Digital Manipulation – How Far is Too Far?

Digital Manipulation

What happens when technology reaches a point that allows us to augment our own reality? This may sound like something you would only encounter within a Sci-Fi movie, but the technology has been here for several years. People have been retouching photos ever since the art of photography was invented, which goes back almost 200 years. The process was usually done by hand, which consisted of physically altering the polaroids. This was seen as an art by some and deception by others. Jump ahead to the 21st century and now everyone with a computer can manipulate their own photos with relative ease.

However, how far is too far? A vast majority of creative professionals use softwares like Photoshop to edit their work. There have been several controversies behind this practice, especially when it comes to celebrity photo touch-ups. More and more celebrities have spoken out against photo manipulations, including: Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Keira Knightley, and more. Often times, the artist tries to make the model look “too perfect.” This includes changing the thickness of the model, airbrushing certain features, and many more changes that results in a completely different picture.

On the other side, Photoshop has become a staple in many photography classes. Becky Olstad, an instructor for the Art Institute, stands by the practice of photo manipulation. It has become a very common practice amongst photographers and it gives them control over exposure, contrast, color balance, and other things that were typically done within a dark room. The problem does not lie within the product itself, but with how it is being applied to various forms of media and to what end.

So what is the problem then? I think that when you begin dealing with digital manipulation, you enter into a gray area. There are no set guidelines and rules set out to follow that determine whether you are going too far or not. There are some “suggested” guidelines, but nothing is set in stone. When we take a photograph of something or someone, we aren’t capturing an “absolute truth” of that moment in time, it is an interpretation of reality. With this in mind, photos and videos by default are all interpretations and not the real thing, no matter how little to no manipulation is done to it.

This is a popular example: do you see blue/black or white/gold?

I see nothing wrong with doing some touching up and corrections to an image. Photography is, at its core, an art form and Photoshop is one of the tools that we, as artists, have at our disposal. It gives you more creative control over the environment and subject that you are working with to create something beautiful. However, I don’t believe this should give us an excuse to be lazy and plan to fix everything in post-production. I believe that part of the art is being able to capture that moment in time as it is happening. I think that so long as you stay true to that goal, then tools like Photoshop should not be looked down upon.
We all know, however, that people will still continue to abuse this ability. I think the point at which you cross the line between it going from an art form to a straight up lie is when the image becomes unrecognizable, or simply not real. This is still a gray area, but I don’t condone slimming a model down to look more fashionable or rearranging the bone structure of somebody just to make a poster look better. If your model doesn’t have features you are looking for, then find someone who does. A little touching up isn’t a crime, especially if your goal is to try to make the model more beautiful (as they are), but nobody is perfect and we should not try to convey this with our media. It is a terrible message to send out to people who aren’t confident in who they are.

Ultimately, I think the best way to know where we are at ethically is to determine what our end goal is when we manipulate media. When we change and manipulate an image to meet unrealistic expectation, we are deceiving the audience for our own gain. We should try to be truthful in whatever we do but be allowed the freedom to express ourselves creatively.

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