can learn from the other users/feeds (it often started me on research trails). Instagram is also good for keeping in touch with your friends / community / professional networks. As well as that, I personally got a number of good career opportunities as a result of my Instagram presence.”
Jordanna Kalman: “I use Instagram to share what I’m working on, news about my goings-on and to connect with other artists. For me it has become an incredibly important and useful tool to get my work seen.”
Sophie Mayanne: “Instagram plays a large part in terms of sharing my photographic work, as well as casting – and connecting with people. For example, my photographic project Behind The Scars has largely been cast through social media. Behind The Scars> is a photographic campaign that celebrates scars of all shapes and sizes, and the stories behind them. I share both content from this project, as well as my other photographic work.”
Margo Ovcharenko: “I feel like it’s been an in between place for me. I hesitate posting work in progress, and prefer to post my finished work on a website, where the presentation is more flexible. But I also feel pressure to be present there.”
Celeste Ortiz: “Instagram is where I can show my work. I love what I do, I would do it just for me, but sharing it has always been an important part. I started many years ago as just a photography enthusiast sharing my pictures on the platform Flickr that was amazing back then: real feedback by real people with heartfelt comments, a sense of community that was so encouraging and never really found on Facebook or IG. So, yes, posting my work online is important to me, to have something to share with the world. Also, it works to find new opportunities in the photography and art worlds. I think I have gained more online than in real life in terms on my career.“
Despite the different focus placed on the platform’s role for the artists’ own work, the aspect of showing one’s work so it gets seen (and then possibly picked up by an interested party, whether someone buying a book or a photo editor or whoever else) runs like a red thread through these responses. Consequently, this immediately elevates the problem at hand – censorship – to another stage: IG’s censorship penalizes photographers in more ways than one. In an environment that already is so difficult for photographers the economic aspect clearly is important. In effect, the company not only removes present work, but it also actively makes the jobs of artists affected by censorship/shadow banning so much harder by depriving them of possible business connections.
I’m not necessarily surprised to find that the research aspect I’m using is less prominent, but it does play a larger role than I had imagined. If artists like Sophie Mayanne rely on finding connections with subjects through the site, censorship/shadow banning not only penalizes financially (as described above), it also actively hinders the creation of new work. At the same time, the removal of photographs and shadow banning not only removes such works both from the eyes of curators or writers (who might have a very strong interest in finding work that deals with very contemporary issues), but also from the public at large. It diminishes the breadth of photography visible and thus our visual culture.
To be honest, the response to my call for input depressed me quite a bit. I knew there was a problem with censorship on IG. But to see so many people get in touch had me realize the actual size of the problem. And to read what people had been subjected to – that was positively disheartening. So let’s move to the second question where I asked about censorship: have you been censored?
Jannica Honey: “Several times, in fact, so many times I don’t even know anymore. I am not even sure why IG decides to remove some of my images since I make sure the pictures does not go against the community guidelines, I would never ever post a “female” nipple for example. It is pretty disconcerting what is slowly happening on IG, the matter of fact is that they don’t even show you what image they remove any more. Around six months ago you still got a notification of what image the removed, now you just get the “Your Post Has Been Deleted Message”. The censorship looks different for different accounts. My exhibition When The Blackbird Sings depicted humans and woods. I soon became aware that any images of children resulted in a ban and removal of the post. I started to look at other accounts with similar content but perhaps with a different message and soon I noticed that naked children seemed to be allowed when the traffic to the account was over a certain number and the focus was lifestyle and beauty rather than activism and art. There are plenty of examples. I am not sure how these accounts seem to be immune to the shadow ban. […] I noticed that when I kept on “fighting” these community guidelines my account disappears more and more. It starts with removed images. After images, IG disengages your hashtags to finally hide the whole account. It is a slow process of becoming completely silenced.”
Jordanna Kalman: “My work is constantly deleted from Instagram, they remove the posts without any option to appeal the decision. There is really no telling what is or is not acceptable according to their rules. I see work in my feed where ‘female nipples’ are barely censored (or not at all) but I’ve had posts with breasts completely pixelated get deleted. They also delete any picture I post of my children if there is ANY skin showing regardless of privates being covered.”
