Your post has been removed: censorship & photography
The practice of photography has been fraught with censorship since the inception of the medium itself. But at a time when politics are increasingly divisive and algorithms are playing a larger role in our consumption of images, censorship is more complex and more complicated than ever. Sam Edmonds investigates.
At a time when much of the globe is being increasingly affected by dramatic and violent acts such as those witnessed in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March of 2019, an appropriately larger discourse is being waged around the possible need for censorship en masse in an attempt at mitigating harm. Following the tragedies that unfolded in her country, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is now spearheading the Christchurch Call – a joint effort by nations and corporations to examine the possibility of a “safer Internet”. Surely, no such bigger example exists at this time in illustrating the precarious nature of censorship. Especially for photographers.
While we often associate the term ‘censorship’ with barred out breasts and blurred nether regions, the practice is much more pervasive and often exists in much more tacit or invisible forms. Can we, for example, consider the algorithms that curate our morning news feed a form of censorship? What’s really at stake when considering such drastic forms of censorship as the Christchurch Call? And what forms of censorship slip under the radar as seemingly inherent in the practice of photojournalism anyway? Most ways you look at it, censorship is usually perceived as a dirty word by all photographers, no matter their discipline. But the issue may not be so black and white.
The Fourth Estate
In late 2018, The New York Times published an article featuring an image of an emaciated Yemeni girl photographed by staffer Tyler Hicks. Within minutes of the article going live, the confronting nature of the image had divided the Times’ readership between those averting their gaze, closing their web browser in shock, and those convinced of the image’s power and relevance. However, what proved to be most interesting was not the initial reaction by those readers, but the reaction by social media giant, Facebook. As tens of thousands of Americans and others around the globe took to the platform to share the article and amend the piece with their own two-cents on the issue, a blanket ban on sharing the image was put in place and Facebook’s censorship of the photograph was almost universal. While Facebook leans on a trinity of algorithms, employees, and flags from users of the platform to identify potentially harmful content, it is still unclear which of those was the initial cause for the ban of Hicks’ photograph. Either way, what unfolded was a quick and dirty, but equally rare, examination of the world’s most ubiquitous news dissemination platform turning its back on responsible and legitimate journalism.
The Hicks-Facebook saga is emblematic of the way we so often perceive the issue of censorship as photographers: either a publishing platform or a social media outlet abusing the trust of photographers and putting into play their own more palatable version of the image that has otherwise been put forth. But is this editorial form of censorship the most malignant under the umbrella term? Australian photojournalist Matthew Abbott is quick to draw attention to other forms of censorship at all stages within the practice of journalism. Among his extensive assignment work for The New York Times and other large media outlets, Abbott’s work from the Manus Island detention centre resonated most loudly with the audience of Australia. But as he details, the island itself provides for a suite of examples in understanding just how much censorial adversity a photojournalist is often faced with. “Censorship is multifaceted. It’s not just about an editor deciding whether or not to run something because it’s controversial,” says Abbott. “For me, most of the time when I come across censorship it’s more to do with barriers that have been put in place for photojournalists to be able to access sensitive topics.”
This was most abruptly illustrated to Abbott when a particular incident unfolded before him while photographing detainees on Manus in 2016. “We saw these two guys walking towards us just covered in blood and kind of stumbling. They were walking toward a police station; one guy came in and just collapsed unconscious. It was chaos and nobody was sure if he was actually alive,” recounts Abbott. “So, I was just photographing the scene and then all of a sudden people became very aware of my presence and the camera. The police were trying to block my line of view and to basically intimidate me into not photographing. One of the photographs actually shows a policeman’s hand over the lens.” Following the incident and facing increasing hostility from the authorities, Abbott ejected his memory card from the camera and left it in the safe hands of a detainee before being escorted away for questioning. He was subsequently banned from entry to Papua New Guinea. “Sure enough, I went to go back about two years later to cover the same story and I was refused entry into the country. I was told that I was on a blacklist and that I was refused because I had published certain material. In my view, that decision was made by the Australian Government, not Papua New Guinea, but I guess we’ll never know.”
