Rethinking the ethics of Photoshop is missing the point of Photoshop
The Short Version
Yet another group is taking aim at photo retouching, this time pushing their agenda through something called “The Retouchers Accord.” Their aim is to rid the world of what they consider photographic “fake news” that comes from altering images significantly. Our take, of course, is there is a purpose to retouching that defies any kind of blanket statement or set of rules. We also challenge their definition of “fake news.”
NOTE: We are not, under any circumstances, saying that body image and self-esteem, especially among teens, isn’t an issue directly affected by the media at large. We are well aware of the research in that regard and don’t argue that point. We do, however, take exception to the allegation that photo retouching itself constitutes a “public health crisis” or can, in any significant way, resolve the larger issue.
A Bit Of Background
Sitting at a table in a coffee shop back in 2007, I’m talking with a young woman anxious to get into modeling. She’s tall enough, attractive enough, and seems to have above-average intelligence, everything a model needs. As we’re talking, I ask, “How do you feel about having your pictures Photoshopped?”
“Oh, Photoshop the hell out of me,” she said. “I have trouble keeping my face clear so, by all means, clean that shit up. Oh, and make my boobs bigger if you can.”
I stared back at her for a moment. Make her boobs bigger? The young woman was far from being flat-chested. Increasing her size any risked moving into comical proportions. She was quite serious, though. So serious that she had implants doubling the size of her breasts just a couple of years later.
We’ve shot with this model for several years, but my favorite shots of her are the ones I have to retouch the least. She has a wonderful face and on days when her skin is clear, which happened more frequently as she got older, there was very little that makeup didn’t cover. Of all the pictures we’ve taken, only twice has she asked me to go back and airbrush her skin. I’ve never augmented the size of her breast.
Here’s the thing: when it comes to photo editing I’m lazy. I don’t want to spend any more time with an image than is required for it to meet client expectations, whether that client is a model, a family, or an ad agency. My take has always been that if I’m having to spend hours on photo editing, we failed to take a good picture in the first place. All-night editing sessions should never be necessary on a standard photograph.
However, not every situation is the same. As technologies have developed making some tasks much easier, many art directors look to creative photo editing as a way to save money. Increasingly, shots that once involved hundreds of thousands of dollars as we transported entire crews to the middle of the Amazon jungle are done in studio in front of a green screen. Not only does this save a tremendous amount of money, I can speak first-hand to how much safer the studio is than putting an insulin-dependent model on a boat in the middle of the freakin’ jungle. The move makes sense and there’s no good reason, in my mind, to not do so.
If you’ve been reading these pages long, you know Photoshop is a sensitive topic for me. While it frequently comes under fire because of some very public misuse of the tool, the fact is that photo editing is now, and always has been, one of the most critical aspects of the job. Even long before Photoshop was a thing, post-editing skills were necessary to make sure a photo was suitable for public release.
We’ve written about Photoshop issues rather extensively. Roughly 37 times in the past three years by our count. Rather than making you do a search, though, let me save you some time. Here are the ones you most likely need to read:
Everything else we’ve said on the topic is more instructional or relates only to how a specific set of photos were produced. Still, know that as much as I dislike spending endless hours editing, I will, to the last pixel, defend the right to do so. Editing is a necessary and valuable skill. Suggest otherwise and you’ll likely make me angry.
They Made Me Angry
There I was, reading during a moment of downtime between shows in Milan. I start flipping through the online version of Fast Company Design, a magazine whose ideas I want to like but question frequently. What catches my eye is Katharine Schwab’s article, Rethinking the Ethics of Photoshop. The subheading instantly had me feeling defensive:
Retouching is its own form of fake news. Can an oath change a problem that stretches from fashion to product design?
What the living fuck? “Retouching is its own form of fake news?” Are you fucking kidding me? Do you even understand the concept of photography and imagery and portraiture? Do you understand the fundamental difference between photojournalism and boudoir photography? How is transitioning from a color image to a black and white image suddenly equivalent to telling a blatant lie?
If I had been reading a paper copy of the magazine I would have thrown the damn thing across the room. This article isn’t just full of bullshit, “its own form of fake news,” if you will, it is irresponsible in the way it fails to understand why we edit photos, how we edit photos, and the results of editing photos. Not to mention the fact I find it fucking insulting.