Juliana Maar: “Countless times by now. My work is mainly centered on self portraits, nude and body, and I get photos deleted in seconds after posting. I recently had an old photo from 2 or 3 years ago deleted but couldn’t see which one cause they blurred it. There’s never a way of contesting or replying. [I have] also been shadow banned which means it’s harder for people to find my work.”
Sophie Mayanne: “I first started to have issues with work being removed around a year ago, but things have got steadily worse in the last few months. This past week, numerous posts on the Behind The Scars Instagram have been censored – and several on my own account @sophiemayanne – I didn’t realise this had happened until followers notified me, as you cannot see yourself if content has been censored. I then found out a few days ago all my content had been lifted from hashtags – including historic content, and no new work appears on hashtags.”
Celeste Ortiz: “Yes, I have been censored. When I started using IG I didn’t care much. I just posted my photographs and if one got deleted I would just posted it again censored, with blur or pixelated. But as my account was growing in terms of posts and followers, and I read about peoples’ accounts been deleted for violating the community guidelines, I started posting the nude images censored from the start to not lose my account. Last week I posted a photo I thought I would not have problems with. It has some pubic hair, more like a little black area. Now I wonder if I’m too innocent and the image is more sexual than I think? I don’t know… The image was deleted and I shared it again, cropped even. I had some fear of it being deleted again or losing my account. This didn’t happen but some people commented that I could get shadow banned and that seems to be true. My posts since then are being seen be less of my followers, especially in the first hours after they have been posted. Yeah, it could be just me being paranoid, but then I noticed my posts are not appearing when looking for hashtags. Even the hashtag #celesteortiz doesn’t show my posts, and my name can’t be found on IG’s search engine. I have been censored and now punished by Instagram for daring to share my work.“
Siddhant Talwar: “Earlier this year my account was deleted after I posted a series of photos about body positivity. The post contains the most non-explicit pieces out there. They didn’t violate any norms whatsoever. I’m someone who has worked with Instagram before and so I reached out to the person I knew, and she manages community relations in India. She helped me out a lot and ensured that my page came back. But if I didn’t know her I probably won’t get it back. She said my account wasn’t deleted because of my post but because my bio had the word “shit” in it. My bio had contained that word for two years and my account got deleted one day after I posted the photos.“
Yatender: “My practice focuses mainly on the human body and the way it interacts with the surrounding. Therefore I take lots of naked photos and I had to face the censorship problems by IG numerous times. They deleted my photos without considering whether it’s art or not, always with just a short warning my photo violating their community guidelines on nudity or pornography and that’s it.”
I think the pattern is very visible and doesn’t need to be stated – these photographers’ words make it very clear what’s going on. And you can see for yourself – the photographs shown here were all censored, whether outright removed or blurred with an added warning. The bulk of the photographs centers on the human body, and the depiction of the naked human body is instantly connected to sexuality by IG. Essentially, IG is a place where the photographic culture wars that played out in the 1980s/90s in the United States never ended, with the corporation acting like the most reactionary members of the country’s Republican Party. Mark Zuckerberg essentially is today’s Jesse Helms.
Now, you might wonder if removing restrictions on photographs might not in fact replace one bad regime with another. After all, if someone doesn’t want to see nude bodies, why force them to? But who says it’s the social network that decides what can be seen? Why not leave it up to viewers? One might argue that that’s problematic, too, once, let’s say, mass murderers livestream their deeds. Still, this is where we are right now: artists are being constantly censored, and it is only immense pressure from politicians and law enforcement that has social-media companies remove such live streams. Ironically, at the time of this writing, IG is under fire for its tepid response to an image of a murder victim. As I said earlier, they just don’t care – or if they do, they don’t act the part.
