Your Post Has Been Deleted – Censorship on Instagram

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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.”

Dragana Jurišić: “On Thursday 10th May 2018 my account was deleted without any prior warning. At first I thought I was hacked. After many inquiries (you never really speak to anyone in person at this point), Instagram eventually sent me a generic email that my account was disabled for not following Terms of Use. When I asked them to to specify, I got no response. I then contacted a photo community manager at Facebook (I knew him personally) who told me my account was removed for repeated nudity. When I asked for my data back (seven years of it), I was told – No.”

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.“

Photography and Surrealism: Sohrab Hura’s The Coast

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We don’t talk much about surrealism, possibly in part because we’re somewhat embarrassed by the fact that those Salvador Dalí posters we hung up in college in retrospect offer a lot less now than then. Of course, surrealism encompassed a lot more than that (if only they had sold Max Ernst posters back in the day!), but its ideas seem mostly dated. In photoland’s narrow confines surrealism never played more than a niche role anyway (the surrealists loved Atget but not necessarily for the reasons used today).

That said, surrealism provides a great entry way into Sohrab Hura‘s The Coast. The artist is an adept image maker, relying strongly on both his tools — strong flash combined with vivid colours — and his intuition, the latter of which for the most part creates the somewhat frantic and at times unsettling atmosphere that’s pervasive in the book.

Hura knows what a good picture looks like, and he also knows of the effect his pictures have on audiences. This is a good combination, but it’s also one fraught with danger: it’s so tempting to be dazzled by one’s own skills.

The book is subtitled Twelve Parallel Short Stories. Going forward, I’m going to ignore that particular aspect completely: in a nutshell, these twelve variations of the same short story lack the maturity of the rest of the book (the original short story appears right at the beginning, and the variants are then presented at the end, with — oy vey! — the variations even highlighted).

It is the pictures that carry the book (and that anyone approaching the book will remember anyway). These pictures are presented — sequenced — in a very interesting fashion. In each spread, a picture is paired with another one (with the exception of the white strips in the gutter, the pictures are presented full bleed). But each picture is paired with two other ones at the same time, thus appearing in two pairs. The overall idea reminded me of the kind of Western folk dancing where two groups move in interweaving circles around each other. If I were to describe the device with characters, it would be A B – C B – C D – E D – E F etc.

This particular device is ambitious because every pair of images has to work, but each photograph also has to be able to work with two other ones (and not just with one as is usually the case). At the same time, the repetition of one image at any given spread draws the viewer in very forcefully and places the focus a lot more on the photographs than on the sequence itself (and its resulting implication). To be honest, of that sequence I only remember that it ends up in the water (ocean), which, given the strength of the preceding parts, unfortunately feels too anticlimactic.

So those pictures… They’re visceral, in part by design (heavy flash, vivid colours), in part through what one might call their subject matter. Now, I want to apply the breaks here already and point out that a photograph’s literal subject matter (what’s depicted in the frame) isn’t necessarily the metaphorical one (what’s implied through both what’s depicted in the frame and how it is depicted). It is not clear to what extent the subject matter is found or staged — I don’t think it matters. But it’s a world where the border between playfulness and insane violence is not defined: this is what had me think of surrealism, because subconscious ideas can be found splattered all over those pages.

Hura isn’t necessarily approaching new territory here. I find echoes of both Lieko Shiga (in particular her masterful Rasen Kaigan) and Feng Li, to use two contemporary non-Western photographers who of late have managed to breathe some fresh air into aforementioned narrow confines of photoland (that, let’s face it, still smell too much like mothballs but maybe in another decade or so things will be better). With Shiga, the Indian artist shares the creation of a surrealist parallel world — maybe one accessible through some portal if one were to pay enough attention. In both cases, strong colours play a role — Shiga’s often look as if achieved through cross processing. Li’s world is more “straight” — the pictures look found, but it’s very strange nevertheless. Crucially, though, there is a strong sense of humour in Li’s work that I feel is absent in The Coast.