I apologize for all the four-lettered expletives, but every time I look back at this article it feels like a slap in the face and I just don’t respond well to that kind of offense.
The article is written in support of the Retouchers Accord, a statement of ethics being pushed as though every photographer and photo editor on the planet were going around dramatically altering their photos. Sarah Krasley, the author of the accord believes:
“The downstream impacts of the design decisions that postproduction artists and retouchers are making are causing public health problems. You have young women and men looking at those pictures and thinking their body needs to look like that in order for them to be beautiful, to be loved or accepted.”
Excuse me, but “public health problems?” McDonald’s is responsible for more public health problems that retouched photographs. Let’s get grip on reality here.
Yes, we know there is a relationship between consumed media and eating disorders, but what Ms. Krasley is trying to push is a questionable 2014 study by Kristen Harrison and Veronica Heffner, Virtually Perfect: Image Retouching and Adolescent Body Image, which claims to show that retouched photos resulted in lower self-esteem and higher body image consciousness among teens. There are all kinds of problems with the research and how it was conducted, but the biggest issue is in translating what they found. The changes in self-esteem and body image occurred only in the group that was told the photographs had been retouched. In other words, make a big deal about the retouching and a few kids are going to respond.
Ms. Harrison and Ms. Heffner do make a big deal about the effect of media on eating disorders. Between the two of them, they’ve since authored dozens of articles not merely related to retouched photographs, but every kind of visual media, claiming that the images were shown to have a detrimental effect on adolescents. One might say the two are rather obsessed with the topic, but obsession does not make for accuracy. Even their own research shows that the majority of teens are well aware of the line between real and fantasy and don’t fall for what they know is unattainable. The hype is unfounded.
In fact, not only is the hype unfounded, it is misdirected. More substantial research points to obesity being the more serious health effect from media consumption. Teens, on the whole, are better arbiters of the images they’re fed than we give them credit. I know because I happen to have one in my home. Show my 18-year-old a dramatically enhanced image of a shirtless Hugh Jackman and he will scoff. Not only does he know that the actor’s form has been enhanced, he also knows that muscle is difficult to maintain and turns to fat. Krasley, Harrison, and Heffner are making a big deal about something that might have personally affected them at some point in their lives, but does not affect a large enough group of adolescents to constitute a “public health crisis.”
Nonetheless, being the passionate and highly-motivated person she is, Ms. Krasley has decided that every photographer and retoucher on the plant needs to acquiesce to her little “ethics” accord because, you know, less than one-tenth of one percent of the global adolescent population might be adversely affected by a retouched image. Never mind that for most of us getting that level of exposure is a pipe dream. Never mind that there’s no negative nor positive effect at all if the viewer doesn’t know the image has been altered. Ms. Krasley has the “If one child is saved …” attitude that sounds altruistic but actually ends up making life more difficult for more people than would ostensibly be helped.
What Does The Retouchers Accord Say
There are five steps in the Retouchers Accord, and two of them are actually decent ethics statements. Not that I would try to force any of them on anyone, mind you. Ethics are a personal decision and only once someone has agreed to abide by a certain code can they be judged by whether or not they follow it. What we need to look at are the parts of the accord that are either unnecessary, offensive, or unrealistic. Let’s do that now. I’m pulling the images directly from the Retouchers Accord website, so don’t think for a moment I created any of it.
What the living fuck? That’s how you’re going to start, by demanding that one let everyone else know that they’re in the fucking club? What strange sort of cultic evangelism is this?
No, just absolutely no-way-in-literal-or-figurative-hell am I going out of my way on any level to let someone outside an organization—any organization—know that I am a member of said organization. I had enough of that nonsense rammed down my throat while growing up in church. The same maxim applies now that applied then: “If you have to tell someone you’re doing something good, you’re not doing it very well.”
The world is already far too full of people who talk too much and do too little. We elected such an idiot president. We don’t need more people running around essentially saying, “Hey, look at me! I’m doing this thing that’s good for society,” just because it brings attention to them. I never have understood that form of reasoning and never will.
Extending that reasoning out, this is why I’m not a member of any professional organization. I don’t want anyone looking at whether I’m a member of this group or that association when deciding whether or not to hire me. Look at my work. My work is what matters. Anything else is a distraction away from that work and I really don’t like distractions. So no, I’m not signing anything that forces me into a position of being any kind of evangelist.