There exist a variety of possible fixes that would be very simple to implement. For example, Google uses what they call “SafeSearch,” where a user pre-sets the types of images s/he is willing to see. Alternatively, an account could have a setting where a user could have the option to make clear that s/he might post nudity. Other users could then decide for themselves whether they want to see such an account or not. Given the issue of censorship on IG (and also on its parent company Facebook) has been pointed out numerous times and given the company has done absolutely nothing to come up with a fix I think it’s fair to say that they don’t care. As Jannica Honey observed, if an account’s “focus was lifestyle and beauty rather than activism and art” you’re good to go. If not – tough luck. It’s a huge double standard.
But there’s not even just the censorship discussed above. There’s more. In East Germany, the country’s secret service (short: Stasi) hired roughly 10% of the population as informants, who would supply the Stasi with information. On IG, we users are possible informants: we all have the option to report someone for what we consider bad behaviour (I am grateful to Alessia Glaviano for making this very point to me). You might wonder whether that’s such a bad thing, given we can report “abusive” photographs. But what exactly are “abusive” or “offensive” images? Here are two artists who have been at the receiving end of such behaviour, with their answers to whether they have been censored.
Margo Ovcharenko: “I did, on a few occasions and it’s usually happened with male nudity. But one case I believe is important in particular. I have an image from 2010 where two gay men embrace naked on a bed. You can’t really see their genitalia. It’s also been used as a poster image for a photography festival in Northern Europe where it’s been in the streets. I have this image posted on my feed and it has not been taken down, but it has been removed when I did an Instagram takeover of a gallery/art school space in St. Petersburg, Russia. I find it infuriating that one of their followers complained and Instagram enforced the person’s homophobic reaction.”
Naomi Harris: “Yup. I had put up a couple of cheeky X-Mas photos from my book “America Swings” that had strategically placed ice-cream sundaes on the naughty bits. They were some of my most popular posts, yet someone reported me for strong sexual content, so they were taken down.”
If a company allows itself to be used by sexual bigots in such a blatant manner, there clearly is a problem. And let’s not forget, the onus is always on the photographers: they have to somehow get in touch with IG. If they miraculously know someone who can help, that’s great. If not, then, well, the sexual bigotry stands, implicitly supported by IG.
Not surprisingly, gallerists, curators, or writers operating on Instagram have to deal with the same problems. Here is just one example of the various I received:
Andy Adams: “I show a lot of vintage photography on the @FlakPhoto feed and recently posted Wynn Bullock’s “Child in Forest” image. Within a few hours, IG had taken the post down and I was given a warning. I also appear to have been shadow banned which means that my posts weren’t showing up in the hashtags that I use there. I showed the picture in a Facebook group that I host (The FlakPhoto Network) and was blocked for 24 hours with a stern warning that the group could be shut down for similar future “violations.””
Dragana Jurišić has an interesting point to make, and now’s a good time for it: “Some people have commented ‘Of course you knew when you signed up to these platforms you are just squatting in their space. You sign up for not having any rights to your work.’ Just because certain companies have certain policies it does not mean we should always comply without questioning. Also laws in different countries vary in regards to Data Protection. Get informed and demand transparency!” One might add that any user forms part of IG’s currency: the company makes a huge amount of money from the ads it throws at its users. Blaming users for the abusive practices of any service they signed up to usually isn’t helping solve the problem at hand.
Having seen what artists have had to deal with, one of my main interests was in finding out what that actually did to them. It’s one thing for me to observe someone getting censored, and then maybe there’s an angry article and/or some discussion online that might or might not go somewhere. While I have not been at the receiving end of IG’s abusive practices, I have other such experiences, and I know of the profound effect some of them have had on me. I always like to talk about how a picture is just a picture, and there can always be another one. But in this case, the picture (or, as is the case for many of the artists quoted here, pictures) ties to something more fundamental. We’ve already seen how in Margo Ovcharenko’s case IG’s censorship essentially reinforces the very bigotry that her photographs challenge. This then is what I was trying to get at with my third questions: “have you changed the way you use the site? Are you limiting the types or amounts of images you share?” Almost all answers fell along the same lines, here are some examples:
Blaire Hawes: “I no longer post much of my work there and deleted my personal accounts. I and use my website mostly because of the backlash. And if I do post anything, I censor it myself prior (scratching out body parts etc), and publicly make a statement to the fact that I am not in violation and to please not report me.”
