Originally featured in Volume 19 of tmrw.
I facetimed Molly Soda, who answered from her room in New York. We were wearing matching pink t-shirts, so I knew we were gonna get on.
Molly is the co-author, along with artist Arvida Byström, of Pics Or It Didn’t Happen– a book containing images that were deleted from Instagram for violating their community guidelines.
We chat about censorship online, the new book and why Molly and Arvida decided to put the collection together. We were off to a good start, when she said, “I was in a coffee shop and completely spaced and remembered we had this interview”.
Molly and Arvida had both had their own images removed for violating Instagram’s Community Guidelines, and it was a common occurrence between their circles of friends. But why publish them in a book? Arvida “made a complaint about it online. She said, ‘Can we make a ceremony for all the banned instagram posts’. So we started this book.”
We move on to a conversation about what pics Molly had taken down in the past: “It was never anything explicit but it was always the suggestion of something sexual. So pubic hair, I definitely had one with period blood taken down. Obviously nipple. Nipples always get taken down. No one is surprised at this point if it’s a breast taken down.” She said how she’s not surprised by the notification anymore. Or that maybe she has less taken down because of ‘self-censorship’. “Whenever you get an image taken down, you would have never really thought twice about that image because we just post to our feeds. But when you get the notification you ask, ‘Which one was it?’ and you’re thinking about it a lot more. Then you ask ‘Why is this bad?’ I think we unintentionally elevate certain things because they’re ‘not allowed’. It’s like a kid being told they can’t do something…” They want to do it more.
“I think the instagram guidelines are just vague enough to keep themselves out of trouble and they are open to interpretation which makes it easy to implement rules. I understand why they exist; I’m not anti-censorship necessarily.” But she said the rules reflect the way society connects what is ‘gross’, ‘acceptable’ or ‘sexual’ with bodies and nudity. “I think the problem with the body is a nude body is always perceived as sexual because that’s the way we’re trained to look at bodies, as objects, instead of the things that hold our organs or whatever.”
Molly said the submissions they received for the book were mostly from a younger generation, (obviously) 18+ and up to about 25, she guesses, with pictures from “a lot more bodies that could be read as more feminine. I think a woman’s body is always in conversation with sex no matter what they’re wearing or doing. It’s a mixture of the way we’ve looked at women’s bodies and the way that women look at themselves. I think that was a big theme.” The submitted pictures were from a particular demographic, from those who follow the two artists on social media – there are a lot more images that get removed for other reasons than a hint of nip. Molly said, “It’s really funny that there are attempts at cleaning up or policing the internet”.
Pics or It Didn’t Happen, published by Prestel, includes submissions by all shapes and sizes, genders, races and religions. Molly said, “Whenever I see people talking about feminism or body positivity, I’m still seeing very hot models who deviate maybe a little bit – maybe they’re short or maybe they’re plus size – but they’re still fitting with the normative beauty standards.” This book was for anymore, those who fit those normative standards and those who might not.
“Some people have commented, ‘This isn’t art. This is bad. They took it with cellphones, blah blah blah’. There’s been like 3000 movements in the art world we already got past – hasn’t that already been a conversation that everyone had?” Molly liked the idea of involving people interested in art in a different way to herself. It creates a more intriguing, inclusive and varied collection of images.
Along with four short essays on social media, censorship and bodies, Molly and Arvida highlight at the beginning of Pics or It Didn’t Happen how it’s not a book against censorship, or a how-to-guide to feminism or to help you with the decision on whether to post a nude selfie or not – it’s a book by people with one thing in common – they have all had their photos taken down from Instagram due to the platform’s Community Guidelines.