Censorship is Good for Photography. Seriously.

Censorship is Good for Photography. Seriously.

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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.

This triptych of Peter Spirov has been declared "sexy", "hot", and "yummy" by untold amounts of women who have had no issue declaring this openly on my many social media platforms (I imagine plenty of men say the same thing, but none have shared their thoughts with me on it so I can only speak to the fact that women have). It has nipples in the shot, six in fact, but nary a black bar is needed to make this image rated PG.

 

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. 

If Elsa Day, shown here, is visually stimulating you erotically, then this image has succeeded in its intended purpose. The black bar hasn't diminished your interest, has it? If anything, it has actually increased it. I win.

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.

My original image is on the right, and the "censored for Facebook" version is on the left. The many people who have viewed the image on Facebook have not had the image taken down thanks to the standard issue black bar across Liz Ashley's bare chest.

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? 

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39 Comments

Do not agree with you. Nor do I agree that USA is lax on censorship.

Nino Batista's picture

Lax compared to, say, North Korea, yeah. But perhaps not compared to France.

Jon Miller's picture

I used to live in Hollywood, USA, born and educated in Colorado. The US is not lax by any means. I moved to live in Australia 21 years ago where you can shoot a nude anywhere with any issues, I've traveled to Germany, Italy and surrounding areas and were allowed to shoot nudes there without anyone or any police getting in my face. What surprises most folks here is how can a country that produces the most porn be so prudest in nudity? Facebook and any other media in the US will ban you for nudity plain and simple, yet publications from other parts of the world welcomes the freedom it has in the human form especially from an artistic position. The US frowns on this even in its art form.

Nino Batista's picture

I will also ask, did you read the entire piece? If so, are you saying that you agree with having zero censorship in all forms of media across all platforms? Nudity, violence, hate speech, etc, all across the board without limits? Children's websites should allow ads for porn sites on the sidebar? What exactly is your stance on this? If it IS 100% removal of all censorship, please explain what societal model would have to be in place for this to work.

Anonymous's picture

I think that comparing nudity, or rather, a human body in it's most natural form... to violence and hate speech isn't a great comparison. I think we need to re-evaluate the stigma attached to things like someone's naked body. I don't think it has to be an all or nothing approach either. As well, nudity doesn't necessarily equal pornography. Someone might say 'yeah, but to some people it is!' and I'll say 'well, some people have intimate relationships with their automobiles and furniture' - so, it's not the nudity that's the problem. Although, it's not necessarily a straight line. In fact, that's one of the reasons I like shooting what I shoot (nudity/edgy). I like jumping back and forth over that line and you're right...that's one of the things that makes it a bit interesting.

On the photographer's side...it's a bummer really that we have these amazing photosharing platforms available to us (instagram/facebook) to share our work, and we're unable to really use them without extra hassle.

Nino Batista's picture

Fair enough! And yep, that, to me, is what keeps it interesting. I don't want to do the "usual" anything, never have. So I like to dance around the line, and always keep my dignity intact while doing it.

Anonymous's picture

On the photographer's side...it's a bummer really that we have these amazing photosharing platforms available to us (instagram/facebook) to share our work, and we're unable to really use them without extra hassle. Do I think instagram should be censored? No. Do I understand 'why' it is? eh...not really. I always go back to Petra Collin's hubbub regarding pubic hair on instagram and you could post an image of a woman in a provocative 'implied' pose, but you can't post a photo of a woman with more clothes on, who doesn't necessarily follow the grooming trends of the 2000's.

It's frustrating. However, I'm also put off by the stigmas. How come every time time someone posts photo of a model, some chud has to post something sarcastic about the subject matter rather than the photo? How come this doesn't happen with landscapes? How come when someone posts a landscape you never get "Wha...who...settings? What're settings? That mountain gives me a boner! I forget the rest of what I was gonna say...." - If you applied the comments photos like ours usually get to other genres of photography, you'd see how silly they are. So...i have no idea what I'm saying. Just venting.

Nino Batista's picture

Well, suffice to say more dudes get boners from photos of sexy people than sexy mountains. That said, I still get your point(s).

And there was a period of time where I thought Instagram was like Tumblr in that it had no censorship. I kind of feel you on that, but at the same time I get the censorship reasoning too. See, the few always always always ruin it for the many. If IG were to say "no censorship", then it would become a haven for pornography, because that shit sells. Plain and simple. Social media is also always under attack from the media and general public about safety, morality, etc of kids and teenagers, and the stigma of allowing nudity, or porn as they would call it, would definitely not be good for IG / FB stockholders….er…you know what I mean.

If I want to see nude photography, hell I go see some. Ideally, awesome photography. Or I make some, if the situation is right for it. When I don't wanna see nude photography, I don't. And having venues where nudity and violence aren't involved, I dunno, works for me at times.

Even still, while I see both sides of this coin, I def prefer open minds. Which are so rare.

Jon Miller's picture

I would agree that some forms of expression would need censoring, Who has given us the power to say what is not good for one is not good for everyone? It's out there and eventually people will find what they are looking for.

Every country has their particular areas of censorship. In most Western European cultures, it is violence that most often gets censored instead of sex or "foul" language. Even in the more progressive countries labeling something "incitement" and "hate speech" are considered enough of a reason to ban certain written or visual works— officially ban them by law! The U.S., for all its prudishness, still has no official law to censor anything, only to limit its access by certain citizens (ie. children). In fact, a lot of Europeans find the U.S. stance on freedom of speech too lax.

I would say the US is lax about censorship in the official sense. The culture is a bit prudish about sex, though.

