As a portrait photographer, I sometimes ponder one of the biggest photo-related discussions of our time, one that sees participation from professionals, hobbyists, and non-photographers alike:
Can Excessive Photoshop Retouching Harm Society’s Body Image? How Do We “Draw The Line?”
The answer to this question is usually never fully agreed upon, of course, but I’d like to take a crack at it anyways. You’re welcome to disagree with me entirely, and you might even be able to change my mind (Only if we can manage to have a civilized discussion. Our general SLR Lounge policies apply – keeping it a place where we can enjoy, inspire and educate one another).
Simply put, I believe that it all comes down to why a portrait is being captured in the first place, who is the subject, and how the images are going to be viewed. So, it’s complicated!
Over-The-Top Photoshop Retouching….Unacceptable To Whom?
I do think that if you took someone’s picture and Photoshopped them to look significantly different than they do in real life, that would be as disrespectful to them as it would be for a landscape photographer to fake a sunset, move mountains, or enlarge the moon…or whatever.
The difference? Landscapes don’t care if you Photoshop them! The only people who care if you Photoshop a gigantic moon into all your landscape photos is, well, other landscape photographers.
Generally speaking, nature and landscape photographers can do whatever they want to their images, but viewers only seem to get truly angry if it’s kept secret, or actually lied about. This is what seems to carry over to other kinds of photography…
The Commonality Of Unrealistic Perfection In Portraiture
A collective perception of unrealistic perfection could be having a negative effect on our happiness as a whole, in my opinion. In portraiture and fashion, extensive retouching is essentially never disclosed to the end viewer, and as a result, it perpetuates the notion that the models, even the whole world, looks this way. “This is just what normal people ought to look like, folks!”
Meaghan Kausman speaks out about the un-authorized alteration of her body
Photo by Seagypsea on Instagram
Obviously, this may seem dumb to me and you as portrait photographers, because we know better. We spent hours of our workday retouching portraits, it’s our job. So when we see a flawless-skinned model on a billboard with an impossibly perfect face / body, we just shrug. We know the real world doesn’t look like that, and for the most part, it doesn’t bother us.
However, not everybody is a photographer, let alone a professional retoucher. So most folks are indeed affected by this perception of what is normal. They see “normal” as being relatively perfect.
We could go back and forth about whether or not people are smart enough to know better, but as books like Dr Drew’s “The Mirror Effect” prove, plenty of people are indeed affected by the media world.
I think we can agree on this much- people are easily influenced. But the question is, is it a big deal or not? You could argue that it’s nothing, and some people just need to suck it up and find more self-esteem. Or you could argue that the media is infiltrating every second of our lives with messages about an unhealthy pursuit of beauty and perfection.
I’m with the second group, partly. On the one hand, I think that mass media is having an unhealthy effect, and the fashion industry in general could use a little more variety of body type. On the other hand, I don’t think people shouldn’t pretend to be helpless; we should be able to look within ourselves for a sense of beauty and confidence, regardless of what fashion advertising is saying.
Portraiture For Private Clients’ Display
Don’t get me wrong- smoothing out a few eye-bags or wrinkles, maybe slimming an arm here or there, is just fine for client portraits and lots of other things. Why? Because the image is going on the wall of the person who is in the picture, and it makes them feel better about themselves whenever they see that picture.
Simply put, a little “cleaning up” here and there is fine, because it has a positive effect on the folks who view the final result.
Also, mind you, retouching is usually discussed by the client / subject and the retoucher before it is performed. If you’re self-conscious about a mole, or some crows’ feet, I’m happy to smooth things out a little.
Portraiture For Commercial Brand Image & Advertising
In many other instances, namely along the lines of paid commercial advertising work, fashion, etc., having a “you need a sandwich” flat tummy and “twiggy” legs is perpetuated as the best look for a final product. This, in my opinion, is just wrong. Mainly just because it pushes everyone, from from regular everyday people to high-end fashion models, to hate their own bodies and do unnecessary or even unhealthy things in their pursuit of the impossible standard of perfection.
Nobody is expecting the entire fashion industry to start using bigger models. They’re doing what is most profitable for them, and that’s how business works. However, more diverse, healthy body types (and faces, etc.) could have a positive effect on society’s body image.
Photoshop Retouching: Everything In Moderation?
The road goes both ways, mind you. Every now and then we hear about a plus-sized model showcase, and people take things to the extreme in that direction as well. Too small or too big, un-healthy is still un-healthy. And health is what should be promoted.
(Guys & gals, this has nothing to do with what you’re “into” behind closed doors. ;-) What we’re discussing here is entirely different).
In conclusion, as photographers we should just tread carefully and discuss things with portrait clients. If you’re doing a personal project and your client / model mentions something, keep it in mind. If you have a specific interest and you want to showcase it, that’s awesome! Just be careful not to screw up in a highly embarrassing manner.
If your day job is to shape the standards and expectations of men and women around the country / world, then yes I’d be a fan of “dialing it back a notch” and being a little more realistic, or healthy, or whatever you want to call it.
Can The Masses Influence Mass-Media?
If you’re in the game of national / international fashion & advertising imagery, then you should consider whether or not you’re promoting a healthy body image. It would have a positive effect on society.
However, I fear that a major change in philosophy may simply not be possible, at least not for a few generations, for reasons related to corporate sales figures and profit margins. That, and the simple fact that it is human nature to envy whatever we grew up envisioning as “perfection.”
What Do You Think About The Integrity Of Photoshop Retouching?
As I said at the beginning of this article, you’re welcome to disagree with me entirely. I hope we can have a healthy debate.
The one thing I think we can all agree on is that society has many different ways to achieve happiness, and photography & portraiture are a small, but powerful part of that. Personally, I think the best way to find happiness is to take a deep breath, have a healthy meal, get enough sleep, and go out for a little exercise whenever you can. Find your own contentment via the most natural means possible. Both mentally and physically, be the person you want future generations to see, and to become. Oh, and be sure to take plenty of pictures of each other, so future generations can remember us.
Take care, and happy clicking,