It’s no secret that Instagram sucks. While there was something like a collective realization of this fact last year, it has long been a difficult place for queer artists to exist, let alone share their work and build community. This central frustration led artist and photographer Zain Curtis to create Sensitive Content, a print magazine dedicated to posts by queer creators that have been removed from Instagram. Compiled through submissions, the newly released second volume expands this concept to become a celebration of queer making and contemporary sexuality.
Featuring 63 removed photos by 29 LGBTQ+ creators, including a portfolio from China-based fetish photographer Qiumao and a threeway interview with Brontez Purnell, Dominique Taylor Hildebrand, and Joel Someone, Sensitive Content Volume 2 is a breath of fresh air from our currently sanitized online experience. I spoke with Zain about how he came up with the idea for Sensitive Content and what the future holds for being queer and online.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: It's incredibly impressive to see the variety of projects and bodies of work you have made over the years—everything from photography to screen printing to rug making. How and when did you come up with the idea of Sensitive Content?
Zain Curtis: Last Spring, I posted a self-portrait I took with a leather gag in my mouth. I was making it my profile picture, which quickly got taken down, and I got another strike on my account. I’ve had a few strikes just before from my paintings. I think anger kind of sparked it. I felt like I saw many of my artist friends having the same issue and complaining about how overbearing social media, Instagram in particular, was being on their art.
Social media plays a big role in how I express myself, display my work, and connect with people I know or want to know. It’s become such a daily necessity that we don’t discuss it because it’s so naturally integrated into our lives. Especially after 2020, queer people find their communities online. When we find our spaces and expose ourselves by way of creating in those circles, we don’t need to be overly monitored. Learning about how it was dealt with in the past against queer artists just feels like we’re fighting it differently. I guess this project can be evidence that it’s still very present while celebrating flagrant work.
What was the process of creating the first issue? How did you find artists to participate? Did you work with a team to put together the magazine?
I just made a post asking for submissions and explaining the project. By the end of the day, I probably got around 100 emails with people’s removed photos. I think that’s when I realized it would be a bigger project than I was planning. There’s always been this otherness to erotic and queer art in the art world that I’m just tired of. A lot of queer artists coming up through online platforms probably feel the same, and they haven’t had a chance for their work to be published or displayed yet, that’s important to me to do that.
It’s just been myself that’s been working on it, getting everything together, laying it out. It’s kind of overwhelming. I think moving forward, I want to get a collective on it to help me. I’m really scattered with the way I create and take on projects, I don’t write anything down and go at it.
What was the response when you released Sensitive Content Volume 1?
I would say good, a lot of it was just building the foundation and seeing if people are that interested. Censorship seems to be a rising issue online and how social media can control narratives and the effects it has over all types of niche communities. Knowing these are private companies, and at the end of the day, we are playing within their guidelines, but it wouldn’t be what it was without creative users and people putting in time and energy into creating free content for them to make money off of. Nothing brings people together like being pissed off at the same thing. I was just happy I could make that feeling into a tangible thing.
While Sensitive Content Volume 1 feels like an incredibly important archive of the lives and creators behind removed posts, Sensitive Content Volume 2 is looking at the big picture of what it means to be a queer person on the internet, contending more with our reliance on the internet and social media for our sources of income, our education, our entertainment, and our sense of community, while recognizing risks in doing so. What were you thinking about when you were curating the second issue, and how did you want to evolve Sensitive Content from the first issue?
I knew after finishing the first one I wanted it to evolve and flesh it out in a traditional sense as far as magazines go. I don’t think printed media is obsolete. Of course, it’s hard to have up-to-the-minute takes when it's a month to print and send it out to everyone. That’s not really what it’s for, though, it is an archive of what this time is like to be queer and online. I think you can get away with so much more in print, there’s no rush to expose someone or use things you say in bad faith because it doesn’t immediately get into the wrong hands.
I think knowing there’s time for the audience to digest and not get a reply kind of lets you air everything out; versus it can feel very exposing to express yourself online. I looked to early VICE, BUTT magazine, and magazines that I grew up with, which educated me on what culture was. It’s so important to have a bible-like [print] media to look at all the time and feel attached to. Social media goes so quickly to the point images lose meaning. It’s exciting for seconds, then you scroll on to the next. I wanted to make this project feel like it could be that missing part that brings print and tech together. It’s there to collect, to go back to, and show friends. Have a conversation or just be shocked by it.
Issue 2 has some really incredible writing! You've continued including personal essays around specific removed posts, but expanded to include dedicated artists portfolios, threeway interviews, and essays around contemporary sexuality and sexual health (with an incredibly inclusive essay on gooning). What was the process of getting together such an expansive and interesting series of writings?
In every issue, I want a balance of real issues that are being tackled and talked about to creative writing about any special interests that are controversial, I guess. It’s giving contributors this large window that doesn’t have to be hyper-intellectual, if you want to be—great, if you want to rate which lubes work best when you’re fisting, please do.
I think it was important for the first issues to cover censorship as an introduction to the series, but I’m ready for so much more. I don’t want it to come across as a victim complex like we’re just being targeted, and that’s it. I see more of a celebration and investigation of all that has to do with being queer online. It was very deliberate in showing that balance so really, when people want to be involved in the future, they can see what the vision is and build from it.
With the second magazine you also released amazing merch. What do you see for the future of Sensitive Content?
I want to see it grow into something that can be its own community offline. I want to make as many issues as I can. When people stop submitting, I’ll know it’s completed. I don’t see censorship or puritanical thinking going away anytime soon, so I think we’re good. I want to do group shows featuring removed work. It would be cool to create a production studio and have video interviews. I want to have grants to give away to controversial artists. I have a lot of ideas for branding and content, I just want it to fund itself for now. I can see it growing and being a viable outlet as far as queer media goes.
Robert Hickerson is a photographer and artist based in Brooklyn, New York. He makes spooky photos and can be found at @roberthickerson.