how artists are responding to instagram’s no-nudity policy

Or, TFW you post an artistic photograph featuring a breast, Instagram deletes your account, and thousands of your images and followers are lost forever.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
15 August 2016, 6:10pm

photography fia yaqub

In Grace Coddington's first-ever Instagram post, in 2014, the then Creative Director of Vogue wore nothing but cat-eye sunglasses and a pair of heeled sandals. Not long after she hit publish — to the delight of fashion fans worldwide — Instagram disabled Coddington's account. The punishable offense, she gleaned, was nudity. "Which was ironic," she said in a recent interview with Vogue, because "it's a goddamn cartoon!"

Coddington had posted the image, a hand-drawn ink doodle, to promote a charity auction called "No Clothes" that she was coordinating with Paddle8. It was perhaps the most publicized instance of a nudity-related Instagram shutdown since the temporary disappearance of @badgalriri in May 2014. It also highlighted the often misunderstood parameters of Instagram's public policy, and some very Magritte-ian questions about what is and is not a breast. In its current guidelines, the platform states, "we don't allow nudity on Instagram," clarifying that nudity "also includes some photos of female nipples."

Like Rihanna's, Coddington's account was swiftly reinstated by Instagram, once the offending image was removed. But for artists without a multimillion-strong Navy (or Anna Wintour) behind them — and for whom Instagram often acts as both a portfolio and professional networking tool — falling afoul of the platform's regulations can be more painful.

Ryan McGinley told GQ that having his account deleted a few years back felt "simultaneously like [he'd] been broken up with and that [he'd] lost his hard drive." It stung especially since he'd devised aesthetically pleasing ways to figleaf his nude images with clip-art, in an effort not to offend the app. (He's since moved on to imaginative emojis.) He also noted the randomness of the timing. After posting hundreds of his beautiful, distinctive images of naked bodies it seemed to be a photo caption that crossed the invisible line; McGinley's dog is named "Dick," a fact that apparently triggered the deletion of over one hundred of his images.

For some artists, Instagram really does feel like a hard drive — not only an outward-facing display of their images but also a time-stamped archive of their work. Last month, 24-year-old British photographer Fia Yaqub, a former intern of Richard Kern, emailed me to say that her second Instagram account in two weeks had been deleted. Like McGinley, Yaqub makes work that explores the relationship between the human body and its surroundings, and her subjects are more often nude than not.

According to multiple sources, including Yaqub, here's what happens when your Instagram account gets shut down: You are signed out of the app, and your login details no longer allow you access. You receive a message explaining that you have broken the community guidelines in one of three ways: by posting content involving nudity, sexual harassment, or bullying. You are not able to recover your images. And, if you try to open another account, you are not able to. Yaqub says she couldn't even make a new account through her phone using a different email address; she had to use a second email address and her friend's phone.

"I'd had the account since I was 20, so that was four years of photos and memories and followers gone that you cannot get back," she says, "especially since you can't regain your former username. Professionally, it's also a major hit." Like many young artists, Yaqub relies on social media for getting her work seen. A few years ago, photographer Nick Knight spotted Yaqub's work on one of her social media accounts and asked her to curate the SHOWStudio Tumblr based on what he'd seen. Having a healthy, engaged follower base also pushes images onto the Search & Explore tab, where press and potential employers are more likely to discover them. So successfully navigating Instagram's posting policy is not only a challenge but also something of a necessity if you're an artist trying to get your work out there.

It's rare that artists or photographers intentionally post images that violate the platform's guidelines. Practically, the problem is twofold: a lack of clear communication about what is and is not allowed, and the unpredictability of what gets flagged and what will actually cause an account to be shut down (versus being rid of the offending image). "There is literally, as far I'm concerned, no way to predict how they act or think. And it is absolutely arbitrary," says Yaqub. Last year, Lula Hyers, also a young photographer, found that her account had been deleted. When asked, in an interview with the New York Times, if the cause of the shutdown was "nipple-related," she said, "No! It was really weird actually. I posted a picture of my friends Ivy and Gabriel, and in the photo he's just spitting a long thing of spit into her mouth. I'm not really sure what's inappropriate about that, when there are other images that suggest rape and violence all over Instagram."

