On Image Manipulation and Ethics

Posted on 14 June, 2013

The idea of retouching has become synonymous with the development of the digital era and the implementation of editing software such as Adobe Photoshop. It is interesting to look at the history of retouching and the far-reaches of this questionably ethical industry. From politics to the media, this industry certainly knows how to make waves and stir up some serious debates and has done so ever since images were first altered. Essentially the core function of this industry has not changed throughout the decades but the ways in which we are able to alter images has advanced considerably: gone are the days of ‘airbrushing’ negatives. What this rapid advancement has lead to is the increase in the multitude of channels through which images can now be distributed as true and photo journalistic in their approach. From magazines in print to online, to advertising, to newspapers, it has become impossible to control the implementation and dissemination of unethically manipulated images and as a photographic retoucher in this challenging environment I continue, along with many others in this field, to be caught in the middle of this ethical struggle.

When one looks briefly at the history of image manipulation it is evident that from the very beginning this industry has been involved in questionable ethics, particularly with regards to politics. According to Wikipedia, “Photo manipulation is as old as photography itself… Photo manipulation has been regularly used to deceive or persuade viewers, or for improved story-telling and self-expression. Oftentimes even subtle and discreet changes can have profound impacts on how we interpret or judge a photograph…which is why learning when manipulation has occurred is important. As early as the American Civil War, photographs were published as engravings based on more than one negative.”[1] “The first widely-known American instance of an altered image was by Mathew Brady’s photography company in the 1860s. The company placed a portrait of Abraham Lincoln’s head on the body of John C. Calhoun, a Southern slavery supporter.” [2]

Here we can see that image manipulation most certainly could be used with a political agenda. Another prominent figure notorious for using image manipulation in the earlier part of the 1900’s specifically for political intent was Joseph Stalin. His use of image manipulation was used for propaganda purposes as well as “Damnatio memoriae” [3] where by he literally erased figures from photographs; erasing their history as if they had never existed.

This idea of altering history is infinitely fascinating and acutely highlights the significant power of photography and the adjunct development of image manipulation from it’s implementation. The age-old-adage of “seeing is believing” comes to mind here, as this was precisely the intent of this early political photographic manipulation: to make the viewer believe what they were seeing was the reality with obvious advantage to their political favour. In the days of lithographic prints, image manipulation was limited in its scope due to the nature of the process but throughout the development of photography and the related industries that have developed alongside it during the 1900’s, the scope for manipulation has multiplied exponentially. The result of which has lead to more and more examples of this unethical behavior. From media to advertising to fashion, image manipulation is most certainly prevalent within all of them. The development of social media in the last decade has had a damning effect on industries that make use of image manipulation in an ‘untruthful’ regard. A once silent Internet has developed a voice, and the users of which have begun to ask many questions.

Fields such as photojournalism have fallen victim to this questioning and with due regards, too. “In February 1982, National Geographic created controversy by digitally moving two Egyptian pyramids closer together so both would fit onto the magazine’s cover. Later, Tom Kennedy became director of photography for the magazine and stated, “We no longer use that technology to manipulate elements in a photo simply to achieve a more compelling graphic effect. We regarded that afterwards as a mistake, and we wouldn’t repeat that mistake today.”[4] As is our human nature – the need to learn and push the boundaries of the things we create because we have the ability to do so. This, however, does not mean that we should not have boundaries. “There is a growing body of writings devoted to the ethical use of digital editing in photojournalism. In the United States, for example, the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) have set out a Code of Ethics promoting the accuracy of published images, advising that photographers “do not manipulate images […] that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.”[12] Infringements of the Code are taken very seriously, especially regarding digital alteration of published photographs, as evidenced by a case in which Pulitzer prize-nominated photographer Allan Detrich resigned his post following the revelation that a number of his photographs had been manipulated.”[5]

One wonders though how one could police such infringements when terms such as “citizen journalism”[6] describe an online society that has taken control of their own media and have many platforms upon which to showcase said media. Blogs, websites, social media platforms and various other institutions have given people the power to disseminate information, particularly photographic information without pause or concern.  This is where retouchers are inevitably caught in the midst of this debate. Retouchers and image manipulators are more often than not labeled with a tarnished reputation thanks to the long history of unethical behavior. However, in this day and age where we are bombarded with advertising and images within the media, there is certainly a need for creative retouching and image manipulation. Most of the advertisements we see today are created using 3D effects, Photoshop, etc. in order to push the boundaries of the images, to create something new and intriguing for the viewer who is spoilt for choice when it comes to visual media. The result of which means that retouchers today need to be at the top of their game and need to create new and exciting imagery on a continual basis.

The scope for creative retouching is endless as it pushes ones imagination to the extreme. The photograph has almost become redundant in that its main purpose is to create a starting point; a point at which the retoucher embarks on a journey of endless possibilities. The development of Cinemagraphs (as seen in Harry Potter) is one such example of using the photograph as a starting point but creating something far more intriguing from it. So long as photo manipulation is used as a creative outlet and not one used in order to bend the truth within images that are supposed to portray the truth, such as photojournalism, then there will be little room for criticism in this ever-evolving field. With programs developing new and exciting ways to create special effects, this industry will continue to capture your imagination; after all, who wouldn’t want a miniature elephant in their cereal bowls? Photo retouchers have in essence become our modern day storytellers.







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