But while Abbott recalls his experience on Manus Island as an example of the nefarious nature of censorship in the face of bearing witness, the 34-year-old recounts with equal rigour his time in South Sudan where a need for self-censorship came about from quite literally a life-or-death scenario. Reporting on ethnic conflict surrounding a refugee camp of tens of thousands of people, Abbott says that the publication of a single photograph could have been enough to warrant a genocidal response from volatile government forces. “I got access to go and photograph the rebels both inside and outside the camp. Inside, some of these rebels had guns. Long story short, I was photographing there for ten days and at the end of that the UN camp brought me in for a meeting,” he recalls. “They turned to me and said that, basically, if I publish photographs of guns inside the camp that I could be responsible for the mass murder of tens of thousands of people; that those photographs could give the South Sudanese Government the reason and the credibility to storm the camp and shoot everyone inside.” On the one hand, while Abbott refers to the blatant nature of the Australian Government’s use of “geographic censorship” in choosing to place our primary detention centres on the remote islands of Manus and Nauru, at times, a need for self-censorship is also clearly warranted.
The political divide
In agreement with Abbott is The Guardian’s Head of Photography, Fiona Shields who maintains the idea that while it isn’t necessarily the role of the photojournalist to self-censor, there are times, and often a whole host of reasons, why it may simply be necessary. But as opposed to the role of photographers on the ground whose primary purpose is to provide as broad and as contextualised a viewpoint as possible, there is at times a stark divide between what a photographer submits to their picture desk or their wire agency and what will ultimately end up within the publication’s pages or website. Across her editorial and curatorial responsibilities at The Guardian, Shields’ duty is to portray a well-rounded visual synopsis of an issue or event, but, as she says, is always cognisant of the need to make content approachable and digestible. “As picture editors reporting the news, we are often presented with images which we choose not to publish. It helps when illustrating stories to engage, and not repel the reader or viewer, or no one will access our journalism,” says Shields. “For example, we rarely publish photographs of dead children or of graphic injury. We may not identify someone in a picture if we think doing so will lead to them being physically harmed, or where their dignity is compromised.”
Clearly, it is warranted to consider omission of such graphic images which do little to further the precision of a story and may simply end up deterring potential readership, but do the politics and ideology that both fund and inform a publication such as The Guardian impact the perception of such curatorial teams in determining exactly what is right and wrong to publish. As Shields continues: “We avoid using images that glorify an act of terrorism. We take care over pictures that may be seen as sexually inappropriate or exploitative. These decisions are not taken unilaterally, but usually result from discussions among senior editors, based on our code of ethics, as each such publication needs to be considered within its own unique context.” However, one need only to turn to the most recent array of terror acts around the globe to discern that the definition of “terrorism” varies wildly depending on which newspaper one reads. The same can be said for “sexually inappropriate” acts.
An example that may stand as representative of the relationship between ideology and the editorial process occurred in September of 2015 when The Guardian was among newspapers and news websites around the world that published the shocking images of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach near a Turkish resort at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe. As Shields recounts, “When the pictures landed in the newsroom, it seemed clear that this was a huge moment in the long-reported crises which was set against total political inertia across Europe. This scene of immense human tragedy was weighed up against issues of privacy, dignity, and the risk of repelling the reader, but it was felt that in this instance the pictures had the powerful potential to effect real change, to illicit public sympathy and anger enough to effect a political change.” Of course, the political change in question here would be to loosen regulation on immigration and therefore mitigate the potential for similar tragedy in the future – a sentiment that stands well in line with the left-leaning politics of The Guardian and perhaps begs the question: would the same discussion have been had among the picture editors of similarly-sized conservative publications? While it is clear that Shields and her team take a considered and responsible approach to the curatorial process for any story The Guardian puts to print, we live at a time where it is impossible to deny at least a small dosage of political agency that influences all picture desks, whether progressive or conservative.
