Last Saturday morning, January 30 2016, I received a text message from a friend 'Where did you go?' I didn't understand what he meant until later when I pressed the Instagram icon on my phone and was greeted with the screen shown here. I had been 'disappeared' with no warning and no means of alerting my followers on Instagram, who might think I'd just blocked them. I felt violated.
I've been subconsciously fearing a moment like this since I started to use the application about 18 months ago, a) because of the subject matter I post- I’m a professional photographer who publishes books of male nude portraits, and it is often a censored version of this work that I share on Instagram, and b) because, having been raised religiously, and having realised my homosexuality at an early age, and being of a sensitive, creative and depressive nature, although I like to challenge myself and societies mores when it comes to my art, I live in fear that I will be punished for it. I carry the baggage of emotional abuse in my all too accessible subconscious, along with a lot of unresolved anger about it. Yes, this was inevitable.
Oh, and c) Instagram has removed several of my photos over the past year. In those situations I am blocked by a different screen when trying to access my account, which announces that I have ‘breached community standards’, and my only option if I want to continue, or even ascertain which post has offended, is to agree by pressing 'OK’. The first time this happened, I was shocked, and flailed around trying to understand what it was specifically about the image in question that had been offensive enough to have it taken down, judging from their fairly vague 'community standards', the range of content across the site that seemed to be acceptable, and my personal barometer: ‘What would I be happy for someone of teen age and above to see?’ From what I could tell, nudity, which was banned, was any depiction of genitals, or of female nipples, unless in 'Art', which seems to be anything which isn't a photograph of a real person. ( I have seen hundreds of photos of quite photo-real pictures depicting frontal nudity and sex.) It was consensus, too, that since the notorious Kim Kardashian buttocks photo, Instagram will accept photos of the human rear end . That is pretty evident across the site, though Instagram does not officially confirm this.
I asked and read around and got a lot of inconsistent myths and theories about how posts get ‘reported’ and how they are assessed. I got told that anyone can report an image for any reason whatsoever, and Instagram will act on it, but I never worked out whether removals are a result of clumsy computer- automated assessment, or of conservative religious men in call centres in third world countries. There is no way to query the decision, and lots of people had horror stories about how many ‘strikes’ I would get before they would shut me down. The system seemed terribly unfair. If you think you haven’t breached their standards, and I certainly never intend to, not only is there no way of appealing- Instagram have made sure there’s no email address for such ‘help’- there is no way of ensuring you don’t offend someone or something again. It's just a matter of time, in my line. This is kind of totalitarian nightmare for me. I am not in control at all and it seems the bar that is set to ensure a safe environment for everyone, can be moved at any time at Instagram’s discretion, depending on their needs, maybe to placate their global consumer interests in ‘communities’ that look nothing like the western liberal community I like to think I still live in, and which I had assumed Californian IT nerds like them would be proud to defend the world over. But perhaps it is an American Puritanism they peddle after all?
One of the photos I had removed a few weeks ago ( above) was actually a re-post of a photo from a year ago, which passed muster then, but which evidently breached community standards now! I think that was my fifth, and by that stage I was thinking I was doomed to be closed down and there was nothing I could do. Each of the photos that I've had removed are so different in what they depicted and how.
I don’t want to seem like I am ungrateful to Instagram. It is a social media site that has enabled me to connect with over one hundred and sixty thousand people, most of whom had not heard of me or seen any of my work before. For that reason, when you are a self-employed artist and book publisher, and print magazines and book stores that used to be the means of garnering publicity are mostly gone, applications like Instagram perform a great service. Although by far the majority of followers are happy to enjoy a free sample of my work, and perhaps can’t afford to buy anything, I have accessed a good number of new customers and perhaps as importantly, wonderful new patrons who ‘get' my work , and offer intellectual sustenance, without which a self-employed artist can't survive.
After the disabling of my account, I followed the instructions on the screen and pressed ‘learn more’. This lets you contact the help centre if you feel you have been closed down in error.With nothing to lose, I did that and received an email acknowledging my contact. Then you wait. I had read that Instagram takes anything from four hours to four weeks to reply, or they may not reply at all. On Wednesday morning, I got a text from the same friend who had alerted me to my being ‘disappeared’, saying simply ‘yay’. I assumed then confirmed the account was back, and I got an email from Instagram advising this, adding ‘we apologise for any inconvenience’. And that was it! So, even though I still have no idea why I was closed, if it even was about content, since this time they did not remove any posts, whether the past strikes against me have been removed, whether common sense prevailed because a lovely sensible liberal human in California assessed my account and didn’t find it wanting, or how long I will be in their good books, for now, I am able to continue to use the app, and although I will try to limit my dependence on it and attachment to it, and although I would love them to be more communicative, I am a little happier, though still fatalistic.
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February 23, 2016 Update.
Well, I was closed down again, on February 18. That morning, a different message flashed up on my phone screen when I pressed the Instagram icon. It said that there had been suspicious activity on my account and that I should immediately change my password. I followed the link given and changed my password and received all the relevant emails asking if I had requested this password change, and confirming that this had been done. I then proceeded using the app as normal. A few hours later, when I pressed the Instagram icon on my phone I was greeted with the same 'Error' screen shown above: my account was disabled for violating terms, except THIS time, when I followed the 'learn more' instructions in order to dispute the closurer, I was unable to contact anyone, because on completing the form provided and pressing send, I got a message back saying that my account @paulfreemanphotographer did not exist!! So my one avenue that had enabled me to get in touch with Instagram last time, was shut off to me. I could only assume that they had deleted my account out of existence this time. Thoroughly disappeared me. This time I knew the closure was not about content, but about some nefarious IT goings on that were beyond my comprehension.
I was at a loss as to how to get in touch with Instagram this time. In what I thought was a futile gesture, I decided to email the lady from Instagram support who had sent me the lovely ' re-activation' email last time, and explain what had happened. This was one of those 'do not reply to this' automated emails, 'contact the Help Centre with any further queries' , so I assumed any reply would at this stage surely go into the ether. I went to bed that night quite fatalistic, and wondering if I could be bothered opening a Tumblr account next. Next morning when I checked my emails, she had replied to say, once again, that my account had been re-activated, and apologised for the inconvenience! Another scare resolved. But now I am just waiting nervously for what almost seems to be inevitable...For the first few days since this last closure I was tentative about posting any photos. Now I just think, it doesn't matter what I post, if they want to, whoever 'they' are, they will just shut me down, and if it is about content, then it is just about the fact that the men I portray and the way I portray them is dangerous in someone's eyes.