Celeste Ortiz: “I have to auto censor my images, blurring or pixelating them. It’s frustrating and it looks awful, sometimes very very awful, but I still want to share them somehow. I could only share “safe” images, nudes without nipples and vulvas and my flowers photos, and not having to worry. But I still want to share these other works because they are part of what I do too.”
Colin Pantall: “Yes, for sure, but at the same time I want to post images, so I make an effort to do so. It affects the way I see the images and the way others see images though. One picture I had taken down because it showed my daughter watching tv in the heat without a shirt on. I was talking about this with a photographer and she said, “well, they have to control pornos, especially where children are involved.” My jaw dropped at that (as did my opinion of the person who said it). How quickly has that policing by Instagram and Facebook become a world view.”
Margo Ovcharenko: “I have completely stopped using Facebook after being banned there a few times (for male nudity, again. Which, again, did not show any genitalia). As for other images that might be taken down I rarely go to the trouble of blurring nipples so I just don’t post a lot of my work.”
Naomi Harris: “Nah. I just post as infrequently as I did before. I’m not going to curb what I post, either. If you are following me you should be ready for a little bit of naughtiness from time to time (and some dog pictures as well).”
Sophie Mayanne: “I got to the point where I don’t actually want to use the platform – but feel obliged too because a large amount of my work has come through using Instagram. So it’s a bit of a double edged sword! I also feel that by leaving, I’m abandoning what I have built and the people who do continue to support my work.”
This clearly is a terrible situation for most of these artists to be in: feeling more or less obliged to use the platform, but constantly having to navigate treacherous waters, with the added randomness of the censorship mentioned earlier creating even more uncertainty. And it’s a terrible situation for the arts in general: if one company uses its powers to decree which art can be shown and which art can’t, then art isn’t free.
What are we all to make from this? I asked the artists (curators/writers): “Do you view IG as a viable and good platform for artists such as you?” These following answers are so clear that there is no need to add anything further for me. I’d like to thank everybody for sending in their input one more time, and these artists (curators/writers) are going to have the final words (again, there have been some overlaps, so I’m going to present a representative sample):
Andy Adams: “Tough question. I’ve been “blogging” for about 15 years – that’s a long time. Facebook and Instagram basically ate the photography blog scene so, for better or for worse, I’ve adapted to using those publishing platforms to talk about photography. I think FB and IG are viable platforms – they’re the only way going in the U.S. for reaching a mass audience affordably and efficiently. But I’m not sure how “good” they are for artists, writers, critics, and curators. Our job is to shine a light on the work we think is important. If these platforms limit what we can say and show there, it’s a real problem.”
Blaire Hawes: “I love the idea of Instagram. No where else can you (for free) see art the way that the app allows. Especially artists who perhaps are not famous or in other parts of the world where art is suppressed. It has given many of us a platform for our work to be seen. However, in the last 3-5 years with the algorithm, it’s become very clear that not all art is shown equally. Accounts that have power seem to be able do whatever they want, where as smaller accounts (like mine) can not. The censorship of bodies (especially women and children) is a fine line. I have very little interaction anymore due to being shadow banned. I have had to fight Instagram for some images that were reported and in the end I won. Something needs to change because the “community standard” doesn’t seem to be very black and white and based on personal opinion, and that will not work for a photo sharing platform. The line between art and porn is black and white in my opinion. Art with women holding their babies or fathers bathing their kids shouldn’t be shunned, it should be celebrated. I am scared to create my art, because of the opinion of others. It’s a scary time.”
