The ‘Ethics’ of Photoshop

Here's a paper I wrote in February 2012 for my Computing for Communications class on Photoshop and ethical boundaries.
Fig. 1

The use of Photoshop to edit and ‘enhance’ images is controversial to say the least. As activists hold a magnifying glass (sometimes literally) against these images in order to investigate how and to what extent reality is being altered, we are faced with the question: Do these images affect us in a negative way and if so, what should we do about it?

In 1840, French photographer Hippolyte Bayard was the first person to alter an image. Since then, the possibilities of image editing have increased dramatically. Some images undergo such dramatic alteration that they can’t even be considered ‘real’ and are, consequently, banned. For example, in 2011, the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK pulled two L’Oreal ads – one featuring Julia Roberts, the other, Christy Turlington – because the ads implied that the women’s flawless skin was a result of the companies’ products rather than airbrushing. The ASA stated, “…We could not conclude that the ad image accurately illustrated what effect the product could achieve, and that the image had not been exaggerated by digital post-production techniques.” As the article “Making the Perfect Cover Girl” on states, “It’s one thing to be cool with zapping out a zit…but it’s another [thing] entirely when a company is trying to sell a product based on an image that couldn’t possibly exist in the real world.”

Complexion is not the only thing being digitally altered, however, bodies are also put ‘under the knife’ of the Photoshop experts – and sometimes to a frightening extent.

Fig. 2

Take the Ralph Lauren ad from 2009 (Fig 1-above) displaying an emaciated Filippa Hamilton (who is small, but not that small) – some thought this image wasn’t actually made by Ralph Lauren, but the company took ownership, stating, “We are responsible for the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman’s body. We have addressed the problem and going forward will take every precaution to ensure that the caliber of our artwork represents our brand appropriately.”

The Ralph Lauren ad begs the question: what more can we remove from these bodies? Well, recent images of Adam Levine in Vogue Russia (fig. 2-left) and Kristen Stewart in Glamour Magazine (Fig 3-below) answer that question for us. In these images, we see that poor Adam seems to have lost the entire right side of his torso. And Kristen? Well, as Jessica Misener says in her article on Huffington Post, “Girlfriend’s missing an arm!”

I suppose it’s not enough to ‘shave off’ some flab; now we need to remove body parts. Where does it end?

Fig. 3

But though missing appendages seem funny, the situation is not. As Daisy Dumas points out on Mail Online, “As comical as some Photoshop fails may be, the culture of digitally altering images is said to be part of a more sinister problem.” And this ‘problem’ is found in the message that these unrealistic images are sending. The American Medical Association addressed this issue, stating: “Advertisers commonly alter photographs to enhance the appearance of models’ bodies, and such alterations can contribute to unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image – especially among impressionable children and adolescents. A large body of literature links exposure to media-propagated images of unrealistic body image to eating disorders and other child and adolescent health problems.”

But can these altered images be blamed for causing eating disorders? Much controversy exists over this issue. Psychologist Vivian Diller says, “These are complicated psychological and sociological issues, in terms of both the underlying causes for the recent explosion of adolescent eating disorders as well as the subtle (and not so subtle) ways the media influences these problems….More research is required to know how to move forward on the cultural impact of Photoshop.”

The truth is eating disorders are mental illnesses that cannot, in my opinion, be caused by looking at an image of a model who’s been digitally ‘downsized’ to size 0. There are many emotional, psychological, and biological factors that contribute to one’s likelihood of developing an eating disorder, and by blaming media images we run the risk of ‘simplifying’ the complexity of these issues, which in turn could negatively affect the route one takes in order to recover from them.

That being said, photo shopped images can influence negative body image and hence may contribute to disordered eating or ‘fuel the flame’ to an individual’s already existent eating disorder. In addition, these images alter our social norms and desensitize us to images of bodies that are unhealthy, and therefore lead us to believe that these digitally-generated bodies and faces are achievable and something we should aspire to.

That brings us back to ethics, which Adobe themselves addressed on their website; Jeff Schewe writes:

“The subject of the ethics of digital imaging certainly is [of earth shattering proportions]….With Photoshop, a skilled retoucher can do such a good job of altering reality that there is little or no easy way to detect it….The ultimate answer may distill down to a question of honesty, integrity and oddly enough, Photoshop skills–knowing how to do only those things you really want to do with the discipline to go no further.”

Achieving and maintaining ethical integrity with Photoshop involves several components. First, editors need to hold themselves accountable to how far they will go when manipulating images. Second, companies need to hold themselves accountable to portraying honesty and realism in their ads. Third, if editors and companies fail at holding themselves accountable, then the authorities need to step in and ban images that cross ethical lines. And finally, we the viewers must use discernment and understand that these images are not real and they do not portray something that we ought to be. We need to realize, as Schewe points out, “The old adage that the camera never lies is more accurately stated as the camera always lies.”

Image Bibliography

“Adam Levine Vogue Russia,” found at Last accessed on February 25, 2012.

“Kristen Stewart Glamour Magazine,” found at Last accessed on February 25, 2012.

“Ralph Lauren Ad,” found at Last accessed on February 25, 2012.

Leave a Reply