Your client’s terminally-ill grandfather is the only one not smiling in the shots of the entire family. Do you liquify his facial features to make it look like he might be smiling? Do you transform a flat gray sky in your latest landscape to a dramatic sunny one? Where do you draw the line?
Apart from journalistic and other strictly documentary-based photography, there are no hard boundaries in most branches of photography to govern the distinction between the hard truth and an imaginative work of art.
A Version of Reality
Over the years, photographers have earned a notorious reputation in the eyes of the general population. This is because a large majority of “beautiful" photos in mass media fall under a gray area which I call “a version of reality.” Near perfect skin to the last pore, ideal proportions of body parts on glamour magazine covers, virtually empty beaches with the most vibrant blues and greens, and the must-have epic sunset couple shot on their wedding day. These have built a common perception that everything is “photoshopped.”
There are valid arguments on both sides of the divide. Some photographers argue that in person you may not notice the blemishes on someone’s skin as much as you do in a photo as it is a frozen moment. So the removal of blemishes helps direct the attention of the viewer towards the more natural areas of attention, e.g., the eyes. This argument, however, raises two questions on the other side: first, if imperfections are removed consistently from all beauty content, does that make the subjects less human and change our expectations of what is considered beautiful? And second, is the replacement of skin to the pore level also an extension of removal of imperfections?
I Look Fat
Then there is the “please ensure I don’t look fat in these photos” conundrum. The arguments here are that a) the society in general wants to look a certain way and if our clients want to look “thin,” we're bound to oblige to their request; b) the way we light and two-dimensionality of a photo can sometimes mean that people can look smaller or bigger than how our eyes see them, so we need to correct for that illusion. The latter raises a simpler question: is that an excuse to submit to our biases and if it’s not, how do we know where to stop? The former argument raises a slightly a more complex question: what amount of responsibility rests with the photographer to contribute in solving the body-image issues of the world?
An Extension of Historical Practices
One can also argue that perfection in art and beauty is not new and in fact, photography has inherited the yearning towards the “ideal” from human sculptures with perfect bodies and exquisite paint masterpieces with impossibly dramatic skies. However, the general population or at least a section of society believes that photography is supposed to be different, that it’s primary purpose and feature is to capture a moment as it occurred. In light of this, should there be more of an effort to educate the masses? Or should photographers somehow create a clear separation between in-camera photography and the enhanced reality and imaginative art?
It Needs to Be Instagram-able
Social approval plays a big part for today’s photographers. If you didn’t get an epic photo of hot air balloons over the early morning Bagan sky, with you, your photogenic half, or you both in it, did you even go to Bagan, dude? Alternatively, imagine this. You’ve finally landed your first wedding in the Bahamas. It’s going to be huge! You’re going to send these photos everywhere. But on the wedding day, instead of the sun, the weather gods send you a flat-gray sky. In either situation above, one could argue that social pressure is way too hard to cope with and thus you're going to add dramatic sunlight in a few wedding photos or composite some hot air balloons in some Bagan photos. But obviously, what we fail to see at that moment is that we are contributing to that same social pressure.
I’m not a documentary photographer and have often photographed with the adage, “don’t let the truth come in the way of a good story.” I do not know the answer to the question of what is too far or if we’d even consider our practices to be too far outside the ethical fence. But I know it’s time we, as photographers, at least started discussing the question: where do we draw the line?
Where do you stand and what would you like the community to change? I’d love to hear your own experiences and ideas about these issues. Put in your comments in the section below.