With Great (Photoshop) Skills Come Great Responsibility

By Daniele Amandolini

I joined SMCC less than a year ago, specifically the Communications and New Media program, with the intent of learning everything about graphic and visual design. Just like many others, I hope to leave this school with an expertise in how to use Photoshop and similar software, and the technical ability to convey emotions by manipulating and combining visual elements.

As a media scholar, though, I learned that this field offers much bigger challenges than mastering an image editing software: what we can do with a computer these days is almost limitless, and this ability comes with the need of keeping a moral compass open at all times.

Ajda-Pekkan_mayo-Twist_plaj_moda_yaz_2012- (1)

Ajda Pekkan (72) is a Turkish popstar known for her heavily
photoshopped images.

One key example of Photoshop misuse is the retouching of women’s bodies in magazine covers and photoshoots. Pushing impossible standards of beauty is nothing new, and a habit much older than digital photography. However, because we tend to trust images as a higher form of proof than written words, this practice has had subtle but devastating consequences. These span from eating disorders to bullying and marginalizing of women (and especially young girls) with different body types. Again, the visual medium carries so much power that the effects of its careless use can be unpredictable and spin out of control, fast.

This is often the price of the fast advancement of technology: the excitement of progress often comes with unforeseen consequences. As computers are taking over our lives, though, there are no excuses for such behavior. France has taken an important step in preventing Photoshop abuse.

close the use of photoshop or other editing software. Moreover, models may only be employed after a doctor has attested their health and well-being, which obviously include a BMI (body mass index) measurement.

Outside of France, Getty is the first big company to assume a similar stance. Since October 1st, 2017, the popular stock photo website doesn’t accept submissions depicting models whose body has been digitally edited to appear smaller or bigger.

Magazines are a primarily visual medium, one that holds a critical role in shaping women’s fashion and beauty standards. While these laws and rules represent a step in the right direction, it’s important to nurture photoshop ethics not just by enforcing punishments, but by educating responsible designers that focus on their honesty as much as on their technical ability.

The morality of altering photos goes beyond women’s image. Photography is an art form, but this definition doesn’t quite translate in the context of photojournalism. Photographs have a dramatic impact when it comes to reporting news, especially in creating empathy in a reader about events happening thousands of miles away. These photographs are not always simple snapshots taken on the fly, but rather require effort and preparation. In some cases, though, to achieve the desired psychological effect, photographers have slightly altered their photos.

This is often limited to removing a distracting trashcan in the background, but when it comes to journalism the morality of such practices gets murky very fast. It is generally more accepted that a writer describes a scene with the words he considers the most effective, but such leverage is not granted to photographers. Esteemed photographer Steve McCurry, whose “Afghan girl” portrait graced one of the most iconic National Geographic covers ever, had recently undergone intense scrutiny for editing many of his travel photos. While those edits aren’t dramatic, and mostly limited to background details, many have accused McCurry of some form of lying, so much so that he addressed the issue by calling himself a visual storyteller rather than a photographer.

Regardless of where one personally stands on specific issues, my point is that schools should be where these questions are raised, and these problems addressed early on with deep discussions. It is vital that the new generations of “visual storytellers” will understand the profound consequences of their conduct, and a program like Communications and New Media should absolutely provide this type of education. My experience at SMCC has been positive so far on this front, and “hot topics” like copyright and plagiarism were tackled within the first few weeks of my first semester. I hope that this continues to be the case and that designers and visual artists of the future will understand their role in shaping general discourse and their impact on society.

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