Photo by Nebulae Decay aka Anna Hill (fair use)
Photo by Nebulae Decay aka Anna Hill (fair use)

Many years ago, as part of a part-time job hunt in London, I applied for the role of a digital retoucher. I considered myself a fairly proficient Photoshop user and the company’s boss must have thought the same, as he responded very enthusiastically to the portfolio I sent him, and gave me a task: to retouch a photo for a jewellery ad.

I was given two photos, the “before” and “after” shots, and was told that it should take me approximately 2-3 days to complete it. I approached the task with enthusiasm and for 3 days I was glued to my desk, to the point of sore eyes and aching back. I was constantly referring to the “after” photo to check my progress and when I got to the point when the two looked virtually identical, I sent the man my result. To my surprise, this was not the end of the test — he told me that I got the image “into the right ball park” and suggested trying different techniques. I asked him if instead of redoing the whole image (I really couldn’t afford 3 more days of unpaid labour), I could redo a fragment of it to demonstrate my ability to use different methods. I never heard back from him.

But despite my frustration, the truth is that I was relieved. Relieved that I wasn’t going to support the marketing monster of selling lies to people.

When Photoshop launched in 1990, it quickly became the favourite tool for processing digital image files by people from all sorts of industries. And with each new release packed with more and more features, the software has been reinforcing its monopoly on the market and has virtually kept its reign over other image-editing programmes (GIMP and Inkscape are pretty good too, but they still fall behind Adobe’s golden egg-laying goose). Photoshop has been ingrained in our cultural consciousness to the point that “photoshopping” is now a neologism for any type of image manipulation”, as Sophie Curtis observes in an article for The Telegraph.

But while no-one can question Photoshop’s usefulness in enhancing images to bring out their best, concerns have been raised about it “blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, feeding society’s obsession with physical perfection”. I remember an episode of the famous MTV reality show Catfish, in which a young girl called Ashley was taking out her double chin and hips out of all the photos she was sending to Mike, her online boyfriend. Truth be told, he was also sending her photos of a 24-pack abs topless hottie instead of himself, but claimed that he thought she knew that that wasn’t really him. Upon their meeting, Ashley, who earlier said that she was not at all concerned with what he looked like and only cared about his personality, realised that his lack of a Ken-doll figure bothers her. She was disappointed and angry and didn’t seem to acknowledge that Mike (who had no problem with her being twice the size as in the photos), had every right to expect a slim girl. The idea of editing your image for a person you consider your future life partner with whom you’re building a relationship based on honesty and trust, is completely incomprehensible to me, but it shows how “photoshopping” has infiltrated our life and it’s somehow considered ok to do that.

Curtis is right in raising concerns over Photoshop’s impact on “society’s perception of reality, and also on our ability to maintain an accurate record of history.” Virtually any photograph that is nowadays published in a magazine undergoes editing – this can sometimes be subtle, while at other times it is so heavy that it distorts and often ridicules its subjects. A few years ago, actress Jennifer Lawrence, upon seeing the results of a photo shoot she did for Christian Dior, exclaimed “That doesn’t look like me at all! I love Photoshop more than anything in the world.” In the culture of celebrities keeping quiet about photo-manipulation and plastic surgery, Lawrence’s honest statement – “Of course it’s Photoshop. People don’t look like that.” – is indeed very refreshing.

This viral ad (below) of a model being transformed using Photoshop, directed by Tim Piper, as shown on Good Morning America and the Today Show as well as Dove’s Evolution video both shed some light on just how much manipulation takes place on a single photo.

The omnipresent obsession with Photoshop has been brilliantly portrayed in this spoof ad, created by an indie film-maker named Jesse Rosten, and a photo series by artist and photographer Anna Hill aka Nebulae Decay.

When I first discovered Snapseed, I couldn’t get enough of it. I loved experimenting with colour combinations and filters (I’m a painter after all), and initially found the process fun and creative. But at some point I realised I was using Snapseed as a default image processor, and felt compelled to edit even perfectly good shots. And while I might have improved the quality of poorly lit photos, something about that process bothered me. Not to mention the fact that it was time-consuming. So at some point I decided to quit Snapseed and be selective about posting pictures, choosing the ones I was happy with as they were. Which is great in the sense that it gives me an incentive to take better photos in exactly the same way analogue cameras require much higher skills and critical eye than digital ones, because there is no way to see, let alone edit, a picture once it gets captured.

