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Grey Johnson wants to create work rarely seen in the world of fine art. The Naked Project, which Johnson calls, “an appreciation for the unfiltered human form,” is the culmination of two years of photoshoots. It’s a series of portraits, mostly black and white, naturally lit, featuring a wide range of body types in varying stages of undress. His photography Instagram feed prominently features women of all shapes and backgrounds. Instagram has become Johnson’s main platform for showing his work and connecting to models, clients, and other artists, but the nature of his work and Instagram’s moving target of decorum has made it increasingly hard to grow his business.
Now 43, Johnson grew up seeking out art and creating his own, developing drawing and painting skills at a young age. “Then life happened,” Johnson says. Sports, school, and a burgeoning career in health care overtook his artistic endeavors until 2012, when heart failure and a stroke inspired him to rekindle his creative passions. “It was like rocket fuel to go out there and create.”
Johnson met photographers who would become mentors in a 2014-2015 life drawing class at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. They were studying light, and how light falls on a body. Johnson told the photographers that he wasn’t getting the results he wanted with his drawings and paintings, and they suggested he take up photography. He got a camera and learned from other photogs, setting up his first solo shoot not long after moving to D.C. in 2016.
“D.C. is a great location to shoot—it’s so vibrant, tons of people come here, there’s tons of energy, tons of models, tons of people traveling through,” he says.
One shoot led to another, and Johnson soon found himself with a steady stream of interested models and clients. He was surprised. “It’s like, ‘oh, you’re a guy who wants to take pictures of nude women,’” he says. “I didn’t think anyone would reach out to me, but I found that a lot of people were appreciative.” Johnson’s work struck a chord because he shot all body types in a sexually empowered light. Diversity in body type and range of bodies in fine art nude photography is rare, he says.
These new fans were finding Johnson’s work—and giving him more work—via Instagram. He started out with a website called ModelMayhem.com, and after working with models from that site, they told him about using Instagram as a platform for business.
Since his first Instagram post on Oct. 17, 2015, Johnson has earned more than 16,000 followers. “No bots, just feel-good sensation and good vibration,” he says of his following. “But it should be higher—that’s the shadowban.”
In 2017, Johnson began to notice fewer likes and a slowdown in his follower growth. He wasn’t the only one. That year, social media strategy sites like Later attempted to address burgeoning outcry around “shadowbanning,” the term for an unannounced algorithmic change implemented by a social media platform that makes it harder to find content that the platform deems spam, inappropriate, or abusive.
Instagram has always wielded the power to take down a photo or disable an account for violating Community Guidelines. The Community Guidelines page outlines the following tenet: “Post photos and videos that are appropriate for a diverse audience.” The guidelines continue, “We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.”
When a photo is deleted, Instagram doesn’t say precisely why it’s been taken down, just that it violated Community Guidelines. A message appears momentarily in the user’s feed warning them that previous posts didn’t follow Community Guidelines, and that if they post something that goes against guidelines again, the account, along with posts, archives, messages, and followers, will be deleted.
Johnson has long been frustrated by what he sees as arbitrary takedowns of his photos. “One of my photos got taken down and I was like, ‘What the hell happened?’ It wasn’t showing nipples, no butt cleavage, nothing,” he says. “When you get the message that a photo has been taken down, you can click a button that says, ‘I think this was an error,’ but there’s no other recourse. I’ve never gotten a response as to why a photo gets taken down.” He’s had photos taken down since 2017, and most recently this August.
For the past few months, Johnson has been flagging photos on Playboy’s Instagram account that he felt were more suggestive and showed more nudity than his portraits. Every time Johnson flagged a photo, he received the same message within about 10 minutes: “Thank you for your report. We reviewed Playboy’s photo for nudity or pornography and found that it doesn’t go against our Community Guidelines.”
It’s easy to find the same amounts of body exposure on Playboy’s main account that are present in some of Johnson’s removed photos. A scroll through Playboy’s feed calls into question what exactly Instagram considers nudity. Pixelated nipples seem to be the digital veils that maintain the account’s propriety. Instagram’s vague language around “some photos of female nipples” is what leaves nude photographers unsure of which post will be the one that gets their account taken down. “There’s no explanation as to why my posts get deleted and theirs get to stay,” says Johnson. Once, he says, after a photo of his got taken down, he logged into another account he had and searched for his photography account. He couldn’t find it. He says his photos also seemed to stop coming up under hashtags, or showing up on Instagram’s Explore page, where models and fans usually found his account.
He’s had friends in the nude photography business say that Instagram is discriminating against the larger women they photograph by shadowbanning their accounts. Many of the photographers and models he’s worked with have also had photos deleted for violating community guidelines, he says.
Instagram denies Johnson is being shadowbanned. Via email, Stephanie Otway, a brand communications manager at Instagram, says “there aren’t any restrictions on this account that mean it isn’t discoverable to others on Instagram (I just searched for it also and it appeared in my search results). Content recently deleted from the account was correctly removed for including nudity, which is in violation of our policies. We do limit some content and accounts from appearing on Explore and hashtags.” Otway linked to specific community standards and guidelines which explain Instagram’s policy rationales regarding nudity, and why it may limit those posts.
Johnson has always edited his fully nude photos to stay within the guidelines. Now, Johnson avoids hashtags entirely, is extra cautious about censoring his even partially nude posts with black bars, and maintains a backup account should his main account—and his followers, contacts, and archives—be deleted by Instagram. The stagnation in his follower count persists. “By limiting who can see your account, Instagram is limiting your market,” he says.
But the subjective censoring of bodies and art is not illegal. “It’s the wild wild West, Instagram can do whatever they want,” says Ethan Wall, founder and president of the Social Media Law Firm. “Instagram is the judge, jury, and executioner, they have no legal responsibility to respond to that person or to clarify their guidelines, it’s like a dictatorship in that way.” Deactivated accounts are a common complaint among Social Media Law Firm clients, but Wall says there’s no legal recourse.
Wall attributes Instagram’s seeming lack of standardization in enforcement of guidelines to brand identity. Playboy has a long-standing history and reputation and has been battle-tested legally. “It’s risk versus reward,” he says.
On Oct. 18, 2019, nearly four years to the day since his first Instagram post, Johnson will attempt to grow his audience the old fashioned way—an exhibition. The Naked Project, his series of 14 fine art nude portraits, will be shown at Jordin’s Paradise Wellness Center in Dupont, where pole dancing and “twerkout” classes, in addition to more traditional work-outs and yoga sessions, take place throughout the week. “The space seemed to really align with the body positive style of photography that I’m doing; it’s open, it’s free, it’s expressive,” he says. “It’s about stepping out as you are, where you are, and an authentic expression of self.”