The Ethics of Photo Manipulation

October 09, 2012  •  1 Comment


As photographers we all see the artistic advantage of using such a tool such as Photoshop; however, where do we draw the line and when does such a tool become misleading?
 
Manipulation of images is nothing new, it’s been going on since the invention of photography.  One of the oldest cases in point are the images that became known as the,  “Cottingley Fairies.”
 
 

Around 1917 a set of five images were taken by 16 year old Elsie Wright and her 10 year old cousin, Frances Griffith in order to prove the existence of fairies at Cottingley Beck where they had been banned from playing.   The photographs caused much debate and Elsie eventually admitted that they had been faked using cardboard cutouts from a book.  Frances, however, insisted that the final of the five images was genuine.
 
Personally, I think a photograph becomes misleading when the intention of the photographer is to make you think something fake is real, therefore, I would say the Cottingley Fairies images were misleading.  At that time photography was fairly new and many believed if there was a photograph, then it must be genuine, and I’m sure the girls were clever enough to exploit this.   However, having read a bit more about the young photographers, I learnt that Elsie was quite an artist, and once implied that she had photographed her thoughts.  Perhaps, in her mind, she was creating a piece of art and if it also got her out of trouble at the same time, then so be it.   
 
So how about photo manipulation in today’s digital world?   I recently read an article about a manipulated image of Lady Gaga on the front cover of Vogue, which immediately reminded me of the cartoon character,  “Jessica Rabbit” from the film, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.   Let’s put the three photos together, the front cover, the actual Lady Gaga and Jessica Rabbit. 
 




The similarities are striking.  Of course, nowadays, we are more sceptical of photographs, and it could have been an artistic decision by Vogue to manipulate the image, but my worry is how many self-critical teenagers believe this body shape is real? How many of them go on to have low self-esteem, eating disorders and/or an obsession with cosmetic surgery.  I’m not the only one to be concerned about this.   An All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image was established in 2011 and on the point of digital manipulation the Royal College of Physicians said it was, “damaging “ and that,  “retouching is part of the unrealistic nature of images which has become a malignant process”.
 
To me, changing someone’s body shape seems wrong and I think the magazines should have a duty of care to its’ readers. Why not be more creative with the camera instead?  If the manipulation makes the person unrecognisable, it may just as well be a cartoon character, which would be more obvious to the viewer. 
 
To end on a humorous note, the photo below was manipulated, not by me though! 

 
 
 

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