Is High End Fashion Photo Retouching Ethical?

With advances in digital photography, it has become possible for fashion photographers to capture pictures that are technically flawless. There are instances though, where even good looking models do not look the way advertisers want them to, even though all other aspects of the photograph might have come out perfect. So while a model may be skilled in the art of posing and rendering facial expressions, natural imperfections in their body might mean the advertiser’s fashion clothing or accessory does not get portrayed as something to be desired by the target audience. That’s where a tool like Photoshop (or any other good photo editing software) can come to the fashion photographer’s rescue. Using photo retouching tools, digital artists can iron out all flaws visible on the model’s body or clothing. The question though is: Is it ethical to do so?


Arguments against fashion photo retouching

There are a handful of arguments against using fashion photo retouching to tamper with the model’s natural looks. Here they are:

Argument # 1: Promoting a Lie
One argument is that the portrayal of models after high end photo touchups is unrealistic. The models do not really look as appealing – neither does their fashion attire look as attractive – under natural conditions. While there is some truth to this argument, the reason for such manipulation is that the advertisers want the models to look perfect so their fashion apparel looks desirable on them. To achieve this objective, they use photo retouching tools as they let them overcome the limitations that even a well taken digital photograph cannot. View this video

Argument # 2: From Photo Manipulation to Psychological Manipulation*
A model’s physical looks are an inseparable part of fashion photography. A good looking model posing in a particular outfit will attract more eyeballs than an ordinary looking model wearing the same outfit. Even the best looking models have their own limitations; ex. dark patches under the eyes, freckles on the face, flab around the abdomen etc. Critics argue that publishing such photos creates a sense of inferiority complex among targeted viewers, especially women, as they start believing that they do not possess the kind of physique or looks the model possesses. View this video

Argument # 3: Narrowing Definition of Beauty*
Fashion photo retouching does not just iron out wrinkles from the face or clothing; it also alters people’s perception of beauty, especially among the youth, critics believe. Young women may start believing that they are beautiful only if they have a slim body, a face without blemish or perfect eyelashes. While there is a ring of truth in the critics’ fear, publishing an ad with a model that has facial or physiological imperfections may draw the viewer’s attention away from the fashion clothing to the model’s unappealing facial features. This may prove counterproductive for the advertiser.

In Defense of Fashion Photo Retouching
While the above arguments do hold water, it is also true that digital photography is still evolving, and most people do not possess a perfect body that can always fulfill the advertiser’s requirements. This means if you want to portray your fashion attire at its best, you need to get your photographs improvised using photo retouching and other editing techniques. The key is to strike the right balance and draw a line when the touchups are so extensive, that they are obvious to the discerning eye.

By itself, fashion photo retouching is not unethical. Rather, it is the extent to which it is done and how it is done, that makes all the difference. Let us know what you think about it. Share your comments below, and follow us on Twitter.

In a lighter vein, check out this site for some Photoshop bloopers!

* Source: ‘Ethics Inquiry’, August 2012, International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, Brandeis University website

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