Anonymous's picture

In Hitler times Heartfield's "He eats money and spit idiocies" was made and perhaps made some think that guy was not a saint

Anonymous's picture

It was probably censored

Nino Batista's picture

Ah, thinly veiled witticisms. Got it.

Anonymous's picture

Not witticism
It was an artwork by John Heartfield

Nino Batista's picture

Forgive me, but I guess I didn't - and still don't - fully understand what you mean. Were you saying that an artwork was censored by Hitler and Nazi Germany then?

Anonymous's picture

In that case censorship (in the case it was censored) was not such a good thing

Nino Batista's picture

Almost everything a government censors from it's citizens is a problem. I agree. As I mentioned in the article, my points were more towards visual art in the entertainment sphere.

Michael Rapp's picture

Great read, though I tend to disagree on a few minor points: Cencorship bein lax in US. True, as politics go; you get to say anything about the current president and live to see another day.
However, funny thing is: You don't get to swear on TV or, god forbid, show a naked female breast. Unless it's a documentary on australian aboriginies, they don't seem to count. Or aren't sexy. Or whatever.
Whereas violence, the bar for censorship is way higher. Sky high in fact. How many on- screen murders happen on TV every day?
Makes me kind of think, is the occasional naked female breast really such a danger to the unsuspecting adolescent youth or the increasing indifference to on- screen violence, displayed in more than necessary closeup shots.
Or swear words. So what *is* the family with toddlers doing at a hard rock concert, anyway? (Ear protection for the young, anyone?)
Decency is as substantial as a jellyfish, it alters its shape and size as you watch. In the Renaissance, artists got away with a *lot*. You wouldn't believe what they had painted inside the vatican walls, todays censors would feak out. On the other hand, blasphemy or homosexuality were definite no- no's,
So let me follow up your thought with a couple questions:
Should art be censored? No.
Is porn considered art? Not in my book, but who listens to me anyway?
Should parents censor what their children watch? By all means! Schindler's list is not a movie for primary school.
Should the government / media execs treat all people like children and decide for them, for the rest of their lives, what they get to see? - Now, here censorship gets interesting.....
(btw, I'm writing this from Germany, there's censorship here too, less strict on boobs and profanity - nipplegate wouldn't have made it into the second day except for speculations why she wore such a flimsy dress in the first place).
Just my $0,02
Mike.

Nino Batista's picture

Agreed on all! But to be clear, my example describing the family and the rock concert depicted a family walking from a park to a grocery store that just happens to be within earshot of an outdoor auditorium. Not a family attending a concert with toddlers. :)

You dont even get to see naked breasts of Australian aboriginals either. I've seen plenty of documentaries and even reruns of old ones where the natural state of the locals have been blurred. Not that I mind because aboriginals really dont do it for me anyway.

Shane Frederiksen's picture

Spot on, Nino!! Great article, and excellent points.

A bit of logical self censorship for certain times and places, discretion being the better part of valor, is also a theme I am getting from this. Yes?

Nino Batista's picture

Yep! After all, I shoot glamour nudes for magazines, and I also shoot head shots and exotic cars. There is a time and a place for everything, and you need to be able to determine where the lines are, and when (and if) to cross them as it benefits you.

David Vaughn's picture

I agree that censorship is good in the context that a photo of a beheaded corpse is not necessary in a news story, since it would be shocking and deemed inappropriate for some audiences, Most importantly, it would not add any new information to the story.

However, I'll never understand the black bars on the human form. For me, it doesn't add any new interest to the work, because I already know what's under there. Breasts are breasts are breasts. I don't think the interest in a photograph needs to be driven in some odd way by the censorship place on it. It might be a positive force in how provocative the photo is if it is produced in an environment where censorship is the norm, but an interesting photo is an interesting photo is an interesting photo, regardless of how many black-barred boobs there are.

Just my opinions. All of this gets a little too abstract for me to process and eloquently explain.

Nino Batista's picture

The issue with "black bars" is that, as a censor, you have to decree that we cover all breasts or cover none. At least, that's how it has come to be. One person's figure work is another person's pornography, ya know? And if there is one thing the internet has shown is that there are more raging pervs and puritanical prudes out there than we would like.

I am NO prude (um, I shoot glamour and nudes for a living), but I can understand why some venues / media outlets censor nudity. Even in my own profession, *vulgar* nudity is something I consider tacky, and usually pretty gross. As a heterosexual male, yep, I find women attractive. But as a man of taste and, I'd like to think, artistic vision, I don't need to see a woman holding her vagina open. But, that's *my* threshold on what I consider art, and what I consider arousing or provocative - everyone is different.

Anonymous's picture

"One person's figure work is another person's pornography, ya know? " - As I mentioned above...people also get off to having intimate relationships with antique furniture. I always tell people that if they are getting off to my nude photos, I can point them to some actual, better, pornography. But...then.... "And if there is one thing the internet has shown is that there are more raging pervs and puritanical prudes out there than we would like." yep. So now I flip back and forth...because every time we post a photo of a model with a figure....many of the comments are sexual and about the subject matter moreso than the actual photo. So...that's a bummer and the world isn't as utopian as it is in my brain. I think I'm just going to start commenting on people's landscape photos things like "Wow, that mountain really...I mean...phew....HOT! Those trees are giving me some 'wood' if you know what I mean, wink wink"

Nino Batista's picture

hahahaha YES we should all do that!

Liv Lindeland was the first Playboy Playmate (January 1971) with visible pubic hair, but she wasn't the first full frontal nude.

Chris Blair's picture

That moment you realize you have “Worksafe” turned off…

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