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.
Original publication 22 July, 2019
Posted on NatCorn 1st December 2020
Reference to an article does not infer endorsement of any views expressed.