Arvida Byström and Molly Soda both know what it’s like to get a photo flagged on Instagram. The artist activists are part of a growing community that shares every bit of themselves online, from upcoming exhibitions to un-popped zits. This radical take on feminist self-expression has garnered its fair share of criticism and praise. But Byström and Soda don’t really care—they’re just as focused on showcasing the selfie as a feminist action, as they are on sharing a good hair day.
With their new book, Pics Or It Didn’t Happen, the artists bring together all of Instagram’s rejects to explore the site’s views on censorship and provide a space for the photos to actually exist. Featuring submissions from users across the globe, including photographer Harley Weir and artist Petra Collins, the book also examines body image, cultural standards and feminist expression in an unapologetic ode to the female form.
Through a mix of photos and essays, Pics Or It Didn’t Happen serves as a curated map of the current digital landscape and a reflection of a being femme navigating within these realms. But it also sheds light on the inconsistencies of online censorship, raising important questions about how it works in the internet age. Perhaps most importantly, the book provides an uncompromised space for the voices that have been silenced by Instagram’s outdated community policies, creating their own outspoken community of online warriors, outcasts and rebels.
BULLETT caught up with Arvida and Molly to talk selfies, feminism and making a book.
Tell me about Pics Or It Didn’t Happen. How did the idea come about?
M: It’s a book that’s comprised of images that have been taken down from Instagram for violating the community guidelines. We started working on the book together after Arvida had publicly complained about some images being taken down, and I’ve had so many taken down, too. So we got together and just decided to make a book—that’s how it started.
A: Literally, I just posted about it in October 2015. I got super annoyed because another one of my photos had been taken down. Like, I’m a photographer and I’m also a girl, and I like taking photos of myself. When another one got deleted I got so fed up and ranted about it online—that we should do some sort of ceremony for the deleted photos, kind of as a joke. Then Molly suggested a book.
Why did you decide to do it?
A: It was really about archiving something that isn’t allowed to be on Instagram, which is the largest archiving platform people use to document their lives and art. What is and isn’t allowed on there, and who are the people putting these photos up that get taken down—that’s what we wanted to show, and we also wanted to create a space where we could share these photos, since we couldn’t do it there.
M: We’re really just trying to examine a space in time and look at how these images exist. There’s also a bit of a style to the book, and there’s obviously a movement within the way people post online, especially the content we have. We wanted to capture that and elevate the deleted and lost images by exploring what that means for our culture as far as an attempt to archive digital media and how that works.
A: Putting something in a book is kind of putting it in an art history context. Of course, that raises all these questions about whether or not it’s necessary. But, in one way, these photos are already buried because they’re not allowed to be online and they’ve already been removed. So we’re putting these images in a space where other people don’t, in a more serious context and looking at what happens with that.
Ideally, would you want Instagram to change their censorship policy?
M: We’re not saying that’s what we want—we’re not really saying anything about that at all. I understand the game we all play on the internet and the rules that come with that—the fact that me fighting against a giant corporate identity and a giant app, isn’t going to get me anywhere.
A: I firmly believe that censorship is something that’s needed in a society. This is more about the fact that some censorship doesn’t really feel up to date. The laws and rules really need to be looked over because they’re just not feasible in our current culture, and it’s not okay if the people who are making these kind of judgements are making them based on corporate decisions.
A lot of the photos show women without makeup, in a natural state, which in some ways, really defies the conception that people use Instagram to curate a reality, instead of presenting how it actually is.
A: Cultural capital will always change your perception. Your background, if you’re middle class or upper class or lower class, what school you went to, what your parents’ jobs are—all those things are going to affect someone’s perception and aesthetic and what they think looks ‘good’ or ‘real.’ These are certain people’s best sides of themselves because certain people think they look their best without makeup, or showing their period—it’s still that person’s idea of what they look like at their best, and what they want to say to the world. There simply isn’t anything uncurated or natural on Instagram.
But if we’re about talking social convention and beauty standards, your book rebels against those ideas.
M: They still fall under the guise of beauty standards because we’re being sold a lot of constructed ideas of what it means to be ‘natural’ or ‘feminist.’ I think that disregards the fact that everyone is still curating their image, to a degree.
A: Also, I think our book reflects a certain middle class cultural standard that not everybody has to agree with. There’s still a big variety of photos—the only thing they have in common is the fact they were removed. Some are a little gross seeming in interesting ways, and some are definitely super normative hot girls with really beautiful boobs. The point is, we’re not trying to pit anyone against each other—it’s just a little piece of something that’s not allowed on Instagram and asking why that’s the case.
You’ve both been heralded as outspoken feminists. Does that ever feel limiting, in regards to your work?
M: I don’t feel limited by it because I don’t give a shit. But I also understand I can’t control the way people are going to consume my work. I can put it out there, but people are going to react however they want and project whatever they want onto it. I can only control what I decide to put out there—I can’t control how people interact with it.
A: A lot of the media want to make the faces of feminism people who conform to beauty standards, or are beautiful enough to be in a fashion magazine—that’s a problem. We don’t need a face of feminism because it doesn’t have a face.
Platforms like Instagram have been a topic of debate within the feminist movement—some feel it’s strengthened the movement by helping it grow, and others feel it’s cheapened it, or made it into a brand. What do you think?
A: I think it goes both ways. Do we want the movement to be super small and elitist? No. But yeah, it is sad that brands steal this certain aspect of people’s identities and use it to try to sell us a product, because it’s so easy to go on Instagram, copy an aesthetic and sell it back to you.
Can taking a nude or a no-makeup selfie be an act of feminism?
M: Someone’s going to post a nude selfie and that doesn’t have anything to do with feminism. It’s this funny middle ground where we want to elevate the selfie to be an empowering thing, but it’s not necessarily always that. At the same time, it’s not not that—it’s just somewhere in the middle.
A: Things just aren’t that black and white. Sometimes we just post a photo because we feel like we look cute in it. But even talking about photos being feminist can be classist—it’s almost like you need to come from an academic background or have a certain level of intellectual understanding to post an authentic selfie. We really wanted to represent all ends of the spectrum, but even going through all of our submissions, it seemed to be from a certain demographic—definitely a bit heavier on young, white and often thin, cis girls.
Why do you think that is?
A: They might feel more entitled to post these kind of photos and more comfortable with their bodies and the idea their bodies shouldn’t be monitored, whereas other people might feel like they can’t even take that kind of risk—they don’t have the privilege to.
Did you learn anything new from the process of making the book?
A: I think we just learned more about how we get censored and the work that actually goes behind censoring these photos, and who is doing the labor. A lot of people in the Philippines, or college students that are doing the actual censoring, thinking, ‘Should this butt be censored or not? Should this period blood be censored or not?’ They do that at such a high speed and with not super specific guidelines, because so many things fall through the cracks. Making all these decisions in the best way would ideally come from big philosophical discussions, but obviously time-wise, that’s not really possible.
What were you able to do with this book that you haven’t been able to do with your own art?
M: It was a nice way to merge our interests in a curatorial way, which was really cool. But I also think it was just a really great way to be able to encapsulate a time and space, because it really is very much of our time.
A: Right. What are people going to think about it in 20 years? How is censorship going to have changed by then? What about technology and the media? And even our social media using habits? People already move online in such a completely different way than we did even a few years ago. At this rate, the book will become a graveyard in every sense—both photos that got removed, and Instagram, which also wouldn’t exist anymore.