Do We Need a Code of Ethics?

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I have written openly about how I feel when it comes to editing portraits. For those who need a quick catch-up: I have no issues with light photo editing, but my ethics are challenged when a photographer manipulates the weight and shape of their subject. People have differing views on this topic, and it’s not about who is right or wrong: it’s about identifying where the line is. And even regarding this polarizing topic, I sometimes question where my own line is. Let’s take a look.

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Ethics on Editing Portraits

Photoshop wasn’t used to edit this image.

You may be thinking, “Oh great, another journalist preaching to us about what is right and wrong.” I get that. But my ethics on editing portraits are mine, and your ethics are yours. They could be the same or vastly different. But either way, we must have open conversations about them so we – as best we can – find some form of middle ground.

To keep it brief, when a photographer creates a body type that’s not reflective of reality, then I feel it sends a negative message to the world. Young people look at images of their idols and think, “Why don’t I look like that?” When the truth is, their idols don’t look like that either.

I think, for the most part, humans are beautiful as they are. Sure, we can enhance ourselves with good makeup, fashionable clothing, and a nice haircut, but do we need to enhance our body shape with a tool in Photoshop? I don’t think so.

Again, I’m not totally against the use of editing portraits in some form. And during a moment of reflection, I asked myself, “When is it okay to use Photoshop to change the way someone looks?”

Transform Vs. Restore When Editing Portraits

When a photographer tightens a subject’s hips or elongates their jawline, they’re transforming the subject into someone new. The new look is no longer representative of who that subject is. On that point, not only does this send a negative message to society, it sends a negative message to the subject. “I made you look better by changing the way you look.” How’s that going to boost a person’s self-esteem? Spoiler alert, it won’t.

But restoring the way a person looks is different. For example, let’s say a photoshoot has been booked for quite some time. Both the photographer and the subject have tight schedules with no room to shoot on a different day. The subject turns up to the set with two sores on their face: one on the lips and one on the nose. In normal circumstances, those sores are seldom there.

Photoshop wasn’t used to edit this image.

If a photographer removes the sores in Photoshop, is that unethical? In my opinion, it isn’t. Because they are restoring the subject to what they look like 99 percent of the time. I see no issue in removing them. When the final image is presented to the world, nobody is shown an unrealistic body type. They’re being shown what a subject looks like when the subject is at their best.

Another scenario is if the subject has a scar on their body. While I believe we should encourage peaople to embrace their scars, we must also respect the subject’s wishes if they don’t want people to see them. For example, a woman may feel like doing a boudoir shoot, and she has a small scar on her stomach. If she asks the photographer to remove it, I think the photographer should honor that. Again, by editing it in Photoshop, they’re not creating an unrealistic body type. Instead, they’re protecting their subject and honoring their wishes.

Where Do Your Ethics Stand?

What do you think about editing portraits? Should a photographer have free reign to do what they wish? Or should we aim for a code of ethics that protects people from unrealistic body types and negative feelings about their body image? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

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