However important, a more lengthy discussion of the nuances of the Fourth Estate and political backing of news outlets would perhaps be to ignore the elephant in the room that is a much more severe form of censorship facing journalists and free speech advocates across the globe – a shining example of which has been playing out in Bangladesh over at least the last 12 months. On the 5th of August 2018, Shahidul Alam was taken from his home by 20-30 plain-clothes police shortly after he gave an interview to Al Jazeera English on the student protests in Dhaka, and was charged with making ‘provocative comments’ under section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information Communications Act which carries the prospect of 7-14 years prison. Alam, who has a global reputation for his social justice work and energetic defence of human rights and freedom of speech, has for decades evidenced a visionary approach that has served to establish influential institutions in the realms of media (the Drik photo agency), education (Pathshala South Asian Media Institute), and culture (the Chobi Mela festival). After 107 days in jail, dozens of court appearances/motions, and a global campaign for his release, he was granted bail, although the charges still hang over him.
This recent escapade points largely to parts of the majority world where violently oppressive regimes are still enacted, but as Alan Hill, a lecturer in photography at RMIT University in Melbourne says, also bears striking resemblance to recent intimidations of free press closer to home. “I think it’s fairly obvious that Shahidul embarrassed the Government in the lead up to an election, and through his abduction/arrest, detention, and charge, they sought to silence him, and also send a message to others not to speak out,” says Hill. “Having said that, I don’t think the Bangladesh Government is in any way unique – one of the most alarming things for me has been the strong parallels with the laws and tactics employed by many governments around the world, including here in Australia, which has become all too apparent in recent weeks with police raids on journalists homes and offices.”
Referring to recent raids by the Australian Federal Police of the ABC’s offices and archives pertaining to a series of 2017 stories titled The Afghan Files, Hill says that the recent raids remind us of the need for responsible journalism in place of a need for censorship. “There is a difference between legitimate information security, censorship, and the intimidation of journalists, but, in general, I’d rather see a strong, independent media, who exercise responsibility in reporting, rather than censorship,” he says. “Which is to say that, in my view, we should insist that journalists, editors, and publishers act responsibly and in the public interest. I think Shahidul’s case is a timely reminder that freedom of expression makes the powerful nervous, and that we allow that freedom to be eroded at our peril. Which is why the global movement for Shahidul’s release was, and is, so important.”
Techno-censorship & ideological robots
While the nuances and threats of censorship as played out across journalism pose somewhat obvious questions about the right to information, the right for free speech, etc, when shifting one’s gaze toward the art photography world, the conversation around censorship seems to alter slightly. As opposed to an industry concerned with photographers that are aiming to disseminate unbiased and objective reporting, art photographers are often looking to posit very pointed and refined ideas. However, it is also becoming increasingly obvious that art photographers’ biggest problems under the banner of censorship are often concerned with technology and/or nudity. And the interface between these can often result in startlingly uncharted waters of algorithms and crowd-sourced ideology.
In 2019, photographer and artist Ed Templeton was commissioned by Vogue magazine to photograph couples kissing at the LA Pride Parade in light of his previous work with the topic in his book, Teenage Kissers. Photographing the event on his well-worn Leica rangefinder and 35mm negatives, Templeton photographed “a wide array of genders and sexes and combinations” all celebrating diversity in his home state of California. But it wasn’t until his film was developed and images published that Templeton was confronted with what he is calling “base homophobia and Instagram’s algorithms” that took to denigrating his work. “The minute I posted them, I noticed a dive in followers, maybe 500 people unfollowed me after seeing two men kissing on their feed,” says Templeton. “That is homophobia, plain and simple. If you are so affected by it that instead of just scrolling by it you need to go through the steps of unfollowing me, you’re a homophobe.” Following his initial posts of the content on this personal Instagram page, the following day would see an explosion in the division of his followers as Vogue made three posts from Templeton’s photo essay and linked to his account directly. “Since they have 23 million followers, those photos got a lot of exposure and my followers shot back up by 2000 or so,” says Templeton. “The posts ended up on the [Instagram] explore page. Now I’m getting super crazy anti-gay comments from around the world. The comments on the Vogue post are a very dark look into homophobia and religious zealotry.”
