Note from the author: I wrote this in college for an advanced art history course. I have cited my references and hope you will always do the same. Copyright infringement is NOT good. If you click on the images it will take you to the website I took them from. Also, please do not use this as your own paper. Cheating is NOT good. Thank you.
Is Photographic Manipulation Ethical?
By Katelyn Fagan
Much controversy has risen in the last several decades about the issue of photographic manipulation. Though photo manipulation has been around for over a century, in the recent decades advances in science, technology, and digital imaging have made photographic manipulation much quicker, easier, and more common. But the question that now arises is if photographic manipulation is ethical or not. Is it right to change a photograph? But what are ethics? Jaksa and Priteward defined ethics as “how we live our lives; what is right and wrong, fair or unfair, caring or uncaring, good or bad, responsible or irresponsible, and the like” (Wakefield). So is taking a picture or multiple pictures and adding, detracting, enhancing, or minimizing something ethical? As we explore both sides of this debate, we will see that there are strong arguments to both sides, but I believe that changing a photograph is ethical.
Since photography came into being, people have begun to experiment with this new medium. Cropping and placing images together, brightening, darkening, and changing colors have always been part of the experimenting. The new technology of today diminishes time and costs, all the while multiplying the visual strategies available to artists, photographers, and designers. So what is the big deal about manipulating photos? Manipulating photographs was and continues to be ethical.
Most Americans have a camera in their homes as well as a basic editing program on their computer. At home one can remove red eyes, crop, brighten, darken, and do fun artistic effect to a photo. A skilled editor can even use Photoshop to place people in exotic backgrounds, edit out acne and other blemishes, and place things where they do not belong in order to be funny. But why should changing a picture be unethical just because it does not capture reality? Artists and painters throughout the centuries have practiced this same technique. A painter selects what vantage point to take and what items to include.
Digitally editing photos has also helped with illustrators, film editors, and advertisers. Photo manipulation during film production can save time and money. Film crews can film a night scene during the day. They can add in drops of rain and lightning bolts instead of waiting for the perfect storm. Photo editing allows movies to have special effects. Without photo manipulation, Frodo Baggins and the rest of the hobbits on the movie The Lord of the Rings would not have appeared short.
Advertising can also be greatly enhanced with photo manipulation. Products can be added to photos, as well as backgrounds, and all sorts of visual imagery can combine to create the appealing ads we see today. Using photo editing processes, advertisers can have clear, artistic images that help to emphasize the product being sold. Selling a product and advertising are both very ethical practices.
Even though there are many benefits of photo editing, there is much alarm and concern to be understood about it as well. Photo manipulation gives way to unethical practices. It has the possibility of corruption, misleading information, lies, deception, fraud, and plagiarism. Any unwanted information in a photo can be erased or modified, and wanted information can be added in. This can lead to faulty evidence in court cases. This can also lead to false news photos and stories. An example of this comes from the recent movie Spider-man 3. A photographer faked a photo of Spider-man robbing a bank in order to get a staff job. American citizens do not like to be lied to, especially when it comes to their news. False news photos are unethical. False photos on the cover of newspapers and magazines can cause much controversy from the lies it portrays.
Artistically, photo manipulation can be unethical. The straightforwardness of photography is lost. What is real anymore? One used to be able to take a snapshot, a Polaroid, and let the picture speak for itself, imperfections and all. It was up to the photographer to edit and frame and try to figure out what he wanted to capture at the time the photograph was taken. Anytime a photographer is behind the lens, he’s choosing where he’s standing, what vantage point he’s taking, how he’s cropping what he sees even as he sees it (Abrams). Now with manipulated photos possible with every single photo, it can be hard to distinguish between the original, unhampered photos and the edited, manipulated photos.
It has become very popular, especially in women’s magazines, to perfect or correct physical flaws. The bodies of Hollywood stars and supermodels now become sculptured, curvier, leaner, and blemish and cellulose free, creating the “ideal” image of a human body. It is this kind of photo manipulation that is very harmful to society. It is unethical to have these fake female role models for young girls to emulate. It has also lead to false assumptions of what a woman should be. Exposure to pictures of thin-ideal female members of the media has been shown to reduce body satisfaction in women, which in turn has led to various eating disorders (Lin and Kulik, 117). In fact findings indicate that after being exposed to exceptionally attractive female images, males report less satisfaction for a current relationship, rate average-looking females as less attractive, and express less affection for their significant other (Yuko).
Though there are some strong arguments pointing to photo manipulation as unethical, I believe that overall photography manipulation is just fine. Manipulating an image only becomes unethical when it affects a group of people. For example, false news releases would be unethical, an edited model is unethical, and false and misleading photos are unethical, unless specifically designated that it has been tampered with. When done in the wrong context, photo editing is wrong. But, I am an artist and a photographer. Digital manipulation is commonplace for me, just as it is for millions of others. There is nothing wrong with removing red eyes, lightening up a dark picture, or cropping it down. In general it can be said “it is all right to adjust the brightness or color balance of the whole photo, but not to obscure, move or introduce an element in order to present false information, remove information, etc.” (Wade).
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