Social Media Censorship of Art and the Female Body - Vince Hemingson

The Bathers - Photo by Vince Hemingson

I’ve watched the recent media coverage of censorship on social media platforms, specifically the #freethenipple and #WetheNipple campaigns on Facebook and Instagram, with enormous interest. As a fine art nude photographer, it could be said I have a dog in this fight.

And as a Vancouver, Canada -based photographer (we’ll get to why my location is important later) I have been banned more than two dozen times for thirty day periods on Facebook for posting images that supposedly violated Community Standards and I have had dozens of photographs deleted from my Instagram account. Note* Instagram is a wholly owned subsidiary of Facebook. In regards to Facebook, this means that I have been effectively frozen out of my ability to pursue my art career on a primary marketing and advertising platform, one regarded as essential by most art marketing gurus.

In each instance I was sent a form notice that my photographs violated the platforms’ posted Community Standards Guidelines and that my images constituted pornography. This included fine art nude photographs of women breast feeding their babies, women who were breast cancer survivors with mastectomy scars, and even photographs that had been photoshopped by myself to remove the seemingly offensive female nipples. In short, Facebook routinely censors censored images.

As an artist, all of the afore mentioned is frustrating in the extreme. When you are banned or have images deleted, there is really no transparent appeal process with which to avail oneself in either Facebook or Instagram.   One can’t help but theorize that this is a deliberate corporate strategy.   At no point do you have the opportunity to speak with an actual person. Or anyone with any knowledge of art. To make matters even more confusing, Facebook (and it’s wholly owned subsidiary, Instagram), constantly contradict their own guidelines. The effect on artists, and women specifically, is chilling. And  again, one has to wonder if this is not intentional and deliberate.

From Facebook:

“13. Adult Nudity and Sexual Activity

Policy Rationale

We restrict the display of nudity or sexual activity because some people in our community may be sensitive to this type of content. Additionally, we default to removing sexual imagery to prevent the sharing of non-consensual or underage content. Restrictions on the display of sexual activity also apply to digitally created content unless it is posted for educational, humorous, or satirical purposes.

Our nudity policies have become more nuanced over time. We understand that nudity can be shared for a variety of reasons, including as a form of protest, to raise awareness about a cause, or for educational or medical reasons. Where such intent is clear, we make allowances for the content. For example, while we restrict some images of female breasts that include the nipple, we allow other images, including those depicting acts of protest, women actively engaged in breast-feeding, and photos of post-mastectomy scarring. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and OTHER ART (capitals mine) that depicts nude figures.”

This policy sounds rational in theory, but in real world practice it is never applied that way.  In fact, rather than nuance, Facebook routinely bludgeons perceived perpetrators with a hammer.  Subtlety has never been Facebooks forte or strength in trade.   In Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s oft quoted words, “Move fast and break things”. 

As I said, I have had my images deleted and my account frozen for thirty days for posting the exact images that are explicitly allowed under these guidelines; breastfeeding, mastectomy and breast surgery scars, and art.

I was recently awarded a Gold Medal for Fine Art Nude Photography at the Tokyo International Foto Awards. I was banned for posting this photograph in its original format. I was then banned a second time for posting a censored version of that photograph.

In fact Facebook has made censoring world renowned artists and world famous works of art its stock in trade. I am, however, honored to be in much esteemed company. Facebook has deleted and banned paintings by Picasso, Gustav Courbet, and Eugene Delacroix and hundreds more. * see Notes

I have also had the experience of having the same image deleted and then reposted a half dozen times. First it violates Community Standards, and then it is allowed and I receive a form letter saying that a mistake has been made.

At the heart of the issue is that Facebook continually sexualizes the female breast and the female nipple, even when represented in breastfeeding, post cancer surgery or reconstructive surgery or as represented in art. The true hypocrisy of the Community Standards Guidelines in Canada is that the Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that nipples are gender neutral. In Canada it’s the law that anywhere a man can be topless, so too can a woman. Not so on social media controlled by Facebook in Canada. I’m rather astonished that the Gov’t of Canada hasn’t filed a sex or gender discrimination suit against Facebook.

The lack of coherence, logic and rationality in Facebook’s or Instagram’s Community Standards, and its haphazard and contradictory application, and the complete lack of an appeal process means that artists and women are forced to self-censor. It’s a totally repressive system. And it reinforces sexism and sexual and gender discrimination. 

For artists, risking being banned from social media platforms means risking your livelihood and income. Social media platforms are the de facto way for artists to disseminate and market and advertise their work. Facebook’s monopolistic stature cries out for government oversight. And a complete overhaul of their arbitrary system of deleting images and photographs.

As an artist who uses photography as my chosen medium of visual expression, it is incredibly demeaning and frustrating that Facebook and Instagram seem unable to grasp what the art world has understood for more than three quarters of a century, that at its best, photography is an art form.  Fine art.  High art.   Ironically, it has been American photographers and visual artists who have been at the forefront of asserting photography as high art going back more than a century; Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Anne Brigmann, Edward Weston, Ruth Bernhard, Ansel Adams, Imogene Cunningham, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and many, many others.   All of these artists photographed the nude figure.  And many of these artists, towering figures in the pantheon of photography, would have had many of their most seminal and iconic images banned on Facebook and Instagram.  


Here are some examples of my uncensored fine art work.

And examples of how I have to censor my art.


Facebook has also banned statuary:

Copenhagen’s “Little Mermaid”

The Venus of Willendorf

And any other statue of Venus

-Vince Hemingson

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