This statement reflects how little Ms. Krasley understands about the greater scope of photography and retouching outside her own little world. For example, one of the aspects of my work that I enjoy most is taking pictures of newborns. Each one of them is lovely and perfect in their own special way and it’s wonderful to interact with a young family that is just starting out with this little one, or adding to their young family, and feeling all the warmth and joy they have for this precious little life.
So, in the midst of this beautiful setting, you now want me to “fuel a dialog about social impact, diversity, and authenticity?” Have you lost your fucking mind?
That’s not saying that such a discussion is never appropriate, but it’s damn sure not going to be with every client or partner. In fact, for the majority of photographers, it’s not likely to ever be an appropriate topic of conversation. If I’m shooting the wedding of a black Muslim to a White Jew, the last thing I need to discuss with them is social impact, diversity, and authenticity. If I’m covering the local women’s march and selling the images to a wire service, no one really cares what my views are on ethical matters. They expect those things to be reflected in my images if they actually impact the topic.
This “each and every” thing is a sign of severe ignorance and antipathy toward the greater scope of photography and retouching and borders on being insulting both to photographers and our clients.
I’m curious at this point as to what manner of strange, fucked-up world Ms. Kraley lives in where she thinks anyone needs to “improve and build upon my knowledge of retouching techniques” every, single, fucking day? Does she not understand how education works? Retouching isn’t something where one sits down, reads a book, and then instantly is better at retouching. It just doesn’t work that way.
First, one must focus on a specific area within which they are challenged. Just for the sake of having a real-world example, let’s say that challenge is masking. For the sake of those who are not familiar with the photographer’s use of the term, masking comes from when one would place a piece of acetate over an image being processed and cut out specific areas to which a given treatment would then be applied. This protected the rest of the image while working on a selected area. With film, it is extremely time-consuming and frequently messy. With digital images, it’s a lot safer but many people still find it confusing and difficult. So, if one wants to improve their masking technique, they don’t just read and practice it one day then move on to the next subject. They start with the basics and keep practicing, over and over and over sometimes for months, as the need and opportunity presents itself.
Even then, are we going to focus on improving our masking technique every day? Nope. Probably not even close. There are plenty of days I never open an image for editing purposes. There are plenty of other days when the editing I do does not require expanding beyond my current skill set. The whole “daily basis” thing is excessive to the point of being abusive.
Another issue with this article is the effectual adage that when one only has a hammer everything looks like a nail. In other words, when one learns a new skill, one looks for and even deliberately creates situations where that skill can be applied, whether appropriate or not. We see this almost every time a rookie encounters the Photoshop filters menu for the first time. Everything is so cool! All the effects are so neat! Let’s use this on everything! A torrent of really bad images floods Facebook shortly thereafter.
Photoshop, and editing programs like it, is huge. Adobe has packed more power and capability into that one piece of software than any one person would ever have any reason to use, but addresses the needs of the imaging community at large. There is a limit to what any one person needs to know. A photographer who specializes in landscape images doesn’t have to worry about carefully removing skin blemishes. The photographer who only shoots black-and-white images doesn’t really need to know the finer aspects of color control. Everyone’s skill set is specialized to the aspects of retouching they actually need. When we add skills we don’t need, we start making mistakes because we want to use that knowledge and information. Instead of getting better at what we do, learning new or different techniques might actually make someone’s end product worse because of the tendency to apply it where it’s not needed.
Learn what you need to know, by all means, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to know everything. There’s a limit.
I have less of an issue with this one and the one following. Practicing integrity and empathy isn’t limited to creating images. Integrity and empathy are global characteristics that I would hope we are applying in every situation we face. In fact, if one only attempts to practice integrity in one aspect of their life and not others, they don’t understand integrity at all.
For example, let’s say you see someone drop their wallet and you pick it up and return it to them. Integrity, right? But then, you see someone drop a twenty-dollar bill, something not so noticeable, something whose ownership cannot be easily traced, and you pick that up and slip it into your pocket, hoping no one else was noticing. Guess what: you don’t have integrity. It’s not a switch one turns off and on. Either it’s there in every situation or its not there at all and you’re just pretending.
