photography

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? 

 

You’re More than Photoshop.

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The main promotional image used for Victoria Secret’s 2010 “I Love My Body” campaign

Victoria’s Secret is one of the biggest sellers of “sexy” in the America. They know this; America knows this. Therefore, what Victoria’s Secret sells as sexy, America literally and subconsciously “buys” as sexy. The women in this photo are extraordinarily thin and tall. I’ve never seen a woman look like these women. They have perfect skin, breasts, legs, hair, and stomachs. They don’t even have pores. In the real world, these women do not even exist. They are created. They are created using photo editing techniques (commonly referred to as Photoshop) to shrink their already tiny waists, erase any moles or lines, and airbrush a smooth look over their entire bodies. Why does this photo manipulation work? It’s because it is just real enough. It teeters on the edge of imitation and genuine. Women want to think that they could look like these models even though it is an unreasonable, even unattainable standard of beauty. 

This week in class I was given the privilege of playing with Photoshop, so I took it upon myself to see if I could manipulate an image of myself and my family from my wedding over the summer. As a Photoshop noob, I figured the realm of cinching waists and airbrushing skin was beyond my abilities. I was wrong. Within 20 minutes I had smoothed my grandmothers’ wrinkles – taking off an easy 25 years from their appearance. I had also managed to shrink my waist, slightly accentuate my breasts and hips, smooth my complexion,and overall give me a celebrity worthy experience. 

But here’s the problem. 

It wasn’t me. 

It wasn’t my grandmothers. 

They were creations. Representations of who I made them. 

They weren’t real. 

My grandmothers’ wrinkles are signs of their wisdom and years of experience. They give them character. They make them unique. And Beautiful. 

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) the average American woman is 5’4″ tall, weighs 166 pounds, and has a waist circumference of 37.5″. Alessandra Ambrosio (one of the women in the above photo) is 5’10”, 112 pounds, and has 24″ waist! How is it acceptable for the largest seller of lingerie in America to perpetuate this ridiculous fantasy? In September 2013, one VS model even exclaimed to Telegraph UK: “I don’t look like that picture.” 

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Love My Body vs. Real Beauty Campaigns

Women in America are suffering from “Photoshop Syndrome.” We are seduced by images of impossibly beautiful women with impossibly perfect features but that’s just it. They are impossible. Real women don’t look like that.

Some are slender, some are curvy, some lie in between…but all of them are beautiful.

And while Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign has met with some criticism, its overarching claim is that real women are beautiful and should always remember it. We should stop focusing on our “flaws” and focusing on the beautiful fact that , as Stella Boonshoft puts it, “Our bodies are all beautiful because they are vessels for our souls. They allow us to feel, express, hurt, love, laugh, cry, and most importantly create change in the world.”

So go out – women of America!

Go out and love your body. 

Go walk your dog, dance in your underwear, sing in the car, workout, binge on ice cream!

Do what makes you happy. 

Do what makes you feel beautiful. 

Be kind to your body. 

Love your body. 

It is the only one you get.

You’re beautiful. 

You’re more than Photoshop.

You’re you. 

Unique. Exclusive. Alluring. Dazzling. 

Beautiful.

You.

Stay smiling! Happy looks great on you