This absence of humour is what would make me pick Hura’s book over White Night (assuming I’d have to choose just one). The pictures are equally strong. But I’m interested in the world that is being presented in The Coast, however strictly in a surrealist sense. There is, after all, the fact that the photographs are clearly located in India, and some of the images very clearly and graphically depict stereotypes of that country.

I have been asking myself whether or not my viewing of the book as surrealist is not a mental escape door that I managed to set up for myself so I wouldn’t have to face the fact that I am too engrossed by something I really shouldn’t be enjoying that much. I don’t think that’s the case, though. Frankly, the problematic pictures (problematic if approached through the location and said stereotypes) consistently are the weakest, least interesting pictures for me: they end up being too literal without having any metaphorical power. They feel like they were included too much for effect (that’s that danger I spoke of earlier). That said, I am a bit worried that people will remember the book exactly for those pictures.

In summary, The Coast is an impressive achievement by an artist who very clearly is a very adept image maker, but it’s not without problems. I suspect because of its flashiness it will make it onto many of those completely unfortunate “best of” lists that inevitably flood photoland at the end of every year. If the book would indeed by remembered for said flashiness, and not for the many great pictures that aren’t superficially flashy, that would be too bad. Or maybe not — after all, that’s me putting my own ideas of a why a book deserves to be remembered onto things.

The Coast; photographs and text by Sohrab Hura; 2244 pages; Ugly Dog (self-published); 2019

Rating: (no rating, given the various aspects discuss above, which cannot be easily incorporated here)


The Battle over Visibility

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If I had to name what I consider the most defining aspect of photography today, it’s visibility: who or what gets seen? Who has the power or means to decide that they can be seen? These questions are of utmost importance not just because the internet has turned into an almost purely visual medium but also because of the history of photography and because of our growing awareness of how who or what can be seen in the past was severely limited (and in part still is today).

It might seem strange to talk about visibility when it would seem as if every photograph, however mundane or irrelevant, is now being shared on social media. But what I consider the battle over visibility typically is not very far away — it’s often just not apparent, simply because some photographs don’t get seen.

Take, for example, Instagram’s incessant and blatant censorship of images that focus on the female body (see, for example, this article). This is a very good example of the battle over visibility, in which case an anonymous corporation decides what gets seen and what not. Like most battles, it’s completely asymmetric. “Offending” users (who more often than not happen to be women) have their work removed, and occasionally their accounts get terminated or they get shadow banned. Instagram makes it notoriously hard to deal with such problems — clearly by design. They have the power, you, the user, don’t.

So the battle over visibility needs to be looked at explicitly with the aspect of power in mind. Power — and the often severe imbalance between involved parties as far as power is concerned – must be a part of a discussion around this topic. Power here contains a multitude of separate factors, though. Someone might have power over whether or not a picture can be seen, but that picture (or its maker) might have a power of its own, maybe even over those deciding what gets seen. Given the many factors that might enter here, I believe that such discussions should never only be about whatever or whoever is in a picture. The larger contexts have to be considered.

Please note that I’m using a plural here, contexts: there’s the context the picture was taken in. There’s the context in which it is being shown. There’s the context in which discussions around the picture might play out. These contexts could all fall into one, they could be very strictly separate, or they could be partly overlapping. For this simple reason alone, discussions around photography are almost never served with a one-size-fits-all solution. It is only the most extreme cases, such as, for example, child pornography, that allow for very obvious and strict solutions (a clear and unwavering prohibition in this particular example).

Thankfully, the history of photography contains a large number of precedents that can — or should — be considered. As a medium, photography has been reflecting societies’ underlying values ever since it first appeared on the scene. I here mean the values expressed in the pictures, which often are at odds with lofty pronouncements. (Any time I hear someone say “this is not who we are” it seems absolutely clear to me that whatever “this” is expresses exactly who they are, whether they like it or not.)