Empathy is even more difficult to apply randomly. We are not natural empaths and depending on one’s age there’s a very good chance one was taught to ignore those feelings in order to get certain tasks accomplished. Empathy takes practice and can be easily misplaced and/or misused. Exercising empathy requires patience and the ability to put oneself in another’s position. Not everyone can, or should, do that.
There is a great need for empathy in a number of situations, but misapplied it can cause trouble. Ask the photojournalist who defies instruction and befriends native children in a war zone. Empathy leads the photographer to want to help the children but in doing so they put the entire military unit to which they’re assigned in danger.
We have to give hard examination to both ourselves and our work to decide where and when it is appropriate to be empathetic. We cannot take every story at face value. Such is the reality of the world in which we live. Not everyone can or should be trusted. People can and will lie if they sense they might get something out of it. We want to be sensitive to real situations, not taken in by false ones.
I can live with this one. Granted, I’m not sure how much actual impact I am ever going to have “throughout the industry” given that 99.985% of the industry doesn’t even know that I exist. That’s okay, they probably don’t know you exist, either. There are millions of photographers and retouchers out there and there are only a handful, probably fewer than ten, who command enough respect to actually get anyone to change their method of operation.
I’m sorry if that deflates your ego. This is what is known as “keeping it real.”
Is body image distortion a problem? Absolutely. Most of that distortion comes from other forms of media, though, and, get this, from the people with whom one chooses to associate. It’s the difference between having a parent who says, “Hey, you look nice today,” versus, “You’re not going to wear that are you? It makes your butt look big.” The root of self-image problems start long before anyone steps in front of our camera or sees any of our images.
We need to be careful with what we say. I saw a photograph recently of a young woman who happens to be a ballet dancer. To say that she is thin would be an understatement. We know the photographer well and know he would not engage in any body manipulation techniques, but I double checked just to be sure. The woman really is that thin. Does that mean she has an eating disorder? Should we say something?
We should be very careful here. I’ve known far too many women, especially models, whose metabolism runs high enough that they simply don’t gain wait. What, when, and how much they eat is irrelevant. They’re not going to gain any more weight until their body metabolism slows down. Then, when all the weight gain suddenly hits, the threat of developing an eating disorder gets real because they miss how they once looked.
Body shaming occurs in both directions and is just as equally wrong. What matters is that we promote healthy attitudes in both directions not only with the photos we take, but perhaps more importantly with the things we say to models and clients as we’re taking those pictures. We can do a lot more harm with our words than with our photographs.
We also need to understand that there is no one set definition of a healthy body. That call is made between an individual and their physician. We have no right to imply that someone’s body needs improvement or modification.
So yes, we can advance the understanding of a healthy body image, but we’re likely to be more effective in that goal on an individual basis rather than trying to take on the whole industry. The industry will change on its own as we alter our individual methods of operation.
All that being said, I can’t encourage anyone to sign this Retouchers Accord. The first three articles alone are sufficient reason to walk away and the final two are more complicated than a simple statement can address. If what we sign is going to mean something, we have to find points that make sense, take the diversity of our industry into consideration, and don’t accidently lead us into activities that could do more harm than good.
About that “fake news” line
By this point, I’ve had nearly two weeks to mull over Ms. Schwab’s assessment that retouching is the equivalent of fake news. I am still as angered by her misuse of the term “fake news” as I am by the president’s repeated and offensive misuse of the term. Perhaps we’re using different definitions here as to what is fake. So, let’s see if we can get this straightened out.
First, calling something “fake” implies that something was fabricated in whole with no intention of utilizing any element of truth. For example, if I were to re-color a photo from World War II and paint all the German soldiers green then make the fantastic claim that the Nazis were actually aliens attempting to invade the planet, that would be fake news. If, however, I took that same image (without the green part) and made it sharper so that the details of that image were more clear, that would not be fake but enhanced.
The distinction between what is fake and what is enhanced becomes increasingly important in situations like we are experiencing now where the allegation is being used as a weapon against legitimate media taking on a corrupt leader. To call an image fake simply because it has been enhanced to more fully communicate its message is a disservice and disrespectful to everyone involved.
