Photographer Spencer Tunick Can't Stop Running Afoul of Facebook's Baffling Rules on Naked People

Photographer Spencer Tunick Can't Stop Running Afoul of Facebook's Baffling Rules on Naked People
Photo by Spencer Tunick; image courtesy of the artist.

New York-based photographer Spencer Tunick takes beautiful pictures of naked people. You've probably seen some of those photos; he's become internationally famous over the past two decades for staging photos of "nude figures in public settings," as he puts it, everything from a lone woman curled around the cab of a truck to thousands of people splayed across Mexico City's Zocalo.

Tunick's work, though it isn't remotely sexual or pornographic, has still incited controversy; he even made it all the way to the Supreme Court, after he was arrested five times between 1995 and 2005 while staging his public nude shots. He was usually charged with "unlawful assembly." At least once, his camera was confiscated. Eventually, Tunick sued New York City and the NYPD, arguing that the constant arresting was an infringement on his First Amendment rights. He won.

But now Tunick faces a different and more implacable foe: Facebook. He can't share an uncensored photo of his work without it immediately being taken down. And as he recently discovered, even a pixelated photo is apparently not OK, unless the pixels are so enormous they take up most of the photo. Smaller pixels resulted in Facebook freezing his account and threatening him with deletion. Instagram is also not fond of nudes. So what's an artist whose subject is the naked body to do?

Tunick's latest bout with Facebook began in late December, when he put the above photo on his professional Facebook page. It was meant as a playful advertisement for his new book, European Installations, which, if you look hard, you'll see in the hands of one of the bookish ladies.

Tunick also made the executive decision to pixelate the photo before he put it on his page; he'd previously had another photo deleted, a flyer for a friend's art show. It depicted the artist, Mia Berg, nude in silhouette, sitting a tree.

"You couldn't even see breasts," Tunick says. But he wanted to be cautious this time, and figured some tasteful pixels covering everyone's relevant parts would do the trick.

It didn't. The photo was removed and Tunick's account was frozen; he also received an email telling him his account could be permanently deleted.

Tunick was horrified. "There's so much work on Facebook friending people and developing professional relationships," he says. "If someone just randomly after maybe three or four offenses takes down your site and you lose all your contacts, that's like years and years and years of work lost." He's had photos removed on Instagram as well, but Facebook, where he has some 18,000 followers, would be a much bigger blow if he were to lose it. Besides that, he says, "I believe that the naked body in art is free speech. I think it promotes a more healthy and openminded society."

Tunick emailed Facebook, asking why an already-censored photo was removed; in response, Chris Park, a representative from the company, told him that Facebook's terms of use, called their "Community Standards," place "limitations" on nudity, adding, "Unfortunately, the photograph violates these standards notwithstanding its pixelation."

Other than the word "limitations," Facebook doesn't get much more specific about what constitutes permissible nudity on the site. The relevant section of the Community Standards reads, in full:

Facebook has a strict policy against the sharing of pornographic content and any explicitly sexual content where a minor is involved. We also impose limitations on the display of nudity. We aspire to respect people's right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo's David or family photos of a child breastfeeding.

Tunick had also sent Facebook this version of the photo, where the pixels block out not just nipples and pubic hair of the models, but the entire breast, the whole nether region, and a good bit of their arms and shoulders. It looks like this:

Photographer Spencer Tunick Can't Stop Running Afoul of Facebook's Baffling Rules on Naked People

In a follow-up phone call, Tunick says, Park told him "the bigger pixels were OK, and the one scene was OK where I have 5,000 people in front of the Sydney Opera House." The Sydney photo is shot from a distance, so nobody's dangly bits are really visible.

But Tunick still wasn't sure what the nudity rules actually are. Would a photo he took of 1,000 people in the Dead Sea be permitted, where some people in the foreground are more visible?

"What do I do about works that are in between 19 people in a frame and 5,000?" he asks. "How do I know what to print or not print? They said if I have any images I'm questioning, I could email them and they'd help me with a yes or a no, which I thought was very nice." But he's still not quite comfortable with the idea, as he puts it, "that someone in an office in the middle of wherever - Nebraska, San Francisco - that one person decides what's OK or not when it comes to the body in art."


Ron Kuby is Tunick's lawyer; he works on both criminal defense and civil rights cases, and he was the one who got Tunick's lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court. He points out that while it's completely legal for Facebook to limit nudity in whatever way they choose, it's still a little weird.

"They have the right to do this," Kuby says. "They're not governed by the Constitution. They're not a state actor. They're a private company. There's no requirement that they have to permit one thing and not another. But here, the policy is opaque. It's more opaque than the covering on Spencer's model's nipples."

"We've dealt with this before," Kuby adds, saying that while Facebook may "aspire" to permit artistic, non-pornographic nudity, "they fall far short of it. Facebook has in essence a no-nipple rule, period. For women. Female nipples are dangerous, male nipples are not."

But the interesting issue with Tunick's photographs, Kuby says, "is that the offending body parts are pixelated. In essence, they are clothed. And we're all naked underneath our clothes. So when does it become nudity?" To complicate matters, with the smaller pixels, he says, "you have to look really closely to see that the people are not naked. So, if they merely look naked on the page and you have to carefully focus on small areas between their legs to see that they're not, are they really naked or aren't they? It's almost Zen in its bizarreness."

To learn more about Zen nudity, we spoke with Matt Steinfeld, a very nice, very apologetic policy and communications manager with Facebook. He says that with rare exceptions, photos are only pulled off Facebook after a user reports that photo as objectionable. After someone clicks "report," he says, the photo "is reviewed by a human. We have 24/7 support. There are people in California, India, Austin, Texas, and Dublin. We want to make sure no matter who's reviewing it, it has the same outcome. We don't want people imposing their own values or culture. We want to make sure it's getting the same result. What that forces us to do is impose objective standards."

Those standards, Steinfeld says, were shaped by looking at the rules governing other media platforms, both online and off, including the ones used by outfits like the Federal Communications Commission. "Where we've landed on nudity is, for lack of a better term, private parts would not be permitted on Facebook," he says, with exceptions for things like sculptures and mothers breastfeeding. (The breastfeeding-is-ok rule is new. As recently as 2012, Facebook's content guidelines, which were leaked by Gawker, stated that breastfeeding photos showing nipple were banned.)

What Tunick really wants is some kind of flag on his profile, letting Facebook's content monitors know that his nudity is non-sexual, non-pornographic, and non-exploitative. "I just don't want to be kicked off," he says. "It's so much damn work."

Steinfeld says that Facebook is always reviewing their standards: "One of the things we're always looking at doing is make sure the folks who are reviweing content can take into account as much context as possible. That's an ongoing project. It's not unique to nudity or art."

In the meantime, Tunick still isn't sure which of his images are acceptable. And when he can't show his work on Facebook, he says, it makes it hard to recruit the thousands of models he needs to make new photos.

"My medium is people," he explains. "If I wasn't doing work with people, then I might not even have a Facebook or an Instagram site." In the pre-Internet days, he says, back in the mid to late 90s, "I'd stand on Houston and Orchard and hand out 1,000 printed limited edition black and white flyers," inviting people to take part in a nude shoot. "That was my performance in itself and from that, maybe15 percent of people showed up." If Facebook bans him for good, he may have to take his art back to the corner.

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