This article contains media that the editors have flagged as NSFW.
If there is one medium that has been subject to the most censorship in society for well over a century, it's photography. Further, if there is one medium that has been responsible for the most heated debates about censorship, it's photography. For the most part, photographers decry and loathe censorship, whether it's because they capture nude figures, or create images with fictionalized depictions of violence, or perhaps - arguably the most important - they capture vital, photojournalistic visuals of the world around us which, let's face it, it's sometimes just plain scary. But consider this: Mainstream censorshop is not only necessary in photography, but it helps photography overall. No, really.
And before you say anything, yes I am writing this from the United States, where censorship - though often the cause of major controversy - is extremely lax compared to many other countries. I am not saying that any government should have any power over what citizens choose to say or do, I am simply discussing censorship as it occurs in the mainstream entertainment media. So, give me a few minutes of your time, and allow me to explain just why it benefits photographers and photography as a whole to have some form of censorship in the mainstream.
What Is Your Definition of Decency?
And what the heck is "decency" anyway? That's a bit difficult to define in any one specific manner (which is one reason why it is so debatable.) To me, decency has more to do with the context of the given situation than anything else. In short, there is a time and a place for anything. It's when those times and places conflict with your content that the problems start.
Let's detour towards another art form for a moment: music. Take, for example, the outdoor amphitheater near my home in north Houston. The facility hosts numerous national and international music artists ranging from pop to classical to hip hop to rock to metal to freaking flamenco and whatever else they feel like doing. Every major musician or singer you've ever heard of has or will play there.
The issue? Well, this amphitheater is, of course, outdoors. And it boasts some of the most powerful sound equipment in the state. This makes for a fantastic show, but it also means that anyone for about a full one mile radius can clearly hear everything that is said and performed on stage. This is not normally a concern for anyone, and it doesn't generally upset anyone who drives by and hears it at night. However, when an all-day music festival comes to this amphitheater, let's say for argument's sake, BuzzFest, it ends up making things a little bit awkward. This happens because events like BuzzFest start as early as lunch time. The surrounding area of the amphitheater is neighborhoods, outdoor shopping areas, restaurants, parks and a grocery store. Can you guess what happens when BuzzFest bands banter to the crowd between songs? You guessed it: Swearing, swearing and more swearing. Because youth.
So picture this: A young family with a toddler in a stroller, and two middle school aged children, walking with their parents and grandmother across the park adjacent to the amphitheater. As they stroll leisurely through the park on a quiet autumn afternoon day, the singer of Generic Rock Band X is addressing his adoring fans with an apocalyptic fit of F-bombs and less-than-subtle allusions to his manhood. The singer isn't doing anything he doesn't normally do and that his fans don't normally expect, and the family in the park isn't doing anything they don't normally do either. But mix the situations together, and the context is now a conflict, and guess who is going to look like the A-hole?
Me, I swear like anyone else does. But there are times when it just isn't a good idea, nor do I feel right about doing it. The tension and controversy caused by Generic Rock Band X's singer is considered disgraceful by most. But, the exact same reason that his actions are universally considered repugnant is why said actions are so useful for music artists: Impact and shock.
Impact and Shock: So What?
What's the use in swearing if no one cares? Sure, it's a cathartic release, and oftentimes a necessary one, but have you thought about why swear words cause the reactions they cause? Simple: Because they are thought to be offensive because they were declared offensive by authoritative figures from your childhood. And that ends that. When you drop an F-bomb in public, someone is going to notice. In fact, by writing "F-bomb" instead of "fuck", this article, up until this sentence, was decidedly PG and now wouldn't make the pages of Popular Photography without being censored.
But what does that mean for photographers? Apart from giving us the right to swear up a storm when we leave our SD cards at the studio when we're on location, it affords photographers (and artists in general) an ace up our sleeve to make our work have unexpected impact. No, not with F-bombs, but with our images.
Nothing can exist and have significant meaning without having a direct opposite. You cannot have sexy portraits in the world if totally non-arousing photos didn't exist. After all, how could you tell it was sexy if there was no such thing as, shall we say, un-sexy photos to compare it to? The same can be said for violent images, be it depicted violence or photojournalistic "real" violent images. And that is where censorship comes in, and it can empower photographers to increase the impact of their work. But, how?
