January 17, 2014

Acceptability of Photo Manipulation

Photo retouching is a fact of life in the professional photography world. Just as an article wouldn’t go to print without being reviewed by an editor, a photograph isn’t published without first passing through Photoshop or equivalent editing tool. Yet, there is single level of photo retouching or manipulation that is universally considered acceptable.

Last year photo forensics experts accused the winner of the world press 2013 photo of doctoring the photo. Experts used error level analysis which led some to believe the image was a composite of multiple images. Even after the photographer later released the RAW file (a file generated directly from the camera’s image sensor), the debate continued on just how much editing was preformed. While the award wasn’t stripped the World Press decided make changes for it’s upcoming competition.  The debate continues, how much is too much manipulation?  What is the landscape of acceptable photo retouchings?

About six months ago I started conducting some unscientific polls to understand public perceptions of photo manipulations better.


Authentic Vs Idealized
The primary theme that came out of my discussions was that of authenticity or idealization. While photographers generally try to capture both truth and emotion, an authenticity view prioritizes truth over emotion, where idealized prioritizes emotion over truth.

In terms of personal photography, an idealized photo might try and showcase the best of a subject. As any teenager will tell you, some days are good acne days, others are not. An idealized view point may attempt to reduce the acne so that the photo appears as though it was taken on a good day. For those on the idealization side of the axis, this type of action is not altogether dissimilar to finding a flattering angle, removing objects out of the background, or even using makeup. Incidentally, some people on the far end of authentic would agree, and disapprove of these actions as well.

Acceptance vs Privacy
There was a secondary theme that began to emerge throughout the discussions, especially in context with online photo sharing (blogging, facebooking, instagraming, etc): that of acceptance and privacy.

The idea behind acceptance is that by display a photo ‘as is’ you are showing your acceptance of the subject matter. Someone who leans strongly into the acceptance side would argue that by editing the photo, say removing acne, you send the message that acne is bad and needs to be hidden. Such an action could effect the self esteem of not just the subject, but presumably others who may relate to the subject.

On the other side, some argue that editing a photo may allow the subject or the photographer to hide a piece of themselves they want to keep private when posted publicly, or even pseudo-publicly. For example, I can’t fathom caring if a naked baby photo of me ended up on the internet, but I would care if random strangers knew where all the freckles on my body were. For me, the baby photo isn’t an invasion of privacy, per say, but the revealing of such distinguishing marks is.

No One Right Answer:
Almost all individuals surveyed had limits on how much photo retouching was acceptable, however, those limits weren’t uniformly applied. Opinions seem to differ depending on the use case. Like all things, it depends on the context. Acceptable treatment for a photo kept privately differed from those intended for small audiences, and those showcased publicly.

Perhaps related, one key aspect in whether a treatment is considered acceptable appears to be intention behind the retouching. In the world press photo contest, and photo journalism in general, the idea is to inform. In these cases the retouchings were often viewed as deceitful because they can alter the viewer’s perception of world events. Fewer people took issue with whitening teeth, or removing wrinkles from personal photos, than from magazine editorials, even though such edits were perceived as more common in magazine editorials. No one like feeling tricked.

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