(Top photo: @aleia / Aleia Murawski / Prestel)
Your deleted Instagram pictures aren't just deleted on a whim. Someone has deliberated over whether the image adheres to the platform's Community Guidelines, meaning real people—known as "commercial content moderation" workers—make decisions to determine whether your boob selfie is too boob-y. Banned images like these, which range from the explicitly nude to close-up panty shots with pubic hair showing, have been compiled by artists Molly Soda and Arvida Byström into a new book: Pics or It Didn't Happen.
With more than 220,000 followers combined, they put out an open call for submissions on Instagram and received thousands of images. The final book features roughly 250 photos that were removed from the platform, many of which are NSFW, but demand readers to ask why some bodies—primarily white-passing, thin, hairless, cisgender—are acceptable on social media, while others aren't. Together they've created an archive—or a memorial—for our banned photos of Instagram. I gave the artists a call to find out more.
VICE: Why did you decide to make this book?
Molly Soda: We'd noticed a pattern of people complaining about their images being removed from Instagram. Arvida and I had publicly complained about it, too, so we decided do something about it. But it felt important that Pics or It Didn't Happen elevates those images that have been removed from social media.
It's obvious why some pictures are banned, but others—like the woman using her hijab to hold her phone to her ear—less so. Where's the line?
Arvida Byström: It depends on the context. These people—the content moderation workers who are tasked with making the decision about what can be removed—look at what else is going on in the feed. Some people have semi-nude accounts, and they have them up for months, but then maybe one picture gets reported, and all of a sudden its like: "Wait, this can now be read as a porn account," and they shut the whole thing down.
Soda: I also think it depends on whose body it is. Certain bodies are going to be more sexualized than other bodies, purely because of the way we're used to seeing them.
In what way?
Byström: Instagram says what is safe, right? But a lot of things are [viewed] as sexual. You can have the tiniest underwear on and you'll be shaved and that's a pass, but in some ways, that is culturally more sexual than having an unshaved pubic area. So I think it's a mix of what people straight up think is disgusting and what is sexual. We had more white people sending pictures into us, but I think that's because white people feel more entitled to display their bodies like that.
American writer Chris Kraus—of I Love Dick fame—wrote the forward in your book. Why did you choose her?
Our publisher really wanted us to have a person outside of our circle to write the forward. We thought of Chris Kraus, and she just felt weirdly relevant. In I Love Dick, she talks a lot about women in the art world and not being taken seriously. There are many differences between us, but we do have some common ground with Chris; I feel like me and Molly have been very unrepresented in books, and yet books are what's seen as classical art and art history.
Soda: Yeah, this whole [being viewed as an] "internet girl" thing, and not being respected. Also, the way I Love Dick wasn't very well received in the beginning. When it came out, it wasn't relevant, but now it's so relevant to our generation. So it made a lot of sense.
The majority of the images in the book feature women: in the bath, on the toilet, in their underwear. What does it say about our attitude to the female body?
Byström: This is how society treats femme bodies, so we wouldn't expect Instagram to do anything else.
Soda: Even reading comments on people's posts that show a semi-deviant body, like armpit hair, is crazy. The fact that anyone cares about armpit hair at this point is baffling to me. But it's still a thing.
Have we got better, though? Are there things that wouldn't get banned now that definitely did a couple of years ago?
Byström: Yeah, I get maybe one comment on my hairy armpit where I used to get hundreds of comments.
Soda: I do think it's evolving. I still get it, but it's not as bad. But any socially deviant body, in any way, is going to get backlash. It makes sense, though, because Instagram is no different to the rest of society: Everyone's body that isn't read as a male body is in conversation with sex, no matter what. I could be wearing a big shapeless dress and a shower cap, and I would still be sexualized, no matter what.
If you could change Instagram's guidelines, what would they say?
Byström: Instagram needs more coherency between bodies. It also needs to stop taking down things just because it socially might be a little bit disgusting. Like pubic hair, for instance. It needs to try and be more specific. Right now, bodies are being treated differently, and that is dangerous.
Soda: But I wouldn't totally get rid of them. We need guidelines—I don't want to see dick pics and beheadings.
What would you like people to take away from the book?
Byström: That censorship is a really complicated issue. But it's interesting to archive these thoughts and where we're at today. In 20 years, this might feel really old and stupid. I think certain people probably already think it is, but what can you do?
Pics or It Didn't Happen: Images Banned from Instagram by Molly Soda and Arvida Byström is out now, published by Prestel.
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