Whitehot Magazine

Spencer Tunick’s Social Media Censorship Blues


 Spencer Tunick, New York (Ramapo Mountains) 2011, self-censored for social media


Spencer Tunick is an internationally-recognized artist-photographer, best known for his large-scale installations of nudes. Dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of volunteers gather in striking public locations, strip, and arrange themselves as he directs. To my eye, his photographs have an anxiety-inducing, vibrating double meaning. On the one hand, they are dazzlingly conceived and beautifully composed. Without prejudice or judgment, they invite participants and viewers of all shapes and sizes into their community. They celebrate without restraint the fleshly quality of human life on Earth. And on the other hand, the vast scale of Mr. Tunick’s installations has a frightening, totalitarian edge. His distant camera and giant cast of characters liquefies his people, in a sense, into an amorphous human paste. In his hands, the population of a city becomes a machine expressing the will of a single mind. This unresolved tension generates, for me, much of the strange, dangerous glamor of his work.

The breasts and penises and butts have also given him endless trouble on social media. He recounts some of his infuriating tale: 

"It all started when my Facebook page was disabled in 2014."

"I posted a photograph I made of 75 women in a library in Portugal. I carefully pixelated relevant parts of the photograph to comply with Facebook’s rules regarding nudity, but my image was removed. I followed their posted appeals procedure, and tried to make contact directly with anyone able to tell me what I did wrong. None of it worked."

Up until this point, Mr. Tunick’s story is much like that of anyone else facing a similar deletion. And they are many. Here it takes a more unusual turn, because unlike most people, Mr. Tunick is well known, and has lots of friends in the culture-technology establishment.

"I was unable to make contact with anyone at Facebook. I remembered my friend Sara Schiller from the WoosterCollective.com had a brother that was an executive at Facebook. Through him I was put in contact with Chris Park and he became the person that would help me navigate what nude imagery I could place on Facebook. I found out that the reason I was taken down was because the pixelation in the Portugal Library image showed the shape of the body part: if you censor a penis but the outline of the censored region still has the shape of a penis, then even though the penis itself is pixelated, this is not good enough."

Spencer Tunick, Portugal (Santa Maria Da Feira) 2003, Unacceptable pixelation

"So I got it, no small pixels. Nothing that showed the shape of the area with the same skin tone. Facebook reinstated my account and I found a great app called Censor Pro, for the iPhone, to pixelate my works. I then re-censored and pixelated the photograph to meet Facebook standards. I asked Chris if I could occasionally send him a photo to see if it was pixelated well enough. He agreed, and said if he could not decide, he would forward the email higher up the Facebook command chain. He reported that my work was the subject of philosophical discussions about the body and nudity on Facebook in the upper ranks of the company."

Spencer Tunick, Portugal (Santa Maria Da Feira) 2003, Acceptable pixelation 

"Then something interesting came up. I sent Facebook an image of an un-pixilated Sydney 1 and they OK’d it as is, with no pixilation. I was very pleased with their decision. But if the only way for me to not have problems on Facebook with uncensored nudes was to always work with 5000 people at a distance then that would be difficult."

Spencer Tunick, Sydney 1, 2010, Image approved because of distance away from nude figures

"Things went smoothly for a while and I would occasionally send Chris a photo to review for distance and pixelation. Then he left the company and Teru Kuwayma at Facebook and Instagram became my new contact (Instagram is owned by Facebook). Like his predecessor, Teru was extremely helpful. He also helped me verify both my Facebook page and my Instagram page. Verification comes with that little blue dot on the side of your name. This blue dot gave me a little confidence that if there were problems in the future with an image, anyone considering taking it down would go to a higher level person to discuss it."

"It turns out this is not the case."

"Eventually Teru left his position at Facebook/Instagram. I really enjoyed working with him and I asked him if he could give me another contact to help me when I ran into issues. He wrote to Facebook/Instagram but they didn’t respond. I was left with no "censorship guide”."

"It’s 2018 and my new problem is hashtags (#) on Instagram. My images are not showing up in hashtag areas when using unique hashtags or ones that have been set up already. I meticulously pixelate every penis, vagina and female nipple but still something is blocking my freedom to communicate on the social media platform. My hashtags have been blocked, banned or, as some call it, "shadow banned" on Instagram."

"I wish I had a contact on Instagram to ask for help. If I have been following all of their rules for years, why just now am I being blindsided with this new censorship issue? A photographer friend has been trying to get in touch with her friends inside Instagram."

"As I am writing this, my hashtags have mysteriously reappeared after having had problems on and off for months. Did my friend reach someone at Instagram? Wait, my photograph was just removed while writing this sentence! The image was a group of 20+ people nude on the Ramapo Mountains in #harrimanstatepark overlooking Route 287. Did they mysteriously reappear because maybe there is a time period to censoring? What about the one that a second ago disappeared? Does the Instagram “community” have control over my work? Who knows?"


