The Complicated Ethics of Retouching in Commercial Photography

In an age where everything seems filtered or artificially polished, photographers weigh in on the ethics behind retouching in commercial photography.

With Instagram and Snapchat filters, retouching apps and Photoshop at our fingertips, the impulse to doctor our photos, especially those we share online, can be hard to ignore. Every day we are bombarded with images of people so “perfect” they can’t quite be real. We see them on television, on our computers and phone screens, on advertisements as we walk down the street – they’re inescapable.

In 2020, Photoshop turned 30, but photo editing has evolved far beyond the Adobe software. We all have access to free online ‘touch-up’ apps and tools that can whiten our teeth, tone our skin, airbrush our pores and shrink our waists. There has been much discussion in recent years around the ways image altering has warped our reality and the effect of these images on our psyches and mental health.

In the age of social media, images are more pervasive than ever. A, but are these edited photographs bad for us? Despite the links between platforms like Instagram and anxiety, depression and bullying, usage has increased year after year. Perhaps not unrelated is the rise of the “Instagram face,” described by Jia Tolentino in an article for the New Yorker as “a young face… with poreless skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips.” Tolentino characterized the emergence of this “single, cyborgian face” as a kind of pathology.

For some photographers, these issues surrounding “realness” are at the heart of their work. Body positivity and skin positivity movements have been fueled by photographers capturing beauty that defies the standards of the mainstream media, and many photographers consider it a responsibility to represent reality.

@kaylaloganblog © Annie Caplan

“I think it’s important that we’re consuming images of real people,” explains Annie Caplan. “There’s a lot on social media that’s not real and we’re bombarded by those images all day, every day…I can tell if I’m looking at someone’s account and it makes me feel good or bad about myself.”

Caplan, a boudoir and editorial photographer, shirks Photoshop completely, relying instead on flattering natural light. Her subjects have flaws, like all of us, but these aren’t the focus of her images. Instead, there’s a certain feeling to her photographs, a sense of the subjects’ confidence in Caplan’s trained eye. “My whole goal,” she says, “is to help people love themselves as they are.”

Pauli Cakes, Berlin, 2019 © Elisa Garcia de la Huerta

Other photographers, like Elisa Garcia de la Huerta, are avoiding technology entirely. Garcia de la Huerta uses analog, mostly using 35mm film, and doesn’t post-produce or retouch at all. “Realness is beyond the retouch,” she explains to The Luupe. During photoshoots, she doesn’t direct her subjects or rely on heavy production.

Instead, she seeks to create a mood through spontaneity, letting action unfold naturally. Her photographs have an earthy feel to them, with close-ups of bodies against botanic material. She depicts hairy armpits and pimples, sensuality and the unexpected.

“Creating perfect, polished commercial images is not my area of interest,” she says. “I made the conscious decision to explore something much more raw.”

© Jessica Bethel

Sometimes depicting flaws can also be an assertion of power. When Jessica Bethel was photographing a series of nudes, she found herself focusing on one subject’s stretch marks, a supposed “imperfection” that is rarely represented in the media. “I felt that her stretch marks were very realistic and humanized her as a woman nurturing her child,” Bethel told The Luupe.

“Also, we are conditioned to think that stretch marks are not pleasant, so I was intentional when I shot this and chose to shoot this on black and white film because it felt raw, like the lines showed signs of strength.”

When Bethel was younger, she experimented a good deal with editing and Photoshop, but eventually her interest in this practice waned. “In my opinion,” she explains, “retouching and airbrushing have taken away from shooting intentionally…I feel that it has masked our reality of what we should look like.”

Deborah. © Elisabeth van Aalderen from her series Shades of Pale.

And yet a photographer can represent unconventional beauty standards without dismissing retouching altogether. “Real, for me, means relatable,” explains Haarlem-based photographer Elisabeth Van Aalderen. Van Aalderen is the artist behind “Shades of Pale,” a project that seeks to document and celebrate women with the skin condition vitiligo.

The subject matter was particularly personal for Van Aalderen, as she herself has vitiligo. “Photography has given me a platform to document and celebrate the vitiligo body,” she told The Luupe. “I was confident that looking at those other women and photographing them would make me love my own skin again.”

Natalie. © Elisabeth van Aalderen from her series Shades of Pale

Van Aalderen belongs to a cohort of artists that falls somewhere between the two sides. She looks at the practical side of the technology at our disposal. “If someone has a pimple on the day of the photoshoot, I’ll brush it away…or when a model for a campaign has a bruise on her leg, then yes it will be airbrushed. But I will never make someone look different.” This is, of course, very different from altering a person’s body size or shaving off their chin. But it brings up questions of where the line is. When do we decide that we’ve gone too far?

In a 2010 article for The Cut entitled “In Defense of Photoshop: Why Retouching Isn’t As Evil As Everyone Thinks,” writer Amanda Fortini argues that we shouldn’t take images in fashion magazines, for example, at face value. “Our interest in altered images is not purely moral; it’s also aesthetic,” she writes. “We believe that a picture should convey, ‘objectively,’ without undue intervention, what the lens originally captured.

But these days, come to a fashion, consumer, or celebrity magazine with this quaint puritanical notion in mind, and you’re bound to be disappointed: Many contemporary images are illustrations masquerading as photographs, cartoons composed with a computer rather than a pen.”

When I flip through fashion magazines, staring at long, evenly tanned legs or pore-less faces, I am often reminded of a line in the first Sex and The City movie where Carrie is being convinced to participate in a Vogue Weddings issue. “Carrie,” implores the Vogue editor Enid played by Candace Bergen, “Vogue designers. Vogue photographers. Vogue airbrushing. Nod your head. Yes. Thank you. It will be a sensation.” We know, deep down, that these images we look at each day are altered, but does knowing that do anything to change how they make us feel? If we were surrounded by realistic photographs, would our idea of beauty be readjusted over time?

At the same time as we filter ourselves further from reality, backlash against the ideal of perfection has grown. Advertisements like The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty and JC Penney’s HERE I Am series challenge classic beauty tropes and stereotypes. Actress Kate Winslet added a “no retouching” clause to her contract with L’Oréal, and other celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Zendaya have spoken out about the dangers of overly Photoshopped images. But is this enough to spark change? Can these campaigns and comments drown out all the other noise?

The data is telling an unfortunate story. Last year, the NHS saw a 37% increase in hospital admissions for eating disorders. According to a report from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Americans underwent 15.6 million cosmetic procedures and 6.8 million reconstructive procedures in 2020, and we spent a combined total of $16.7 billion doing it. If anyone wonders what the difference in pressure is on women versus men in the arena of unrealistic beauty standards, look no further than the stats. This same report found that women accounted for 92% of all cosmetic procedures last year.

As humans, social comparison is natural. We look at others and assess ourselves accordingly. But how can we make realistic assessments when what we’re looking at isn’t even real? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Platforms like The Post Co are popping up, advocating for ethical retouching and transparency. “The Post Co wants everyone to understand the artistry, challenges, and ethics of the post-production process,” their website reads.

Consider the Image (originally called The Retouchers Accord) is a community that connects like-minded artists committed to transparency. “We believe in the diversity of bodies and are responsible concerning a model’s shape, skin color, and age,” they write in their “About Us” section. “We celebrate the best things in fashion—beauty, creativity, innovation—and avoid dulling them with extreme alterations.”

Some of these initiatives are largely symbolic, but advocating for transparency and ethical alterations of images could result in legitimate change down the line. “I don’t expect every subject to show up polished, buff, or a certain size,” says Bethel. “I want them as they are…beautiful.”

Hopefully, one day, that same sentiment will be shared as widely as it should be.