While it is important to consider in this context the idea that all users of the Instagram platform are equally entitled to express their views (whether homophobic or not), what is much more concerning is the form of automated, techno-censorship that Templeton was experiencing. He is convinced that a combination of the sheer number of flags his posts received from viewers and algorithm-induced protocol was behind the removal of his otherwise innocuous images. “Instagram has billions of users and there’s no way a human can monitor each flag, so if enough people flag a post it gets removed by default,” he says. “My problem with that is if Instagram is claiming that it has progressive values and supports the LBGTQ community during Pride Month, how is it possible that a bunch of backward, religious zealots and homophobes can successfully get posts taken down? Instagram is letting these people make their policy for them by proxy.”
Outside of the Vogue/homophobia saga, Templeton’s case also raises a number of questions about social media platforms and censorship more generally as ever-increasing numbers of users turn to the Instagram platform for an outlet for their photographs and other arts. While almost all fine art photographic practitioners now have a story of their post being removed from the platform, some have suggested that Instagram, as a private company, has every right to remove whatever they want from their servers. So, what happens when a privately owned platform grows so large that almost the entire world’s art community comes to rely on it as a means for dissemination and collaboration? Is it a case of Instagram’s way or the highway? And does the occasional post removal outweigh the huge benefits that the platform otherwise offers artists to help grow and indeed support their practice? “I think about quitting Instagram every day, but never do, and keep posting,” says Templeton, offering instead some suggestions as to how the platform might improve in terms of censorship. “It might be too nuanced for the social media platforms to be the deciders [as to what is and isn’t art]. They should just have a choice for the poster to put up a disclaimer before viewing. If you decide to view, you can’t then flag it,” he says, going on to cite perhaps the most talked about topic on social media today: nipples. “Basically, censoring nipples at this point is ridiculous. Penises and vaginas, I get. But the entire boobie excluding only one square inch? It’s kind of stupid. The children can handle it, they already do.”
In chorus with Templeton is artist and photographer Savannah Spirit whose practice as a photographer has frequently looked at the female form. But rather than shunning the Instagram platform as would seem warranted for a practitioner whose lens is often focused squarely on the female nipple, Spirit has enacted a two-pronged approach of both refining her practice in light of the parameters that Instagram has set and entering into a discourse that might result in more precise censorship measures aimed to facilitate artists in the digital realm. “I wish I could quit [Instagram], but it leaves me no choice if I want to stay in the game,” says Spirit. “It’s difficult because most of the art community is on there. But for me, censorship actually had the opposite effect. These confinements helped me go to a new level with my images, and I grew technically, aesthetically, and intellectually as an artist. So, their censorship was to my benefit.” Despite this, Spirit maintains that progress is still to be made on certain aspects of censorship and echoes the sentiment put forth by Templeton that the emancipation of the female nipple on social media is long overdue. Taking place in a peaceful protest outside the Instagram/Facebook offices in New York City on 2 June 2019, Spirit was part of hundreds that bore (almost) all as part of artist Spencer Tunick’s and the National Coalition Against Censorship’s effort. “If you are of age, there should be no reason you can’t handle seeing a photograph or a rendering of a naked body. At that point you should know a naked body is not disgusting. It’s natural and normal,” says Spirit. “When IG opens up to the artistic nude, we won’t know until then what kind of content will be allowed, and how it will be monitored. Porn Hub may be able to get away with a little bit more, but we won’t know until it happens. Isn’t that what Warhol said? ‘Art is what you can get away with.’”
Where to now?
Whether impacting journalist’s ability for free speech and precise reporting, or keeping the female nipple out of pixels across our devices’ screens, censorship is evidently alive and well in photography. But as is evident, in some spheres the omission of certain images is not only necessary, but can mean the difference between life and death. While it is certainly tempting to enter a philosophical dialogue that considers a more black-and-white rendition of the argument for censorship or no censorship, the reality in an age where print media is struggling to survive and where we rely on robots for most of our digital curatorial processes anyway, is that an entire spectrum of nuances, where the relevance of censorship is infinitely varied, complicit, and responsible for how we consume images, is in place. While the heavy hand of the Bangladeshi government might paint Shahidul Alam’s predicament as a most nefarious example of censorship today, the accumulation of photographs that you or I never saw because of reasons not known to us surely presents a collection in the petabytes.
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