"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder", but the beholder's sight becomes distorted when they look at their own images. A photograph's sincerity is hard to face if the person that we see represented on it does not look like the image that we have of ourselves. To some, photography is supposed to "beautify" us, to make us look pretty. And nobody knows this better than the makers of those mobile apps that alter our features and exploit our self-confidence issues. What's the point in going through this beautification process if we end up looking nothing like ourselves?
Photo editing techniques are nothing new. And the concerns surrounding them, either. According to John Hannavy, in the 1850's not only did photographers groups like the Société Française de Photographie condemned retouching, but also there was an important debate on whether altering an image was deterring from its "veracity and sincerity". In spite of this, very early into the business of photography's history, photographers understood that people usually want an image where they look more attractive than they think they are (Susan Sontag, "On Photography", 1977). And photographers as early as late XIX century ran very successful portraiture businesses that employed in-house retouchers to make their clients look better.
As a photographer working in the XXI century I can't help but think that body image issues should be one of the biggest concerns in the photography industry today. When I look at my subjects, I try to accurately capture the essence and the beauty that I see with my bare eyes. But, every now and then, I get people who are not happy with how they look and ask me to alter their photo by changing their features. And no matter how hard I try to make them see that they are beautiful and that those changes will make them look nothing like themselves, some of them still want me to go through with the alterations. To which I always say no. I made a promise to myself when I started out my career as a photographer that I would only retouch my portraits if they needed colour grading, temporary skin problems corrections, lighting enhancements, and clean-up or replacement of backgrounds or objects in the scene. Not just because I find it unethical to retouch any further, but because body image issues can lead to mental health problems and I don't want to inadvertently contribute to someone's body dysmorphia, a mental disorder that affects a person's perception of their own appearance and justifies the means to fix it.
However, I recently found myself breaking this promise when I allowed a very demanding person to make me alter their images beyond what I consider to be ethical. I felt very guilty and disgusted while doing it and I purposely changed as little as possible so that they would continue looking like themselves. But, in the end, after numerous exchanges where they kept on telling me that the features needed more enhancements, I was very relieved to hear that none of the changes that I had made were of their liking and that the photos wouldn't be used. No matter what I did, as long as they kept on looking like themselves, they were never going to be satisfied with my photos. The whole experience made me feel very bad about myself and about what I had gotten myself into. And the truth is that I don't blame this person in particular or any of the other persons who have asked me for these changes in the past. I feel sad for them. They are just the victims of the selfie culture and of the mobile cameras and apps with so-called beautifying features. It is very shameful how the creators of these apps are profiting from our vulnerabilities.
Let my post today be a renewal of my promise to myself to not engage in this sort of practice ever again.
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