No doubt more than a few of us are familiar with and have experienced first hand the suffocating censorship of Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms. I can personally say that my private Facebook account was frozen for a period of time for "commiting an infraction" i.e. we had published a photograph (on Foto Femme United mind you, not my personal account) with a female figure top nude but covered by her arms. Since then, Instagram has shadowbanned our hashtag #ffusubmissions for "inappropriate content" and countless images have been deleted on Facebook. In times like these, it's hard not to feel claustrophobic by the suppression.
Sandra Franco (@sandrafrancophoto), member of Foto Femme United, has started a project called Censored Bodies (@censoredbodies) to address the very topic. We had a discussion about her hopeful project, check it out below.
FFU: Could you give us the background of how this project works?
SF: Censored Bodies is a visual project that questions the censorship of female bodies on social media. It aims to highlight the ways in which these platforms target and police images of female bodies, in particular those portrayed under a female gaze, whose subjects hold control over their own representation. Featuring reflections on the matter and accounts that had been banned from any of these platforms, it brings the focus back to the original (uncensored) images. There is an open call for submissions through the Instagram account @censoredbodies
FFU: I really love this initiative, especially the female gaze aspect. What sparked this idea?
SF: It started as a personal reflection on this biased censorship, after noticing some of the artists I followed on social media were being banned. I realised they all shared the following similarities: their images depicted female and non-binary bodies under a female gaze, they used either self-portraiture or a collaborative approach, and their subjects were presented in an empowering way. This made me perceive such a big contradiction between the diversity of realities these platforms allowed me to reach, and the clear targeting of female bodies depicted from alternative lens.
FFU: I think that's one of the parts I find the most crushing, is that these images are being made to HELP and yet these platforms still don't want to accept that. What are the implications censorship like this has on society?
SF: Social media have become an extension of public spaces, offering an amazing potential of connecting with a larger community, which can help you feel represented and accepted. But at the same time, through this biased censorship, are restricting the collective representation of women, female identities and the issues that affect them. By repeatedly policing women perspectives, considering them ‘inappropriate’ and ‘offensive’, these platforms are reinforcing the idea that female bodies are, above all, sexual objects only to be allowed when they conform to the norm.
This is allowing, for instance, the diffusion of digitalised nipple-less female breasts, similar to ‘barbie-like’ dolls, while punishing natural bodies. Note some double standards here, regarding mastectomy images (such as The Grace Project portraits) that keep getting banned despite whatever the community guidelines say about them. By repetition, we might get used to and risk losing perspective; women and their bodies are not sexual objects, and should be represented in their complex diversity without being silenced.
FFU: What's your ultimate goal with Censored Bodies?
SF: Ideally, community guidelines would gradually become more inclusive, making the project something anecdotal. On the contrary, the issue seems to be getting worse, with new policies and biased shadow banning affecting more users.
The main purpose of the project is to bring the focus back to the images, creating a collective display of diverse realities, in order to counteract the biased censorship. Offering a visual space for open discussion, I’d like it to become a supportive platform for those who, due to the nature of their images, are being censored, eventually contributing to change these policies.
FFU: Exactly, I think the idea of an open dialogue is crucial to get the ball rolling and to start listening to each other. What do you see in the future for Censored Bodies?
SF: Due to the mentioned shadow banning, it’s getting more difficult to reach those who are not already familiar with the project. I’m currently working towards increasing visibility, in order to receive a larger number of submissions. On the short term, I expect to feature many more examples of censored images, but as the project itself it’s been previously censored, I’m aware of its temporary nature, as long as it relies on social media presence. Because of the potential risk of the account being closed, I consider the idea of publishing the result of the project, with a bit of time.
FFU: Yes! This project would make a great book, actually. I'd buy it! How can projects like Censored Bodies educate society on nudity and especially female nudity? How do you approach the educational aspect?
SF: To me, this type of censorship, doesn’t respond directly to the nudity, but to whom and how that nudity is being depicted. On one side, they might tolerate mainstream sexualised images while on the other, alternative and personal narratives, depicting realistic and non-conforming bodies, may be considered offensive.
Projects like Censored Bodies and similar ones, are contributing to a global movement against this type of policies. For instance, breastfeeding in public, which was not an issue until recently, had become problematic in certain places. Social media has been used to raise awareness against this absurdity, not only by forcing a change on its policies, but also supporting off line movements, such as the recent #freethefeed action in London, which was favourably shared through social media channels.
On a similar note, images of menstrual blood, natural births or ageing bodies, which had been usually hidden in mainstream media, are widely shared and discussed in social media, with positive educational and health effects. And every time they get censored, someone might be able to claim against that.
By presenting a collection of images so diverse, in opposition to standardised ‘banning’ messages, I aim to challenge the ambiguous community guidelines and the reasons behind them, as an act of resistance against the ‘social media gaze’.
The main project hashtag #censoredbodies is permanently shadow banned. Other project hashtags: #shadowbanned #censuradas #femalebodies #biasedcensorship