Creative Expression or Twisted Truth?

Although digital manipulation is nothing new, the accessibility of softwares has popularized it’s use and bread a generation of people who mistrust the media. By now, many people have seen videos that expose the process of photo-retouching and expect that what they are seeing in the media has been altered in some form. There are websites where people are able to prove the credibility of an image and a plethora of articles articles that teach the public what to watch out for to prevent them from being deceived.

For the next generation of photographers and videographers, this poses a serious issue. We are entering a career field that is going to require us to prove our integrity.

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As I’ve read, watched, and experienced the phenomena of digital manipulation and it’s effects on the public, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no hard and fast rule about when digital manipulation is acceptable and when it’s not. Every photo, every project must be approached with the same careful question: What is the motive behind the manipulation, and what will it communicate as a result?

I really like photographer Neil Turner’s five step scale for approaching this ethical dilemma:

1. Normal darkroom practices – correction of color, tone, contrast and saturation to reflect the way the image should look. Light dodging and burning.

2. Darkroom interpretation – changes limited to colour, heavier dodging and burning, unnatural saturation and contrast that make the image an interpretation of reality.

3. Minor alterations – adding or removing elements to or from the image, other than by cropping, that do not change the essential message of the image.

4. Major alterations – adding or removing elements to or from the image that heighten or change the essential message of the image.

5. Image montage – using elements of more than one image to make a photograph that is no longer a genuine representation of the scene.

He contends that one and two are generally acceptable, but number three begins to enter the realm of deception, and numbers four and five are what have caused photographs to lose their credibility among the general public. In his assessment he said, “The real sadness is that so many photographers supplying news images ignore the ethical implications – largely because they know no better.” We must accept the responsibility to “know better.” Our mentality should not be, “What can I get away with?” But, “How can I be a beneficial communicator as an artist?” Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 8.59.41 AM

For a photo journalist, their objective is to report a story, which requires the truth, and makes photos such as this one manipulated by Bryan Patrick an unethical contribution.

On the other hand, a filmmaker using CGI for entertainment purposes has a greater opportunity for creative license.


It would be foolish to ignore in all of this the unfortunate way that digital manipulation has affected the mental and physical health of the population in regards to body image, especially for females. It is no secret that the advertising world has clipped and retouched its way to an unrealistic standard of beauty for the sake of selling a product or an idea. I appreciate that there are companies such as Aerie and are beginning to respond to the outcry, and magazines such as Darling are paving the way for a new season of media. I especially love what Taryn Brumfitt has done to turn the tables on the media and change the perception of beauty.

It is a large and tricky responsibility to balance creative expression and twisted truths. But in all things, as creators, we must continue to pose the question of motive, seeking to prevent and correct the negative affects of the mistakes that we, or people in history, have made in regards to manipulation.

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