Claiming that by simply retouching an image somehow falsifies its content is like saying that editing a book makes it less interesting. Denouncing retouching creates an expectation of perfection that is unfair and unreasonable. Not only would the photographer have to do their work perfectly, but the model would have to be perfect, the hair and makeup artists would have to be perfect, the stylist would have to be perfect, the art direction would have to be perfect, and the lighting would have to be perfect. In my over 30 years of photography, all those elements have worked in perfect harmony exactly zero times. Sure, there have been some wonderful images that came very close but at no time has anyone been foolish enough to think that there wasn’t room for improvement and then proceed to make that improvement in post production.
Here’s the thing: photographers have always manipulated photographs. We’ve had to. Early cameras were extremely fussy and if a photographer wasn’t as diligent about the developing process as he was about taking the picture itself they would wind up with an unusable pile of garbage. As the cameras and films developed, so did our processing techniques. We learned to use masking, as we mentioned above. We learned to use dodging (making something lighter) and burning (making something darker) and we even learned how to use cloning (an extremely difficult process in film) to remove blemishes. By the mid-1950s, we had learned to make skin appear more even and soft as well as remove wrinkles and the bags under a subject’s eyes. Portrait photographers’ entire reputations were built upon their ability to retouch a photo and mind you, this was well before computers were small enough to fit in anything smaller than a three-story building.
To think that suddenly, somehow, all this retouching of images has gotten out of control and become a “public health concern” is both naive and insulting.
What makes articles like Ms. Schwab’s troubling is that they are too often read by people who know absolutely nothing about photography beyond the snapshots they take with their cell phone. Neither is their audience likely to have any appreciation for what actual photo retouching involves. So, I’m going to try and show you using a series of photos in various stages of processing.
Understand, every time I open Photoshop or any other image processing software, I’m faced with thousands of choices for how to process my picture. Even when I know what steps I must take to make an image acceptable for public consumption, there are still multiple different ways to achieve exactly the same results. While I am showing you a particular method (sort of) that I used on this particular image, a different photographer would likely approach it in a very different way, with different results, and still be just as correct in their interpretation of the image. There are no exacts. There are no absolutes. Artistic vision and understanding of what the client wants comes into heavy play here. Are you ready? Let’s go:
To help everyone understand the issue more clearly, I needed to use an image fully under my control with a model not opposed to me displaying both the raw image and it’s final form. Obviously, the easiest and most convenient solution to that issue was to toss Kat kicking and screaming in front of the camera. Okay, maybe not kicking and screaming, but she really didn’t like having the sun in her eyes. I processed the photo and then gave her the finished image. She then posted the image as her profile picture on Facebook. Here’s the picture:
Having been posted less than a week, the image already has nearly seven times as many likes as her previous image, more than twice as many likes as her most popular image over the past four years. So, it would seem that the overwhelming response to the finished image has been positive.
Oh, but you know the raw image, the one we started with, didn’t look quite this way. Here, let me show you:
The RAW image
This isn’t a totally horrible image, mind you. In fact, under different conditions, I might just adjust the contrast and color tone a bit and let it go at that. Still, there are some things about this picture that just bug me, so we need to fix those issues.
Before you go jumping to conclusions, I didn’t touch Kat at all in this photo. We balanced color and tone then cleaned up the background a little bit, primarily removing the fire hydrant that was inconveniently near Kat’s head in the photo. It doesn’t take much to dramatically alter the appearance of a photo.
First round of blemish removal. I focused primarily on the eyes and removing the pesky shadow caused by the glasses. We’ll do a little more later, but it’s too early in the process to get all heavy-handed. Anything feel fake yet? No? Good.
This is a tough one. Look carefully at this image and the one before it. Can you see the difference? The revision applied here is only necessary with digital cameras that do not have a full frame sensor. Because the size of the lens and the sensor don’t match exactly, we have to correct the distortion that occurs. A lot of times the difference is so subtle even I can barely tell the difference. Here, though, because of all those angle and ratio factors, there was actually a significant difference. Oh, and we cleaned up her left eye a little, also.
By this point, we’ve lived with the image a little bit and the softness of some areas is beginning to bother me. We have to be careful in applying a solution. While there are a number of tools that can sharpen an image, applying them globally can really cause problems. Here’s where masking comes in. I won’t bore you with the details, but we sharpened up the places where it makes sense while being careful to not adversely affect the places we want to remain soft.
