The Complicated Ethics of Photoshop in 2018

Not long ago, I sat at a dinner table surrounded by influencers of note and observed as they edited a group photo in the FaceTune app. With practiced fingers, they quickly erased the wrinkles in a dress, smoothed out a few tummies and erased a blemish. If you held the original photo and the edited photo next to each other, you might not even be able to spot the differences, not unless you were searching for them. The tweaks were subtle — artful even. Everything just looked slightly more perfect.

A photo editing application that makes photoshop-style retouching easy for non-professionals, FaceTune has been downloaded more than 50 million times since it first launched in 2013. Similarly to how Instagram put photography in the hands of the masses, FaceTune has effectively done so for retouching. Anyone from Kim Kardashian to the barista who makes your coffee can download the app for free (though it costs an additional $5.99 per month for access to all the features). I downloaded it myself as research for this story and tested it out on a recent selfie. Using a sliding tool, I plumped my lips, slimmed my jawline, blurred my pores and narrowed my nose in mere seconds. To say that FaceTune is user-friendly is an understatement. It’s easier than ordering dinner on Seamless.

In a world where the ability to alter your appearance is both accessible and effortless, I’ve started to wonder how the “ethics” of Photoshop are evolving. On principle, I support every individual’s right to do whatever they want to their own bodies cosmetically, but using Photoshop for the purpose of digitally squeezing oneself into the narrow confines of a societal beauty ideal feels like a uniquely slippery slope.

Curious to learn more about the professional side of Photoshop use, I reached out to photographer Aaron Richter. “I use Photoshop on pretty much every image, with very few exceptions,” he told me. “It’s a step in my process, so I’ll have images looking fairly close to how I want them to look, and Photoshop helps me massage them into the exact right colors and balance I’m looking for. I try not to over-retouch my work, but my aesthetic is fairly clean. I’ll get rid of blemishes, but skin should look like skin. Bodies should look like bodies. I use Photoshop a lot to clean up environments, sometimes tidy up some clothes that might be sitting odd.”

Notably, The New York Times has a strict no-photoshop policy. “You can’t alter them in any way,” Aaron told me. “If I’m shooting a celebrity, they’ll often say something like, ‘Oh well you can just fix that in Photoshop.’ But for The Times, I can’t, so I need to pay closer attention to every little bit of the photo. […] For example, like say you’re shooting a woman and she’s wearing a pair of pants that poof unflatteringly at the crotch. For most clients you’ll just shoot through it because it’s easier just to liquify the offending area in post rather than breakup the flow of the photoshoot to wrangle the pant-poof. For The Times, you actually have to fix it or you’re stuck with it.”

When I asked if he’s noticed the ethics of retouching change over the course of his career, he said, “Every now and then I’ll get a request for a Frankenstein where you take one part of the body from one image and combine it with another image, but honestly that request is happening less and less lately. Where before it was kind of expected that we’d be able to do something like that in post, now I think clients recognize the stigma behind creating this kind of fake image, even if all you’re doing is something like changing a raised armed to a lowered arm.”

Ironic though it may seem, it makes sense that outlets are becoming more conservative with Photoshop as the general public becomes savvier with it. Beyond the internet outrage machine’s fascination with retouching scandals (remember when Jezebel controversially offered $10,000 for the unretouched photos of Lena Dunham in Vogue?), people are also simply getting better at detecting traces of Photoshop the more they engage with this kind of technology themselves. But there’s a big difference between, say, color correcting a photo and “Frankenstein” body part swaps — both in terms of a layperson’s ability to detect the changes that have taken place and in terms of how “acceptable” we might deem the changes to be.

“Almost every image you view has had some post-production work done on it, be it just color and grain, or removing tape from the floor and scuffs, dust, fingerprints or clothing clips, or much more,” professional retoucher Kate Coats told me. “There’s a whole world of retouching that happens aside from any alterations to the model. I see retouching as part of the process of taking a photograph, just as with lighting and hair and makeup. They all go together to make the final image.”


Those eyelashes in that mascara ad may have been drawn in, the hair in that shampoo commercial is probably a compilation of five different shots and that reality star’s body probably doesn’t look that perfect in actual reality.

She told me she will happily remove so-called “imperfections” that wouldn’t necessarily be there if a photo had been taken another day  — like a visible pimple — but acknowledges that even with personal ground rules it’s easy to go overboard. “Customers generally prefer perfection,” she said. “This drives clients to push for flaws to be removed and so on and so forth. It’s a nasty cycle. We need to rewire our [thinking].”

The solution, from her standpoint, is more transparency: “Our tweens and teens need to be informed that the images they are viewing are edited, that they are not always attainable goals,” she said. “Those eyelashes in that mascara ad may have been drawn in, the hair in that shampoo commercial is probably a compilation of five different shots and that reality star’s body probably doesn’t look that perfect in actual reality.”

I spoke with jewelry designer Pamela Love about the topic, and she echoed Kate’s concerns about how easy it is to take things too far when something as nebulous as perfection is the goal. “I went through a period where I started posting fewer impromptu photos on my Instagram,” she told me. “Instead of just snapping a fun photo and putting it up, I would retouch it and play with the light and the sharpness. That version of perfection had started to look ‘normal’ to me because there are so many Instagram accounts out there that are essentially Pinterest boards — they all just look so perfect and you’re like, is that how mine’s supposed to be?

Their comments underscored my initial suspicion that the ethics of Photoshop are growing increasingly murky as its usage grows increasingly ubiquitous. The more achievable on-screen “perfection” becomes, the more normal it will start to look, which in turn means anything less than perfection will start to appear abnormal. (A precedent for the normalization of beauty standards is observable in the politics of wearing makeup: People are so used to women wearing makeup that when they choose to forgo it, women often report people asking if they’re tired, or even sick.) This reality felt particularly acute most recently when I saw photos from Outdoor Voices’ Exercise Dress campaign and didn’t realize the model Lil Miquela was actually a CGI robot — literally computer-generated to fulfill a preconceived ideal of aesthetic flawlessness — until someone pointed it out to me.

The murkiness of Photoshop ethics may be daunting, but it isn’t unfamiliar. Technology is the 21st century’s Wild West — an unmapped frontier we can only discover and regulate as we go along. When it comes to Photoshop, though, I think it’s important we tread cautiously and think carefully about its long-term impact on how we see the world. Just because “perfection” is now attainable doesn’t mean it is preferable; more often than not, the wrinkles are the best part.

Feature image by Horst P. Horst/Conde Nast via Getty Images.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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