Fine arts students: It’s getting harder for our work to stay up on Instagram

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When Rita Bunrayong put her newly completed photo series, “Suffocation,” on her art Instagram account, her work got censored. 

The offending photos — a collection of nude self-portraits — depict Bunrayong in a bathtub, and are another casualty of Instagram’s increasingly stringent restrictions on what they deem as unwanted nude or sexual content. 

When Bunrayong tried to send the screenshot of the removal to the Martlet on Instagram, she instantly received another threatening notification. Instagram has technology that can identify content that has been previously removed, and remove it instantly if it reappears on the platform.

“Your account may be deleted,” the notification said. “Your post goes against our community guidelines.” 

Instagram flagging and censoring students for nude or sexual content is not a singular experience. UVic art students have long used Instagram to share their art. During the pandemic, the Visual Arts Student Association has begun hosting virtual studio visits on their Instagram that showcase student work and work processes. 

Social media can be a vibrant place for inspiration, collaboration, and interaction for young and emerging artists. But art that deals with nudity and sexuality is held to a different standard. 

Instagram policies make ‘allowances’ for nudity in scenes of breastfeeding, acts of protest, photos of post-mastectomy scarring, “health-related situations,” and photographs of art. But the algorithms that automatically remove and warn users often can’t differentiate the context of art that dips into the realm of skin and sexuality. 

Automated content moderation happens on a variety of levels: work might be taken down outright, while merely “inappropriate” work would be demoted and less likely to appear in users’ feeds. The lines between appropriate, inappropriate, and bannable content are not clearly defined. For artists that work with nudity or sexuality, every post on Instagram is made under the metaphorical eyes of the algorithms that police and enforce Instagram’s policy on nudity and sexual content.

Bunrayong is a first-year visual arts and art history student that’s exploring conceptual and performance art. She’s kept an art Instagram since highschool so that she can look at her development over the years. There are nude studies in her feed. But now that her work has moved from drawing towards exploring the nude body in photography, she doesn’t know where to put her art. Bunrayong said that her experience with Instagram is not going to discourage her exploring nudity in art. 

Second-year student Zaida Gerritson has been in art school since she was five. Formally trained in oils and acrylic, Gerritson is using her time at UVic to explore performance art and film photography. Her art often references mental health. For Gerritson, her bipolar disorder is intimately connected to the physical body, and she wants her work to reflect that.

Gerritson has only been on Instagram for a year — she is used to having her work in galleries.

“I’m not getting the feedback that I normally get from in-person right now, so I’m kind of struggling,” said Gerritson, noting how Instagram has taken an increasingly prominent place in her art practice during the pandemic. “[With Instagram,] we’re able to see each other’s work, and know that we’re not creating in a void.”

It’s also a frustrating, limiting space. After hearing about her peers’ negative experiences, she censors what she puts on Instagram.

If not for Instagram, Gerritson’s latest work — a performative, gestural piece entitled “Herself” where she depicts her struggle with bipolar disorder — would’ve been entirely unclothed. 

For Juliana Sech, a third-year visual arts student, the nude body is sacred. It’s also what she considers her primary artistic tool: the mediums are merely various expressions that she works with to explore sexuality, gender norms, and the blurred lines between sexuality and sensuality.