Is Instagram the Best Medium for Sharing Creative Nude Photography? (NSFW)

When it comes to getting the word out about our work, Instagram remains the medium of choice.

We live in a tricky time. Creativity comes in many forms and approaches, yet for some reason, we are still averse to things like artful nudity. Art has explored the human body since we’ve come to have a more profound appreciation for it, yet today, even implied nudes are sometimes deemed lewd or inappropriate. Nudity in photography, no matter how tastefully done, is often either frowned upon or censored, especially on social media platforms. Photography seems to be the hardest hit because of its realistic nature. If you’ve ever posted portraits with nudity involved, chances are it’s been removed no matter how tasteful or creative the approach was. You’re not alone in this.

Fly by Kirsten Thys van den Audenaerde

Not long ago, Brussels-based freelance photographer Kirsten Thys van den Audenaerde shared her insights on presenting the female gaze through Polaroid nudes. Since discovering Polaroid accidentally three years ago, it has become her medium of choice for the dreamy aesthetic and authenticity it lends to her work. As with many photographers and content makers today, she shares her work on Instagram and has found it’s becoming more difficult for artists like her to show their work on the two largest social networks.

“If we can’t show our work on the two largest social networks anymore, where will we go? Nudity is getting vilified again, nipples are deadly weapons of mass destruction, pubic hair a public enemy. I wonder sometimes whether nude art will have to go more underground to find a place where we can create and display it freely.”

Likewise, just last month Portland-based portrait photographer Ryan Muirhead  lamented about one of his posts featuring a nine year-old boy in a hot spring being deleted, even if he maintained that it didn’t violate the guidelines. Another post expressing his frustration garnered hundreds of comments and even sparked some interesting discussions on censorship and social media, but that too got deleted.

View this post on Instagram

❤️💀 It’s been a pretty frustrating 24 hours here in phone-land. I had a post up that was doing quite well engagement wise (which has been something I’ve been struggling with) and was also something I really cared about. Announcing the @longlivefilmworkshop being thrown by dear friends of mine. It was nice after having so many posts not get seen by so many of the people following me to have an important one do so well. About 2 hours later the post was deleted by Instagram for a photo of a 9 year old boy in a hot spring. I then posted about my frustration about having a post removed that didn’t even violate the stupid guidelines. That post ended up with hundreds of comments and some interesting discussion on censorship and social media. I woke up to discover that post deleted as well. I understand that this is a free platform and they can do whatever they want but I’m sad about it. Instagram became the behemoth it is today because of the users building it into somewhere people wanted to be. I suppose it the nature of most things successful to pollute and sell the soul of the thing. I feel stuck. If I feel it’s that bad I should leave. I know that. I’m scared I won’t be able to support myself and I’m sad thinking of all the amazing experiences that have come from this app. But surely I at least need a break and some new perspective on how to be here. Thanks so much for all the love and art you’ve added to my life. -ryan

A post shared by ❤️ghost-shaped people💀 (@ryanmuirhead) on

Then, there’s the closed-door meeting at Instagram’s New York City headquarters that photographer Joanne Leah recently joined to discuss the platform’s community guidelines. She shared what went down in this meeting with Vox, particularly in an episode of the Reset tech podcast series. There, she encapsulated the rationale behind the “free the nipple” hashtag that has become the rallying cry of artists on Instagram:

“Censorship affects everybody. You know, if Instagram is telling you what kind of art you can look at or what kind of books you can read or what kind of podcasts you can listen to. Why should they be telling you that? Why? Think about that for a second. Like, there’s no reason a company, a corporation should be telling anyone what they should and shouldn’t look at, listen to and read.”

I could go on and give more examples, but I’m sure there are already tons of affected artists out there who either had some of their posts deleted or their accounts were taken down. Hence the question, is it time for nude photographers and artists exploring concepts around nudity to move on from the platform?

Faun by Kirsten Thys van den Audenaerde

The Need for a Better Understanding About Nudity in Art

In an article for Art Renewal Center, Brian Yoder shared that some people still feel “the nude form is something that should be hidden away both in art and the artist’s classroom. Although this may seem at first like a mere annoyance, such people frequently attempt to stop others from viewing or learning from the human form, thereby infringing on their rights to create and consume art as they wish.” The ARC website features countless paintings and sculptures depicting nude figures, as one would expect from a platform dedicated to art. Still, he said that the anti-nudity theme continues to pop up once in a while in the website’s feedback section, in the form of something like, “All of this would be wonderful if only you would hide or eliminate the presence of nudity on this site.”