Tunick’s photograph on his Instagram page but censored from the hashtag pages #harrimanstatepark, #ramapomountains and #emotionalfreeway

Tunick’s image removed from hashtag page #harrimanstatepark

Instagram's response to Tunick after image is removed


"Check out #emotionalfreeway on Instagram. If #emotionalfreeway becomes unreachable, you will know that either I’ve been censored again, or the Harriman State Park Police have my house surrounded."

"I get it. I understand the censoring of nude photographic imagery on Instagram. I certainly do not want my young daughters viewing inappropriate photographic pornography on Instagram. But there must be a way to protect artists, and the everyday public using the nude form in photography, without the constant risk of having their accounts deleted."

"My account is a verified page. I had hopes that if I followed the rules there would be a way to communicate to me if I had inadvertently crossed a line. I would also hope that I could have someone at Instagram jump in at a higher level and avoid account deletion."

"I would not be so invested in this issue if my medium wasn’t people and images. I make my art with the help of the kind, brave people that make up Instagram, Facebook and so many other platforms. If I want the size and scope of my work to continue to evolve and be large in scale, I need to reach more people than most. I’m #caughtbetweenarockandahardplace."

Mr. Tunick raises interesting and possibly insoluble problems faced to some extent by all artists working with the nude in the social media age, and particularly photographers.

On the one hand, one can understand Instagram’s behavior in cases like Tunick’s. The problem comes in two layers:

1. There is no objective way to draw a clear line between “art nude” photography and pornography. Even the Supreme Court defaulted to the famous “I know it when I see it” definition when trying to distinguish obscenity from constitutionally-protected expression. While mostAmericans would place some particular work in one category or the other, there is a wide and blurry region where no opinion can be expected to dominate. What is clear, however, is that without some censorship regime, an image-based social media platform quickly degenerates into a swamp of pornography, as in the case of Tumblr. The App store recently removed a Tumblr because child pornography just somehow keeps slipping through its filters.  Most art nude photographers and artists, including me, don’t use Tumblr because we don’t want to be classed with pornography. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the world doesn’t casually lump us together. I draw nudes all the time. I understand this. One man’s “artistic nude” is another man’s “wank material.”

2. The second layer of the problem is structural. How is a massively popular platform like Instagram supposed to sort and handle the volcano of images which may or may not break rules against nudity, violence, and so on? Presumably there are rooms and rooms of low-paid reviewers constantly going through this stuff, but they can’t be expected to be art critics, parsing the subtleties of this or that self-described artwork. They will have literally seconds to make a decision and move on to the next frame-grab from a jihadi beheading video.

These are reasons to sympathize with Instagram’s position. And yet I am opposed to their position.

In this country, our speech is protected. The argument can and has been made that Instagram is not the government, and as a private company has no obligation to protect the speech of its users. I myself used to be sympathetic to this argument. But over time, it has become clear that Instagram, Facebook, and a handful of other Platforms have absorbed and suffocated the available alternative means of communication. Books, magazines, newspapers, television, and radio gave way to the Internet, and the Internet coalesced into the Platforms. It is no use for speech to be protected if there are five printing presses in the whole country, they’re privately owned, and they coordinate policy with one another. Internet technology has not decentralized the means of speech. It has centralized it into a very, very narrow pipe, subject to control by a tiny cabal.

Uniformly, the Platforms have deliberately vague terms of use policies, deliberately opaque review and appeals processes, and byzantine, unstated means of boosting and suppressing user posts. If they clarified these mechanisms, it would be much harder for them to simply isolate or boot a disfavored user for no specified reason. Their legal liability would skyrocket. However, because they have deformed the marketplace itself, the user is forced to work with their services if he wishes to compete with his colleagues in any field requiring communication with the broad Platform-using public.

This is clearly unacceptable. The emergence of the Platforms was a paradigm shift in communications. Perhaps it is time for another. WM


Spencer Tunick on Instagram: @spencertunick

Spencer Tunick’s books may be ordered at NakedPavementBooks.com

Daniel Maidman on Instagram: @danielmaidman

Daniel Maidman’s books may be ordered at https://griffithmoon.com/nudes/ and https://griffithmoon.com/theseus/

Stories of artists who have been censored on Instagram: https://www.artistsagainstcensorship.com/


Daniel Maidman

Daniel Maidman is best known for his vivid depiction of the figure. Maidman’s drawings and paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Bozeman Art Museum, and the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art. His work is included in numerous private collections, including those of Brooke Shields, China Miéville, and Jerry Saltz. His art and writing on art have been featured in The Huffington Post, Poets/Artists, ARTnewsForbesW, and many others. He has been shown in solo shows in New York City and in group shows across the United States and Europe. In 2021 it will be included in the first digital archive of art stored on the surface of the Moon. His books, Daniel Maidman: Nudes and Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art, are available from Griffith Moon Publishing. He works in Brooklyn, New York. 

Follow Whitehot on Instagram 


view all articles from this author