Photo Retouching: Where Do We Draw the Line?

"That the camera cannot lie is true only in the sense that the images it captures must have existed in one form or another at some particular time. But it is not always clear if those images have been manipulated in some way to alter or to stage an event which never happened. We are familiar with historical photos that have been retouched to include or exclude political figures. We are less familiar with the potential of new technologies for falsifying images, particularly those that appear in newspapers and magazines."

-Paul Martin Lester, 1988

How far is too far in the realm of digital retouching or photo editing?  Programs such as Photoshop and Portrait Professional make it easier than ever to digital retouch a photo in order to create a certain post-production appeal.  But how far is too far?  Is it ok to digitally add lashes to a model's eye for a mascara ad and not inform the consumer?  Is it reasonable to enhance the color of the ocean in a travel brochure for Hawaii to make it more appealing and not tell the person booking the trip?  Is it even legal to alter an image of the President to make it appear as if he was doing something when in fact he was nowhere close to doing it?  When we are to assume that newspapers and magazines tell the truth, that their position and relationship to the moment provides us with a real and honest representation of what really happened, we take everything at face value as truth.  It is frustrating as a consumer to open a magazine and not know what to believe. 

A recent example of controversial retouching was the Elle 25th Anniversary cover featuring actress Gabourey Sidibe.  First thought: "Good for Gabourey, an overweight African American girl on the cover of Elle.  What a great example for young girls today."  Second thought: "Wait, she's looking kinda ill.  Why is she so pale?  If she was sick that day, why didn't they just reschedule the shoot? Oooooohhhhhhhh.  She looks pale because she was made to look pale."  The digital retouching of the initial picture lightened Gabourey's skin so drastically that news channels around the world were pulling the legitimacy of the photo and the magazine into question.  So many ethical, moral and professional lines were crossed while lightening the skin of an actress to better promotes sales of the magazine; don't pretend for a second it was done for any other reason.  

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Elle's response on the subject was that "nothing out of the ordinary had been done to the photograph".  I'm sorry but if the image below depicts something that is "nothing out of the ordinary", the term ordinary got redefined somewhere along the lines and I, an English major, never heard about it.  Lighting is also to blame in this picture; it is clear the intention was to lighten her skin tone during and after production.  That particular technique and its abuses have as much to do with the problem as the retouching itself. 


Photo Credit: Huffington Post 

Beauty magazines and retouchers for those publications are not the only ones guilty of over-editing images.  There have been numerous instances of photojournalism blurring the lines of reality and truth resulting in consequences that far surpass those incurred from fixing the cover image of a beauty magazine.  Journalism had the reputation of being an honest representation of what was happening in the moment; alongside that, photojournalism was the photographic representation of that moment, just as honest and just as reputable.  Dishonest photojournalism isn't a recent issue that has developed with new technology.  

In a 1988 publication of Media Development, Paul Martin Lester called out the photographers that doctored their images in order to fit a certain look.  He examines how reputable sources like National Geographic and Life magazines used edited images on covers through the decades and later tried to justify their actions.  It is one thing to use an edited image, but it is an entirely different thing when you are unapologetic and unambiguous about the matter.  When photojournalists began doctoring their images, the honesty and truthfulness of their entire body of work dissipated. 

Digital retouching has its consequences.  In 2008, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards released an image that quickly circulated around the world through reputable sources.  It shows a missile testing ground with four rockets in the air.  Within 24 hours, it was determined the picture was a fake.  Somewhere within Iran before the picture's release, an extra missile had been added to the image making it appear as if Iran had greater missile testing abilities than they truly had.  As it turns out, the image was doctored to hide a failed missile launch, but this kind of dishonesty adds to tensions between countries and all during war times.  Ramifications of this kind of digital editing go far beyond cultural and stems into global. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there once was a time when a photographer's name was merely mentioned in the same sentence as the phrase "photo editing", their integrity as a professional and artist came into question.  Lester examined the forever famous "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" taken by Joe Rosenthal.  During an interview taken shortly after the photo was widely published, he was asked if his picture was posed.  Confused, thinking the interviewer was referencing a clearly posed photograph (shown below on right) taken that same day of all 18 men involved in the battle, he responded quickly "Sure.".  Until his death, Rosenthal was forced to defend the legitimacy, honesty and candidness of his Pulitzer Prize winning photograph.

posed raising.jpg

Joe Rosenthal, "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima", Courtesy of The National Archives  


Joe Rosenthal, "Untitled", Courtesy of The New York Times

I'm not saying that all kinds of digital editing are going to lead to war or global tension, but dishonest photographs add an unnecessary level of apprehension and turmoil that could be avoided.  In 1991, a short time after Lester's article was published, the National Press Photographers Association adopted its still used Statement of Principle. 

As journalists we believe the guiding principle of our profession is accuracy; therefore, we believe it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way that deceives the public.  As photojournalists, we have the responsibility to document society and to preserve its images as a matter of historical record... Accurate representation is the benchmark of our profession.

These kinds of rules and guidelines help establish limitations placed on photographers and retouchers.  The need for the Statement of Principle attests to the extreme level of editing that was taking place 20 years ago and unfortunately still pervades photojournalism today.  It seems that every couple of months, an image that was originally published as fact is later determined a fake in some capacity, whether it was simply doctored or some sort of twisted collage.

Gone are the days when digital retouching and photo editing would end your career.  Importance is no longer placed on the integrity of the photographer and their art.  When did that all change?  Still cameras were invented with the hopes that real, truthful moments would be available for all to see and be a part of.  Lester states that "photographs, particularly those used as accurate and trustworthy accounts of a significant event by respected publications, are our best hedge against the threat of devious editors and special interest groups who want to change truth and history. If the manipulation of photographs is accepted for any image, the public will naturally doubt all photographs and text within all publications."  It is the responsibility of the photographer to be honesty and the audience should hold them accountable.  Passing off a doctored image as real is a flat out lie.  It should be seen that digital retouching takes away from the photograph instead of adding to it.  Once a picture goes from fact to fiction, what's the point?  You might as well just draw a cartoon. 

Maggie OBriant
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Maggie O'Briant recently graduated from Florida State University with an English Literature degree.  She is currently a freelance writer and photographer.    She currently lives in Hawaii with her husband and giant baby.