But despite my critical stance towards photo-manipulation, I did find myself manipulating reality again last summer, when I started working for an award-winning post-production and animation studio. Excited about unraveling the potential of After Effects with its abundance of features, I soon learned that VFX is not just about creating fire, smoke and super cool sci-fi stuff. More often, it means cleaning pimples from actors’ faces, brightening up their bloodshot and hungover eyes, making them younger, slimmer and more attractive. “Photoshopping” a film is basically the same manipulation, but done to multiple frames as opposed to one image.

Several weeks into the job, as I was rendering one video after another, I was feeling more and more torn. On one hand, I was learning skills, enjoying the company of very talented and fun colleagues, on the other – indirectly (but nevertheless) supporting companies such as pharmaceutical enterprises which use cool design and flashy ads to fool people into believing that their pricey ibuprofen pill is somehow more effective than its no-name supermarket equivalent. At some point, the moral discomfort was growing and as my life circumstances required me to go back to working flexible hours as a freelancer, I once again felt a sense of relief that I no longer had to put my name next to something I didn’t believe in.

Post-production world is both fascinating and infuriating. On one hand, it enables us to make films like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, where 80% consists of CG, some of which had to be developed specifically for the film (as producer David Heyman said “It’s not a film that could have been made before now”). On the other, replacing practical effects with CGI makes a lot of films lack originality in the best case, or completely artificial and grotesque in the worst. A good example of an excessive use of CGI is Peter Jackson’s Hobbit series. Unlike The Lord of the Rings trilogy, where the modest budget forced its makers to be creative with practical effects, at the time of making Hobbit Jackson had enough money to invest in expensive CGI. And he did. But the results have been rather disappointing, and the internet is full of articles titled “Why do the LOTR movies look so much better than the new Hobbit series?” Kendall Ashley tries to answer that in her article for Cinema Blend:

What you’re looking at there are men dressed as an orc. You’re looking at intricate, amazing makeup, and a group of guys who are probably burning up beneath pounds of latex and paint. Without the help of special effects, the orcs from the Lord of Rings films looked amazing, and very realistic. The actors were able to interact directly with an orc, rather than dealing with a green screen. There was something about the orc’s physical presence on the set that really added something special to those films.

But manipulation of reality isn’t restricted to photos or film only. With the rise of social media, one is capable of conjuring up a whole edited life. A recent campaign by Ditch the Label and Boohoo, Are you living and Insta Lie?, shows that perfectly.

Two years ago, Essena O’Neill, an 18-year-old Australian social media empress with more than half a million followers on Instagram and more than 250,000 YouTube subscribers, suddenly announced to her followers that she is quitting social media and decided to tell the truth behind her photos by editing their captions. She realised that her life, which became a quest for the perfect selfie, was meaningless and she felt depressed.

Please like this photo, I put on makeup, curled my hair, tight dress, big uncomfortable jewelry… Took over 50 shots until I got one I thought you might like, then I edited this one selfie for ages on several apps- just so I could feel some social approval from you.

Screenshot of Essena's (closed) Instagram account
Screenshot of Essena’s (closed) Instagram account

As more and more people are feeling compelled to retouch their life in front of others, many more are becoming victims of a social anxiety which until very recently most of us had not even heard of. FOMO, the fear of missing out, has been defined by Andrew Przybylski from the University of Essex as “the fear that other people might be having rewarding experiences that you’re missing”. And it turns out that the term has been around for over a decade, though the original context in which it was used was quite different. According to Linda Blair from The Telegraph, it was used by Patrick McGinnis, a student from Harvard Business School, who wrote about the problem of his generation born in the aftermath of 9/11. Young people, he wrote, “had become so afraid of another possible catastrophe that they felt it necessary to live life to the fullest at every moment. As a result, they began checking all possible options, to the extent that they became paralysed with indecision, lest something better might come along that they’d miss if they made a choice. The growth of social media sites has undoubtedly fed this trend.”

I am no stranger to feeling tempted to make things look better in the eyes of other people. But I discovered some time ago that once you start with photo filters and carefully edited “holiday greeting” photos (which are not about sending regards to your friends but showing them what an amazing time you’re having), it’s very easy to succumb to feeling perpetually compelled to edit one’s life, and that this editing process is not only exhausting but depressing. Actually, when you think about it, a lot of the time, it is not the amazing beaches and flawless meals we remember from our holidays; it’s the times we got lost, soaked in the rain and had to hitchhike with strangers that we will later feel most nostalgic about. Why are the “deleted scenes” on DVD releases so popular? Because deep down, we like to see the truth. And learning to speak and show the truth as well is really liberating.

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