That the New York Times writer asked immediately if the image was "nipple-related" goes to show how much they (nipples) have become central to and symbolic of the struggle between Instagram and its users' claims of censorship.

This is Instagram's official stance on nudity, per its Community Guidelines: "We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don't allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too."

The company has been open though, about the need for these rules to adapt and evolve according to feedback from users. Instagram's head of public policy, Nicky Jackson Colaco, has said that there are "shades of gray that we want to be aware of."

When I reached out to Instagram for an explanation of the platform's no-nudity policy, a representative told me over email, "It is not always easy to find the right balance between enabling people to express themselves creatively while maintaining a comfortable experience for our global and culturally diverse community of many different ages (13+), but we try our best and continually strive to improve our policies." They also explained that, "Instagram is available in third-party app stores and there are rules regarding nudity that we have to follow. We also evaluate similar standards that apply to other television and print media."

Using images that include nipples — a recurring cause of account shutdowns — as an example, the argument for maintaining "a comfortable experience" is a tricky one. Instagram's guidelines explicitly prohibit "some photos of female nipples," a phrase which is simultaneously too vague and too specific. Too vague, because of that tricky "some," which leaves users uncertain about what might be flagged as a violation. And too specifically gendered; there are no repercussions for posting images of topless male bodies. The argument for matching the standards of print media is also confusing given the proliferation of breasts in fashion magazines, not to mention men's magazines.

"I think it's oppressive, this genre of censorship," Alexandra Marzella, an artist who has had around 20 accounts deleted, says. "The only thing it's protecting is 'children' but children need to be exposed to the realities of the world. There's nothing to hide from them." She also relates the annoyance of not being warned about her account's disappearance ("it was just gone one day") and the stress that deletion places on artists and photographers: "It's a violation — especially because Instagram was such a building block to my practice. I have friends who don't have large followings get deleted and have no pull to get their accounts back — they lose an entire archive of images. It's not the worst thing in the world but it's a micro injustice."

Artists Molly Soda and Arvida Byström recently put out a call for photographers to submit images that had been censored by Instagram, which they are compiling into a book. The photographs they've received so far are a useful indicator of what passes and doesn't pass the platform's rules. Nipples, pubic hair, and butts have all rendered images remove-able. "These apps/websites are not our friends," Molly told i-D in April, "but we still use them because we feel somewhat tied to and dependent on them. It allows others access to our work and our ideas; they are valuable tools though a very flawed system."

So what's the solution to creating the "authentic and safe place for inspiration and expression" that Instagram wants to be — according to its Community Guidelines — without alienating the very artists it hopes to foster and connect? First, a gender-neutral policy regarding images of the human body. And second, a more human and artistically-minded embrace of the "shades of gray" the company is already sensitive to.

When internationally renowned photographer Cass Bird posts an image of her 6-year-old daughter playing dress up in a bra, the image should be received in the spirit in which it was created — not through a lens of fear of offense or some ill-defined social danger. Still, the photo has been taken down three times since July 29. "If this image was of my son, would it have been removed?" Bird asked in a Time story. (Bird's Instagram account was also deleted last year, triggering a social media campaign to #freecassblackbird.)

Instagram's aim to build an expressive, inclusive artistic community rests entirely on the degree to which it respects and celebrates art. Something that it does exceptionally well, for the most part. When the platform revised its guidelines in 2015, it added a clause allowing for nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures. (Which means Grace Coddington's image might well have sailed through uncensored in 2016.) The changes in 2015 showed that Instagram does listen to its users; those guidelines are moveable. And of course some guidelines (prohibiting images that depict or encourage violence, for example) do need to exist, for safety's sake. But, as the brilliantly imaginative, culture-changing company that it is, wouldn't it be amazing if Instagram led the way in normalizing images of the naked female body? Or images of all the bodies, for that matter, that are shown consensually, beautifully, and, artfully across our feeds.


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Image Fia Yaqub

Social Media
Nick Knight
Arvida Byström
Free the Nipple
Molly Soda
Alexandra Marzella
Fia Yaqub
Cass Bird
lula hyers