Photographs have been used for a large number of emancipative purposes just as they have played a part in humanity’s absolutely worst excesses. It’s obvious that the problems or outright sins of the past must not be repeated. Just to pick one example, in light of the role photography has played in the larger history of colonialism, there are many places in the world where knowledge of what or who has been photographed before (and how) is of utmost importance. It is the photographer who exercises power first, regardless of whether or not consent of a subject was obtained: she or he decides what the resulting picture(s) will look like. That’s where it starts, and that’s why anyone photographing in, for example, Africa better be aware of what their camera can do (as far as I can tell, this is quite clear to many people living in Africa, but even then discussions might arise, such as, for example, concerning some of Pieter Hugo’s pictures).

It might be tempting to conclude that it’s best to hand all the power to those depicted. But as it turns out that’s not necessarily the best solution. With our free societies at an increasing risk by neo-fascist or authoritarian parties or politicians, photographs can and probably should be used as tools to continue the struggle to maintain free societies. After all, if you give Donald Trump or any of the other authoritarians the power to decide what can be seen, you’d basically end up in a situation comparable to North Korea or China. How or why that would be a problem is probably obvious. Free societies cannot allow for censorship to occur.

What this means is that the taking and dissemination of photography often involves a power struggle, with possible conflicting interests playing out. In fact, it might be impossible to satisfy all interests involved. In the case of control of photographs of people in power, there not only is the photographer, there’s the photographed subject, there’s the editor/publisher (these two might be engaged in their own power struggle), and there are the recipients (or audience even though I’m not too fond of the word since it implies passivity). If the recipients are the people who might vote for (or against) the photographed subject, the situation is different than if they’re not, because on top of photography’s power aspect there now is the political power exerted. Talking about power in photography, something that I believe is very important and necessary, can become fairly complex.

Maybe it would help to look at an example. In early 2019, terrorists attacked a luxury hotel in Nairobi, Kenya. The New York Times and other Western new outlets decided to publish very graphic pictures of the aftermath, including an image of four of the victims, still sitting at a table. “African victims of atrocities such as yesterday often get their death displayed for consumption with little to no regard for their privacy or the grief of their family members.” James Siguru Wahutu (now an assistant professor in NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication) is being quoted by the BBC, “This would never happen during a mass shooting or terror event in the US.” We all know it wouldn’t. What’s more, as Kainaz Amaria (an editor at noted, the New York Times coverage “stands alongside decades of visual coverage exploiting the pain and suffering of black and brown folks.”

What makes this particular case so interesting is that the New York Times editors responsible for the situation appear to have been completely ignorant of both of these aspects, namely the very obvious double standard concerning the publication of pictures of gun violence and the fact that over the course of the history of photography, “black and brown folks” (Amaria) have been denied the same rights as white people when it comes to how they are/were being depicted (obviously, this denial reflects the larger power situation). Consequently, the refusal to take these aspects into consideration simply mirrored how colonialists would have approached the situation: these people don’t know, but we do.

In addition, there is no connection between the images’ recipients in the West and between those who lost their lives. US recipients might have some interest in general world news, but they have no involvement in the situation whatsoever. They are, in other words, the most remote consumers possible: the only consumption involved is that of the news. Contrast this with possible photographs of mass shootings in the US: here, viewers might not only actually personally know someone involved, they also vote for or against the people who politically enable mass shootings (through their refusal to pass sensible gun-control laws), and they might end up being the next victims if they somehow ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Consequently, if any of the pictures needed to be seen in the US, it’s not those of unfortunate victims in Kenya, it’s of victims of gun violence at home.

Of course, the question then immediately revolves around the issue why such photographs should be shown. This is probably a question for which a good answer is impossible to come by. And this question is yet another factor that needs to be considered on top of everything mentioned above.

Despite the complications involved here, I think the question of power always ought to play some role in this discussion. Photographs have a form of power, however limited its duration might be. Being able to see or being made to see does mean something — as does forcing people to see something.