Yoder believes that one reason this issue against nudity in art stems “from a lack of understanding of how the best art is taught and created.” However, educating people about how nudity doesn’t equate to pornography is one thing; there also needs to be an understanding that it offers “important expressive tools to artists” for its ability to “show human beings in ways that are uniquely valuable.”

“…the human body can be a beautiful thing to contemplate and this can be a useful artistic tool in and of itself, just as flowers, sunsets, and mountains are similarly useful tools in the artist’s toolkit. And if the point of art is primarily to express ideas about the nature of humanity, man’s role in the world then it would be natural to expect that the unadorned human form would be among the most powerful of those expressive tools and indeed it is.”

Photo by Jamiya Wilson

No Room for Artful Frontal Nudity

An online community or platform like Facebook and Instagram is bound to have some rules in place, and artists often have little choice but to adhere to them or accept that their posts might get taken down. Instagram’s official community guidelines state:

“We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.

Fern by Kirsten Thys van den Audenaerde

“People like to share photos or videos of their children. For safety reasons, there are times when we may remove images that show nude or partially-nude children. Even when this content is shared with good intentions, it could be used by others in unanticipated ways.”

So, their stand is clear — there is no room for artful nudity in the platform. This explains why Ryan’s post was deleted, even if he deemed it harmless and did not violate the guidelines. It’s Instagram that calls the shots on what stays or disappears from their platform.

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Today I am joining @everybodyvisible in ending censorship of art on social media.⁣ ⁣ On this #internationalinternetday we want to voice our concerns and bring them to the attention of the people who run Instagram.  We request clear guidelines, equally-applied ‘community standards’, right of appeal, and an urgent review into algorithmic bias disproportionately affecting the visibility of women, femme-presenting people, LGBTQIA folx, people of color, sex workers, dancers, athletes, fitness fans, artists, photographers & body-positive Instagram users.⁣ We tag Instagram chiefs ⁣ @Mosseri⁣ @SherylSandberg⁣ @DavisAntigone⁣ @maxinepwilliams ⁣ @Schrep ⁣ @Guyro ⁣ ⁣ #EveryBODYVisible⁣ ⁣ *Note that this image by @alimahdaviparis does NOT violate the current community standards; there is only the illusion of nudity, with a gown by @ralphandrusso utilizing @swarovski crystal.

A post shared by 💄Dita Von Teese (@ditavonteese) on

A Workaround on Instagram

Photographers and models have found a workaround to avoid having their posts deleted by applying the censorship themselves, often creatively covering nipples with stars, shapes, and even emojis. This kind of censorship sometimes defeats the purpose of sharing an artful nude, sometimes cheapening the entire photo. Some avoid showing female nipples or genitalia altogether, only showing parts of the whole or switching up the angles.

Others, like famed burlesque performer Dita Von Teese, resort to creative measures to both challenge and criticize Instagram’s nudity guidelines, pushing the boundaries of what the platform may deem acceptable. Her post above, calling for the end of censorship of art on social media, was especially directed to the people who run the platform. This approach tends to have a significant impact, even if the posts don’t always involve actual nudity but present an illusion of it.

Photo by Jamiya Wilson

Is Instagram Still Worth It?

We have to entertain the idea that Instagram, despite its usefulness for creatives, wasn’t originally designed to be a platform for art; it was meant to be a visual diary. But people — even brands and business entities — found a way to make its extensive reach work to gather a following or reach out to potential clients.

Since there will always be people who will either violate/try to work around these rules or can’t distinguish the difference between fine art nude photography and pornography, one can’t help but wonder if posting creative nude photography on Instagram is still worth it. A platform where both pornography and artful nudes are seeking to co-exist may not be the best solution for the latter. And a community that largely still can’t see nudity without sexualizing the content will often find themselves offended by an exposed nipple or a shapely bottom.

“I understand that this is a free platform and they can do whatever they want but I’m sad about it,” said Muirhead in his Instagram post. “Instagram became the behemoth it is today because of the users building it into somewhere people wanted to be. I suppose it’s the nature of most things successful to pollute and sell the soul of the thing,”

Instagram remains, without a doubt, the most popular platform with the biggest reach for creators like photographers. But it may not be the best platform anymore (or yet? Who knows.) for creative works that feature full and frontal nudity, unless creators are willing to adhere to the policies. Even then, they have to accept that their posts may be culled even if they follow the guidelines and exercise their best judgment. While it may not be the best avenue, it’s the only one we have with a significant reach, and thus also offers the biggest chance for change to happen. For now, we can only make do with what it can still do for us, but let’s also keep an eye out for more supportive platforms.

Photos by Jamiya Wilson used with permission in our previous interview. All other images used with permission.