ethics

Ethics in Photo Manipulation

There’s two sides to every story. I’m not sure who first said that statement but I firmly believe it to be a lie. There are dozens of sides to any story including the ethics of photo manipulation in the fashion and beauty industries. 

There are articles plastered all over the web slamming photo manipulation. Proclaiming it to be harmful to our self esteem and self image. Many articles make the case that it is “altering images and our minds.” And while the supporters of these views are screaming loud and proud against any and all photo manipulation, I would be willing to put money that those same authors have used an Instagram filter. 

This is an ethics debate. Where is the line in photo manipulation? When is it okay to remove a piece of spinach caught in someone’s teeth, to completely smooth an 80 year old woman’s skin? Is it ever acceptable to make minor changes? If so, what is the line between minor and major changes? 

As a general rule of thumb according to Glenn Halbrooks, simple photo manipulation is acceptable – removing red eye, adjusting color and lighting – as long as it’s fully disclosed. The areas that are fuzzier include overly fixing unflattering photos, deciding why you’re using (un)flattering photographs to begin with, and unfairly presenting an image of a person whether positive or negative. 

The fashion industry is strangely silent on the topic, even in the face of massive criticism from the media and other sources. There’s an old saying that goes “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” From my perspective, that is exactly where the fashion industry is coming from. There isn’t enough backlash to warrant change and they’re still selling plenty of magazines with highly modified images. 

Assuming we all agree that minor modifications (filters, removing spinach, etc.) are acceptable, why don’t we see more backlash about images that have been heavily modified? 

That answer lies in history. 

There is a fascinating article concerning the history of photo manipulation and it all started with an iconic photograph of Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s.

 Image This is Abe Lincoln meets John Calhoun, a Southern politician. Lincoln’s head was cropped onto Calhoun’s body in the 1860s. 

The first photograph was taken in 1814, so just within a few years of photography’s invention people were already attempting to distort reality. People want to put their best foot forward in life, so equivocating some simple alterations is an easy choice to make. But what people are facing now is the idea that perhaps people like their reality distorted; they like the unattainability of perfection. And that is scary stuff. 

This article isn’t about presenting my opinions. I simply want to get you to think about something difficult. Struggle with it. Discuss it. 

Do we condone photo manipulation because we are dissatisfied with ourselves or because we believe that we are capable of more than we are? 

 

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