Airbrushing Reality and Truth

The images we see on TV and magazine covers today are not what they used to be. A few clicks of the mouse on Photoshop can easily transformw models and celebrities into living Barbies. It seems as if advertisers and photojournalists alike are on the quest to define and sell “ideal beauty.”

However, is the common practice of enhancing breasts, enlarging lips, and removing wrinkles ethical in the first place?

The goals of altering photos go far beyond shallow attempts to glamorize individuals. In 1994, Times and Newsweek sparked controversy when their covers in 1994 published different versions of O.J. Simpson’s mug shot. It turns out that Time’s Illustrator Matt Mahurin at Timeshad altered the photo to make Simpson appear menacing. On the contrary, Newsweek’s cover showcased the original. These covers gave contradicting portrayals of who Simpson was in ways that could influence the outcome of his trial. Presumably, the intention was to convey the publisher’s social views in an effective way.

These covers drew attention to the debate over the unlimited rights that publishers have in distorting individuals’ images at will. These issues are relevant today because the use of Photoshop has increased extensively. The truth behind a photo has become increasingly difficult to perceive. Photos are sometimes increasingly distrusted forms of documentation because they can dishonestly represent their subjects.

The growing widespread trend of using photo editing technologies to distort images raises consumer skepticism. L’Oreal featured advertisements for mascara that stated, “up to 60 percent longer lashes.” Although viewers are unaware, the model in the picture also wore long, fake, eyelashes that had been digitally altered to look real.

This incident is not an anomaly. It is the norm to make products look more appealing by using air brush techniques and color enhancement tools. Such procedures can be problematic when consumers are not aware of this.

Distorting photos can also set false impressions for political figures. The Washingtonian Magazine published a photo of Obama that changed his clothes and the natural background. The original photo featured Obama wearing a black suit entering a room. In the altered version, Obama wore red surfer trunks and sported enhanced abs. Paparazzi followed suit by publishing the same photo with taglines like, “Obama Hotness,” and “President Beefcake.” All of these publications implied that the photos were real.

While Editor Leslie Milk admitted to the digital tempering alteration of the photo, she would not acknowledge that her action had a political motive. But digitally altered photos have the power to sway viewers’ opinions. For example, in this instance a viewer could be misled to assume that Obama is too casual for presidency.

Thus, Photoshop is used deceptively to pass on political views as well as setting unrealistic expectations for women. There is beginning to be a pushback. Along the same lines advocacy groups use to discourage advertisements from featuring super skinny models, efforts are now also being made to ban digitally-altered photos. Advocacy groups are concerned that these images make young women vulnerable to eating disorders and insecurity. With the large presence of botox and liposuction advertisements today, digitally enhanced pictures only add to the pressure for women to attain “ideal beauty.”

This movement is one that is gathering momentum around the world. Over the years, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority has received numerous proposals to enforce disclaimers on digitally altered photos. One proposal mandates altered photos to carry a rating on a scale from one to four. This rating would inform viewers of the extent of changes that were done to the original photo. Supporters argue this measure is necessary because the extent of photo manipulation varies widely. In some cases, photos are slightly touched up, while others distort actual elements of a woman’s body.

Most artists agree that Photoshop is an excellent tool. Ordinary images become extraordinary when their settings change to reflect Rome, Egypt, or Japan. The software has allowed for enormous creativity in the field.

However, photojournalism should be held to a different standard, because it has also been a source that captures news in an authentic and honest way. When photo manipulation is abused, realistic photos appear animated. These distortions hide and bend truths even if the act was unintentional.

Ethics as it relates to photography depends on the photographer’s intentions. It’s important to remember that distorting photos as an artistic pursuit differs from changing photos to discredit individuals or falsify information. At the same time, it’s difficult to determine the ethics behind photo manipulation because of the way that photos are read subjectively. Photography, after all, lacks a certain amount of objectivity in itself. The only thing that is certain is that the debate around photographic ethics will continue as technology continues to advance.

Alex Roth is third-year political science and literary journalism double major. She can be reached at