Jannica Honey: “I actually find what is unfolding on IG frightening, not only frightening but upsetting. I mean, at the end of the day, what is not represented does not exist, and our visual diet is slowly starving us. IG has been hardship and having your images constantly removed affects you, I am getting tired. My images are of actual people. I photographed my friends, my mother, her neighbour and acquaintances. These bodies are in all shapes and forms, different ages and represent something that we usually don’t see on IG, life itself, with no filter or post-processing. People are yearning for authenticity. We need to reconnect with nature, with ourselves. IG’s community guidelines are all about commerce. Traffic is not only followers, but also information/data/money for these companies. Smaller accounts (like my own) that are not as resourceful for IG get easily penalised, meanwhile accounts with loads of followers stay untouched. I am going to carry on creating work and fighting the “good fight”, not for me, but all the artists that are growing up. Young photographs who are longing to create work in the spirit of Corinne Day and Nan Goldin. Imagine Day photographing her friend in 2019. Photographs completely absent from the male gaze. Just two women creating art, her and a younger Kate Moss. What would have happened to that iconic shoot in 2019? Would those images even reach the cover on Face magazine today? Would these female photographers end up in the shadowland, where the light does not shine?“
Dragana Jurišić: “No, as long as Instagram’s “Community Standards” are founded on American puritanism and misogyny – Instagram will not be a good platform for artist like myself. Patriarchal values that exploit and monetize female bodies are at the very foundation of this social network. Zuckerberg based Facebook (which owns Instagram) on his first venture FaceMash – where men were rating women on campus based on their ‘hotness’. That tells you a lot. Do support [the] National Coalition Against Censorship.”
Sophie Mayanne: “I think Instagram WAS a good platform – as it gave artists a way to connect directly with people who enjoyed their work, and made it easier to connect with new people. However, the terms and conditions do feel oppressive. I particularly feel the choice of words on the censorship screens is poor – deeming photographic content as “offensive and disturbing”. I think it impacts how people perceive your work. If an image has a censorship screen on it, then a viewer has a pre-determined view, or bias about what they might be about to see.”
Margo Ovcharenko: “It’s not the matter of filtering art from porn, it is a matter of changing how it is build. How the images are sorted and liked. By default the censorship obviously excludes the huge amount of artists working with such topics as gender, sexuality, feminism and queerness from using the platform in the same way as others. What I really don’t like is that despite this IG is perceived as a measure of success and also as a valid tool for a professional to show who they are. The fact that it can be used to back up homophobia in Russia is simply fucked up.”
Colin Pantall: “That’s the problem. We are the ones still using it. I’m complaining about it but still use Instagram and Facebook. It is a good platform simply because everybody is on it and you get to see some different work, some interesting work. It’s not a good platform because you only see it for a couple of seconds, it is instant and it creates an algorithm driven culture of liking, swiping, and following that operates most intensively at the highest levels. It’s a really stupid platform in that way, the Smartphone equivalent of being a five year old in the playground and saying “I’ll be your friend if you’ll be my friend” or “You can be my friend but I’m not going to be your friend because your other friends aren’t important enough” . That’s absolutely how it works, that’s quite transparent but what kind of a way of thinking is that. It devalues everything but it is at the heart of the way Instagram works in art and photography. Essentially Instagram makes you a dick. I think that we need to take responsibility for how we see images, how we share them, how we talk about them. Instagram can be good for that, but at the same time it is projecting this puritanical, Anglo-American, patriarchal, misogynist world view with crossover from other world religions. Images are becoming fetishized and I think that needs to be resisted. Instagram and Facebook are just one manifestation of this. How you resist this, I’m not sure?”
Siddhant Talwar: “So a LOT of queer brown artists are being censored at the moment, and it just doesn’t make sense because a lot of queer white people post pictures that are just there for smut reasons (not saying that is any less of a use of the platform) and they don’t get deleted. I do think Instagram is a great platform but they need to fix this issue of censoring empowering art or it can really cost them.“
Yatender: “It’s good or bad depending pretty much on how you use it. For me, IG is nothing than just an online platform where it happens to have a huge amount of users with various contents being published every second. Therefore the line between art and whatever forms that easily violate their ‘community standards’ is pretty thin. I’m upset but not so surprised that that’s the way it is, maybe because I don’t take it so seriously.“