The Holocaust provides maybe the most extreme example. Maintaining an awareness of it and remembering those who lost their lives has been tied to acts of seeing and pictures very closely. “Escorted by American military police,” an article published in The Guardian on 18 April 1945 begins, “a thousand of the citizens of Weimar marched six miles through lovely country to the Buchenwald concentration camp yesterday.” They were brought there to see: “the crematorium with the blackened frames of bodies still in the ovens and two piles of emaciated dead in the yard outside, through huts where living skeletons too ill or weak to rise lay packed in three-tier bunks” and more. Photographs from the camps were published all over the world. To this day, photographs play an important role — for example, the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem features photographs prominently (it’s a profoundly moving experience to be there).

Another — related — example from recent German history: a 1995 exhibition by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research that traveled all over Germany helped establish the role of Nazi Germany’s army in the Holocaust and war crimes (before then, the narrative had been that crimes had only been committed by the SS, and the army had acted honorably — that was obviously absurd, but people wanted to believe in it). Again photographs played a major role, showing German soldiers in the acts of committing horrible atrocities. Despite some minor controversies (German conservatives attacked the exhibition because there had been some inaccuracies — foreshadowing the “fake news” mechanisms used today) the exhibition managed to permanently change how Germans thought of their past — older family members might have been in the Wehrmacht (my grandfathers were).

If things were this simple we probably wouldn’t have as many discussions. If, in other words, photographs could always easily make us change our behaviour or re-think our assumptions the world of photography would be a happier place (or rather, knowing photoland I think people might just be grumpy about something else). Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way. For example, in Europe, cigarette packages features graphic photographs of some of the medical effects of smoking — yet people still buy them.

Maybe this comes in part down to what power one grants photographs over oneself. If one is a smoker, say, the depiction of lung cancer or whatever else — that’s obviously someone else’s lung (I don’t smoke so I don’t know how people rationalize this particular behaviour). This would go back to the example of the mass shootings where it’s kind of OK to look at victims far away, but you don’t want to see the ones in your own backyard.

Whatever the psychological mechanism might be that control our behaviour when we’re exposed to photographs, in light of the fact that we are visual creatures and that we do respond to photographs the battle over visibility is an indicator: The existence of those power struggles over certain photographs indicate that these pictures have a power of their own, and that power grows exponentially the closer a viewer is to what is being depicted (“closer” here not necessarily spatially, but mostly psychologically).

It is really this particular aspect that I feel also needs to be taken into consideration when discussing whether or not to show a photograph: are the intended recipients involved in what they’re about to see? If they’re not then maybe the photograph is of a lot less importance than if they are. If people need to see the consequences of their actions, however indirect they might be, then that fact must play a role in discussions over whether or not to show a photograph.

Seen this way, both the photograph of Alan Kurdi and the more recent one of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his young daughter had to be published in Europe and the US, respectively. These three died the same miserable death by drowning while trying to reach a safe haven, prosperous countries that have more than enough resources than are needed to take care of those most in need. These deaths are the indirect results of the cruel policies by lawmakers and governments in Europe and the US — and they were and are in fact widely seen that way.

Whether or not publishing such photographs then will result in any change is besides the point. If there’s change then that’s obviously great. If there’s not, then that only means that those who are willing to help need to continue their struggle.

Unfortunately, the decision to publish these photographs comes at a cost, a cost borne by the families of the dead. The cost might also include publishing yet another photograph where the victims of disaster are “black and brown folks” (Amaria).

It’s obviously easy for me to write about this cost, given that I’m a white guy. But I’m also a German, and I know the role photographs have been playing in making my own country towards confront its own horrible past. This particular process is not even done, yet. For example, with the exception of the Holocaust the amount of destruction Germany caused in Poland during World War 2 is still not acknowledged to the extent that it needs to be. Whatever future contributions there will be, I suspect photographs will play a significant role (especially in light of the time passed). And I also suspect that there will be a battle over those photographs, just like there was one over the Wehrmacht pictures.

The more photographs are being fought over, the likelier it is that they will have power over us. That power might be distributed in unequal ways, and exercising the power might come at unequal costs. Whatever one’s decision might be regarding whether to take, publish, or look at a photograph — one always needs to keep all these different aspects in mind and, in particular, neither discount one’s own power nor the costs borne by other people.