Photoshopping and the Media – A Conversation with a High School Freshman

Back in early April, I was approached by a high school freshman who was working on a paper about the role of Photoshop and photo manipulation in the media – both news and otherwise – and how that affects self-image in young people. I was, of course, glad to help out and below is how I responded to her questions about my views on the subject and how I make my own decisions with regards to Photoshop and image retouching. It’s kind of a stream of consciousness and could certainly be expanded upon, so please bear with my jumping around.

If you have any comments, please share them in the comments below!

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This is definitely a serious issue that plays a major role in the development of one’s self-image. Whether a child, teen or adult we are always struggling with our own perceptions of ourselves – be it looks, weight, clothes, etc. The media’s portrayal of what it means to be “beautiful” or “perfect” or “ideal” is certainly unrealistic and can be harmful in many ways. I will say that since an uproar a few years ago about how photos of models and actresses were manipulated to make them look smaller or “better” and particularly after the backlash after some wartime photos were Photoshopped, there have been some improvements in how media outlets and magazines approach the use of image editing software. But they haven’t totally gotten past that yet.

In a lot of ways it comes down to intent when you ask the question about what is an appropriate amount of editing. If you’re creating a movie poster, you would expect there to be a lot of manipulation because the purpose of the poster is to promote something that is fantasy in the first place. For journalistic purposes, most publications are very strict about what their photo editors are allowed to do. Ethically, they are only allowed to crop and perform basic brightness/contrast/color adjustments because they are reporting on actual events and need to be accurate to what occurred. Magazines are somewhere in the middle. They don’t really have to be so strict as newspapers, but they don’t usually do as much as movie posters or other ads.

For me, I look at Photoshop as a tool. It isn’t Photoshop itself that is responsible for all of these issues, it’s the way it is being used and how it has enabled members of the media to make certain choices in their work. Just like you can’t blame an ingredient for how a chef chooses to use it when preparing a meal. Photoshop is only one element in the process of making an image. There is the photographer, the camera, lights, reflectors, the model, background, wardrobe, makeup, props, stock photos or other outside resources used in putting the final image together, and even the medium that the final image will be used on. All of these things have just as much of an effect on how the image turns out. Throw in the decisions of art directors and clients and you are complicating things a lot more than just Photoshop. The angle of the camera and lights, the pose of the model (and even what the model looks like), the clothes, the setting, all of it affects the message.

Personally, I use Photoshop just about every day designing marketing emails, print materials, website elements as well as photo editing for a university. There are pretty strict policies about what I can do, but they are less strict than a news organization would have. I deal with a lot of images of fruits and vegetables that are being developed by researchers on campus and things like color and shape are very important so I have to be careful to keep things as close to the original as I can. At a previous job, I shot products and models for a sporting goods catalog/website. While we had to do some manipulation to change the colors of an article of clothing or product, for the most part we left the model alone because we wanted the products to be true to what they were like in real life. I would touch up blemishes (pimples, etc.) or remove some stray hair, but it was mainly to remove distracting elements, not to change the appearance of the model.

How much or how little you edit something has everything to do with the purpose of the image and how it will be used. If I am editing my own photos, I will do whatever I want to them to achieve the look I’m going for artistically. If I’m working with photos for work, I will judge how much room I have to enhance it as I find the balance between accuracy and aesthetics. And, with experience, I know where the line between the two is. There is no universal answer about whether or not you can do too much. It’s all contextual.

I use Photoshop because it’s the industry standard software. It is extremely powerful and allows me to both make very fine-tuned adjustments and create complicated effects with ease. I am extremely comfortable in the Photoshop environment and with that comfort comes the ability to work more efficiently and effectively.

I think that as people consume more and more media, they become more savvy about what has been done to it. After awhile you can easily pick out something that has been Photoshopped and determine how “real” a photo may or may not be. When you can do that, you will be able to tune out the subtle, and not so subtle, messages about “beauty” or “perfection” and how those messages apply to you. When you’re not so savvy, regardless of your age, it’s a lot harder to see what’s really going on and it’s easier for those messages to have an impact on your self-image. The media might take a long time to change, so it’s up to consumers of media to become more informed.

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