I used to really enjoy being on Instagram. It was fairly simple in the beginning: people sharing glimpses from their life, albeit with filters. Not anymore. Caught amidst the superfluous influencer blue tick culture and rampant shutting down of queer-friendly pages, Instagram is now a shallow reminder of an app that it once was. That’s not to say I am not addicted to it like everyone else. It just means that now I get why it is used by the masses the way it is. While Facebook is listening in on our conversations, Twitter is full of newsroom debate-level shenanigans truncated into 280 characters. As such, Instagram seemed like the last true bastion of free speech and finding joy in otherwise mundane things like cat photos. It even inculcated Snapchat’s story feature to make it the one app to rule them all. Then began the regulation.
For years now, I have been following pages that feature men who just let it hang, for all intents and purposes. My initial shame turned into elation when I discovered several Instagram pages catering to my taste in men, and other profiles who like the same kind of beef I do. As a gay boy who just finds the male gaze and the raw sexuality therein appealing, I found a sense of assurance in these photographers and models. Pages like effyourbeatystandards make people like me feel that there is beauty in being on the chubby side. On the other hand, photographers like Tom Bianchi helped chronicle the lives of gay men through the 1980s. This year in February however, Tom Bianchi’s Instagram page was banned for a relatively tame, post-sex shot of a nude man sitting on a bed and looking out of the window. This created a furore within the international and online queer community. Many saw it as an attack on queer expression and the censorship made little sense.
Nudity on social media is not a widely embraced idea. People forget that visually arranged portraits of nudity are not porn, an issue that still surfaces on the app if you search #sexy. In fact, in an attempt to reduce porn on the app, they banned the hashtags #gay, #lesbian and #bi for a brief while (along with #anal and #breasts). It certainly is scary in a country like India, considering 10-year-olds have cell phones now. Why should they have to stumble upon nudity on their phones? Personally I’d rather they went through the same trouble as I did, paying Rs 10 at a cyber cafe for an hour and such. In India, the government and certain internet providers have had a massive hard-on for banning pornographic websites and sex on the big screen. In a time when even Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are under scrutiny in India, and being questioned for not censoring their content, one shouldn’t be surprised. Momentarily, I had to switch to Blogspot, Tumblr, and Instagram to find pictures of men and women across the spectrum sharing bold aesthetically-pleasing nude images. But last year, they came for Tumblr as well. Only one remained; but not for long.
Shivaji Storm Sen is a masterful photographer who captures intimate, erotic portraits. When asked about when the censoring started for him, he told VICE, “Earlier it used to be like a slap on the wrist but now over the last few months a lot of my photos started getting reported. So general intolerance might also be an issue. In relation to that, I started getting warnings from Instagram saying ‘This goes against our terms and policies’. Earlier it used to be a mere reprimand but now they are threatening to delete my account.” So how did he work around it earlier? “By pixelating the nipples,” he says. “They allow boobs but no nipples as per the guidelines, so the algorithm doesn’t pick it up. But if someone reports it manually, then you have to take it down.”
While Sen has only recently noticed Instagram flagging his pictures, queer artists and photographers have been soft targets from the very beginning. One such page is @daintystrangerphotos. Raqueeb, the creator of the page, masterfully captures the intimacy between male lovers and the sexual dynamics therein.
This micro-level censorship is nothing short of bullying. Raqueeb isn’t particularly pleased, “In a society where talking about male tenderness, fluidity and sexuality is still a taboo, when I started the page with the Indian male in focus, it had to offend some people. I started the page on April 2018, and the first time I noticed my pictures being taken down was around May 2018. The pictures in question, much like this one, features men sharing sexual intimacy for the camera.”
Apart from male sexuality, Raqueeb’s page delves into aspects such as an individual’s relation with their safe space, mental health, and gender neutrality. He says, “The experience has been liberating for me, personally. I started the page as an antidote to my own perception of imperfections of male bodies. The mainstream photography dealing with male bodies has given way to the already existing toxicity and image of perfection that we grow up with. My aim has been to represent people of all body types, skin color, and shapes. Somewhere, I see myself in all of them, growing up an insecure and under-confident person struggling with the idea of what it is to be a ‘man’.”
I thought this could have been an isolated case, but then over the last six months more pages started vanishing and getting censored across the globe, including India. Priyanka Paul/@artwhoring, a young queer artist, has also faced constant issues with her posts on Instagram. “My art’s been taken down quite often now. It’s been three to four years now since my art’s been under speculation on social media. My images of my self also have been reported often, and now even more as my following has grown,” she says.
Paul’s work deals with everything from self-love and masturbation to sexual hygiene and sexual assault. “My art has always strived to put across these themes through illustration in order to make it accessible. I decided to tackle the taboo of the human body with my illustrations, but often, my work on menstruation has been taken down.”
One could argue that this is Instagram making its interface a friendly place for everyone. But how can it be inclusive of everyone if their algorithm is specifically silencing queer voices? In July 2019, Salty, a newsletter for women, trans* and non-binary people put out a series of tweets that pointed out how Instagram banned six of their ads that featured trans* people of colour and non-binary models. Instagram reasoned that it was an ad for an escort service, but it obviously wasn’t. They are just people being comfortable in their own skin and sharing it with the world.
Paul thinks that the main idea is to start a discussion. “But when pictures of my work, face and body get reported, it becomes stressful to deal with constant censoring from an audience, let alone a platform with power. This is why so many artists start self-censoring.”
So given the strong-arming by Instagram’s guidelines, are these artists looking to move away from the platform? “Not really, no,” affirms Paul. “Instagram is still a safe space for me in many ways. I think it’s the first platform I came out on. Queer folks are never allowed to be their 100 percent, and that’s more of a universal issue than it is an Instagram issue but I believe making our voices heard and pushing instagram policy change is what will make Instagram a safer space for all of us, because Twitter sure isn’t.”
On the other hand, Sen feels that since a lot of his work does come from Instagram, the flagging was a scary wake-up call for him. He says, “I went on a deleting spree, removing over 150 images from my account. I still need to delete tons more. I even had to make a second account for safety and since they IP banned me, I had to circumvent it by getting a new phone and using my dad’s email.”
Even Raqueeb agrees that Instagram does play a key role in his life and has given him the exposure he couldn’t have imagined, also putting him in touch with fellow queer arists. “Maybe, someday, I will create a website and move a bit away from Instagram owing to its censorship policies, but I will never be completely inactive on this platform,” he says. Another thing that bugs him is how it provides anonymity to people who are reporting the pictures. “They can see us, but we can’t see them. Isn’t that biased? The faceless anonymity that Instagram provides to these trolls and hate-mongers is perhaps something it needs to work on. Oftentimes, even after being reported, some of the pictures are reinstated by Instagram after a second check which confirms that Instagram didn’t remove it on its own, and these trolls are to be blamed for it,” Raqueeb adds.
Other artists outside of India have come up with smart ways to tackle this censorship, by using their algorithm against them. Will this vapid censorship lead to the creation of an entirely new app? Even if it does, Instagram’s roots are too deep in our lives to be suddenly uprooted. For now, we are stuck in the prison of our own making.
Follow Navin Noronha on Instagram.