Cross processing. This is a concept, like most others photographers apply in Photoshop, carried over from film processing. Originally, cross processing was a mistake caused by using the wrong chemical solution for the type film being processed. Depending on how far apart the pairing was, the results could be extremely dramatic. Obviously, we don’t apply chemicals to digital photos, but we can mimic some of the same effects, typically by raising contrast in certain areas and adjusting the colors and hues appropriately. We didn’t want too dramatic a difference, just enough to brighten the image and make certain colors pop a bit more. While all that might sound like we’re faking the look, what we’ve done is come all that much closer to duplicating the actual environment of that morning.
Okay, there’s a lot to this one because stopping after every little process and method was getting exhausting and I realized I was soon going to have more than a dozen images with changed so subtle that even in telling what they were one might not be able to see the difference. So, you should know we did a lot of manipulation between the previous photo and this one, which is the finished image. We cleaned up the remaining blemishes and removed some wrinkles. We dealt moderately with the offset on the right side of the glasses that was caused by the camera looking through her prescription lens. We did some selective color adjustment where the cross processing had created problems and pulled back on some highlights that had gotten out of control.
That’s it, folks. That’s all we did. The whole process, including stopping to save the interstitial files, making coffee, and checking on photos from a fashion show, took less than two hours. Oh, and I think I played with the dog some in there. We could have gone faster had there been motivation, but there wasn’t. I sent the picture to Kat, she posted it to her profile, and the fandom began.
The image is processed, not faked.
So, where’s all the fake stuff?
Is this to say that no one ever fakes anything in Photoshop? You know better than to ask that question. Of course, there are people who dramatically alter photographs. For some, that’s what they do for a living. What matters is their intention in doing so. Most of the time, such revisions are an artistic decision to make the image a little less boring or, perhaps, give an image a specific meaning. Not everyone wants their portrait in front of a plan-colored background. When done well, changing the background scenery makes all the difference in how a photo is received. As long as the intention isn’t to make someone believe you were on a beach in the South of France when you were actually off having an affair with your dog groomer’s cousin, then I don’t see a problem.
Yes, there are times, especially in advertising, when no one is paying enough attention to detail and an image slips past that shouldn’t. Yes, there are times when clients have severely unreasonable expectations and push agencies into releasing images they probably shouldn’t. I have two thoughts regarding those situations.
First, negative consumer feedback has done a lot to curb over-manipulated photos. Remember that research by up there a few pages ago? There was only a response when viewers were aware that the image had been manipulated. People don’t like being played for fools and an obviously over manipulated photo in a product ad does just that. Organic change comes slowly, but it’s more likely to stick as opposed to trying to force change from the outside through some unrealistic statement.
Second, the number of times when a photographer or retoucher has much say in the matter is actually rather small. You don’t know to know how many times I’ve been shown a finished ad and not recognized that it was a photo I took. We submitted the slides and the editing department took it from there. My opinion was neither considered nor requested. Targeting photographers and retouchers with some ethics statement might work in tiny little boutique agencies where everyone is all family and time is lost consulting everyone on every decision. Major agencies, who produce the majority of ads, don’t work that way. They don’t have time. And if a photographer or retoucher has ethics issues with how a photo is used, they know how to find the door. The Retouchers Accord addresses the people who are in the least position to actually effect any change when it comes to major advertising accounts.
Been there. Survived that ass-chewing. Wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
The Proper Place For Fake Images
If we really wanted to, and had sufficient motivation (specifically, pay me a lot of money for all the eye strain), we could easily create a bunch of totally faked photos. We’ve done it before when the concept called for such. In fact, just to demonstrate what a fake image really looks like, we took the picture of Kat and spent a couple of days throwing every bad idea at it that we could find. We call our finished product, Invasion of the MasterCard Alien. If you don’t get the reference then you’re really out of touch.
Is that image over-the-top? Oh my stars, yes! Not only is it over the top, it is totally impractical. This one image required days of work. While Kat and I can sit here and laugh at it, this isn’t the kind of we engage in because we’re not in the business of designing sci-fi book art or anything related to it. Is it an entertaining exercise on occasion, yeah. but ultimately we’re not fooling anyone. This is “fake” and was created to be fake.