Let The Games Continue
Games? Yep, because that what censorship is for artists. It is a game of cat and mouse, or cops and robbers. Artists find themselves producing work, then trying to get it out to the public, while the legions of censors in the world work equally as hard to keep (some of) it from getting to the very same public. This struggle is crucial to art, in my opinion, as it has been for millennia. Also, with the internet having long ago gone mainstream, anyone can post pretty much anything online for others to see, but that doesn't mean a useful amount of people will see it on your Tumblr. As visual artists, we want our images in as many large scale online and print publications as we can, be it commercial work or fine art or whatever. And when that is the goal, we are faced with the possibility of censorship.
Society has several conflicting and biased standards on what is decent and acceptable. You either fall in line and adhere to these standards, as unjustified as some may seem to you, or you aren't going to be allowed to showcase your artwork in certain venues. But this is not my point. The takeaway from this analysis, for what it's worth, is essentially "What are you going to do to utilize the censorship systems that are in place to your advantage?" Answer that, and most of you will be on your way to success in the face of this omnipresent oppression.
Pause for a moment, though. Have you considered, seriously, a media world where zero censorship existed? You could say that the internet is that, and you'd be right. But the websites that have the largest audiences, by a landslide, have some or a lot of censorship. (Print media and network television, even more so.) A world without censorship, specifically visual censorship, would be two crucial things: shocking as hell and boring at the same time. It wouldn't take long before society became immune to most visuals, and all the impact and shock value of your photos would diminish or simply disappear.
I want my latest glamour images to make people notice, maybe even be startled and excited by them. I was not commissioned to create sexy images of a model for the languid end goal of no one noticing. It has to have impact - or what's the point? You can make a huge impact on magazine readers with sheer beauty and style, and you can create impact with sexiness, sensuality and style. I don't want a world where my glamour images are considered boring, or a world where I have to compromise myself and create images that go beyond the parameters of what I personally consider decent and moral, just to get my work noticed. If it were not for the censorship of "sexy photos" in some mainstream venues, my work would not create the reactions in people that I need it to create to keep my service and brand viable in the industry. Said another way, I can't be boring or I'll die in my industry.
Now, you could argue that "sexy photos" are pretty much everywhere thanks to the internet. But I will counter your argument by saying that my three children are regular users of the internet and they do not stumble onto Maxim, Playboy or even CNN just by accident. There are many things in place to minimize the possibility of a 10 year accidentally seeing "illicit" content on the web, from the computer I set up for them to use to the censors (and decisions made due to public opinions of decency when it comes to children) that run the various websites and TV networks my children experience. My kid goes to the Nickelodeon gaming site, and guess what? She's not going to be hit with half naked people, or a bloody street fight, or a litany of F-bombs, or photographer beheadings (ugh), or anything of that nature on the site. Why? Censorship. Stupidly literal as it may sound, someone decided that Nickelodeon's website was going to be significantly censored so parents don't panic when their kids are on it, and therefore it is. And that is perfectly fine by me.
However, everyone has a different threshold in terms of what they consider "decent and moral", and I get that. Heck, I've lived that throughout every minute of my photography career path.
This is the game I have to play if I want to post this image to my Facebook page, and play I have. Is the flow of the original image hugely interrupted by the black bar? Yes, and I don't like how it affects the perception of the shot. At all. But when people see the censored version on Facebook, and my post is inviting them to my 500px page where my work is not censored, can you guess what happens on my 500px account? Increased activity, that's what. Leveraging censorship comes in many forms.
It's All About Balance
When an artist hears the term "censorship", they generally freak out. Can't really blame them, as most artists have encountered some or a lot of it in their careers, sometimes to the detriment of said careers. But life isn't, or rather shouldn't be, simply about A or Z. Total censorship of anything that isn't mandated by the government, across an entire nation? Bad, very bad, for pretty much everyone living there. However, zero censorship in an anarchistic media world where literally anything goes? Bad for the citizens, very bad for the artists.
You have to give and take, and play the game, to make art truly have impact. You have to push boundaries, but know when to scale it back when it benefits you to. You have to absolutely know how to play this game if you want to maximize the impact of your photographic work, and the delicate balance does not lay in the extremes, or even one specific spot. It is in the fluctuations of the various ways that your work is seen and perceived. Understanding that is how you make the most impact with your visual work.
I say this with full confidence: the very same censorship that has flummoxed and hindered you in your career has also strengthened the overall impact and dynamic of your work, if you allow it to, and empowered you, if you choose, to leverage that impact for even larger returns in said career. You just have to play the game, and use it to your advantage. Fight the good fight against censorship, by all means, but know when it is time to shut up and reconfigure your approach for an even bigger career boast later on.
In my worldview, I want to say "fuck" and have my editors scratch their heads about whether or not they will allow me to say it in this article. That's the world I want to live in as a writer, and the world I want as a photographer. Follow me?