Now, since you are aware that this image is fake, how does that make you feel? Are you upset that your skin tone isn’t a strange shade of green? Would you like your eyes to be oversized? Do you wish you had a clue what is going on in the background? Should I have given you more warning before we showed you the image? Do you need to go to your safe place now?
I realize there will always be some people who believe anything. The late Orson Welles’ epic War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 proved that point. Today, that same broadcast would likely be referred to as fake news simply because too many people failed to realize that what Welles was doing was all scripted for radio. They had no intention of creating a national panic, but that’s what happens when people over-react to something. Just as Welles cannot be blamed for the chaos that followed his infamous broadcast, neither can photographers and retouchers be blamed when people over-react to obviously over-processed images. Step back, consider what the digital artist is trying to communicate (and this is digital art at this point, not a photograph) and understand that obvious manipulation might be sending a message different than the face value of the image.
Conclusions and considerations
First, and let’s be excessively clear on this point, if you or someone you care about has an eating disorder, severe body image issues, or suffers severe depression due to low self-esteem, please seek professional help immediately. The solution is not blaming external causes. Very few of those external causes can be controlled. The solution is in how one responds to and processes that external input. This is not easy work and the risk factors are high. No solution should be attempted without professional guidance.
Second, realize that all commercial media, everything consumed on TV, radio, and the Internet, has the same basic purpose: to sell a product. Products are made by companies and companies, especially the big ones, are largely amoral. Therefore, the way to effect change within a corporation is to disrupt its bottom line, not attacking or questioning the ethics and practices of mid-level or lower employees who are simply doing what they’re told.
Third, understand that creators of non-commercial media, such as portrait, wedding, and boudoir photographers, edit their images to meet the direct requests of their client. If a client has body image issues when they walk in the door, those issues are not going to be resolved by giving them back photographs that fail to address their misgivings. The responsibility first and foremost is to that client and everything else is secondary.
Fourth, appreciate the reality that there is a time and place to hold conversations about body image and self-esteem but unless a photographer also happens to hold an advanced degree in and licensure for practicing psychotherapy, the photo studio is not the place to be holding that conversation. More damage is likely to be done from bad advice than a bad photo.
Fifth, let’s acknowledge that labeling something as a “public health crisis” is the job of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and/or the World Health Organization. No one else has that authority and attempts at claiming such from parties unrelated to those organizations only serves to inflame fear and panic among the general populous. Calling something a public health crisis on your own does not make it so. Furthermore, such unwarranted and baseless statements make it all the more difficult to address the core issues because of the uncertainty and confusion created by non-authoritative sources.
Sixth, accept the fact that asking people to join your group just so they can get others to join your group is not only anti-ethical but also self-defeating. If your group or cause is actually doing something good versus merely talking about doing something good, people will ask to join. Proselytizing is bad form even if you’re not a religion.
Seventh, know that as long as we are all imperfect there remains a need and justification for photograph manipulation. Using Photoshop or some other editing tool on an image does not create “fake news” in the same manner in which Kelly Ann Conway opening her mouth creates #alternativeFacts. Editing manipulation and editing can either improve the message of a photo or create a work of digital art for a specific purpose. Stop demonizing people who edit photographs.
Eighth, maybe it’s time we stop harping on first world issues when there are so many infinitely more severe problems among third-world countries that are being ignored. Each of us has limited time and resources. We do better by applying that time and those resources to places where it does a lot more good, such as providing clean drinking water, sustainable food sources and distribution, and getting medicine to where it is needed. If you can look at a starving child and tell them you cannot help them because you need to whine about an over-edited photograph, you desperately need a change of perspective.
I am really tired of having to continually address people who feel they are justified in attacking those who edit photographs. I do not do what I do to make some random person in Boston happy. I recently had a model upset with me because I didn’t do enough to her picture. Now, if someone else wants to lecture her on body image and self-esteem, you just go right on over there and do so. Me, I’m going to give her new pictures because I want her to be happy. That’s what matters.
I won’t sign the Retouchers Accord or anything remotely like it. Instead, I will focus on the work I do, consistently try to do it better, and hope that the people with whom I work are happy with the end result.
And scream at the idiots running the stop sign on the corner because that affects our children’s safety.
Focus on what really matters.