Viewpoint: Laws Directing No Retouching Policies

Do we need laws directing corporations and small businesses on how to or not retouch photographs, in the interest of public safety?

In 2004, Unilever; a British-Dutch multinational corporation that owns many of the world’s consumer product brands, launched its highly successful Dove Campaign for Real Beauty marketing campaign that includes women’s lifestyle television and magazine ads, and more, to promote a natural beauty image among women.  In 2008, the Canadian women’s lifestyle magazine Châtelaine adopted a mission statement of no longer retouching the images of models in the magazine to the point of creating unrealistic feminine beauty standards.  By September of 2010, Jacob, a women’s fashion wear chain based in Quebec, also announced their adoption of a No Retouching Policy with regards to the fashion ads and posters they use online, in fashion magazines, in their stores and in other public places.  None of these money-making but still altruistic initiatives guarantee absolutely no retouching of images but declare to curtail far more “Photoshopping” than their contemporaries who feature fashion, glamour and some portrait photography.  Contemporaries who stand accused of encouraging eating disorders in mainly young women.  The public campaigns and statements have inspired a minority (for now) to even suggest enacting legislation for governments to control how businesses make and display their shots.  I really don’t see any government on this planet jumping to do that any time soon but it’s definitely something to think about.

To get to the point of enacting laws, there will have to be something absolutely concrete in connecting psychological conditions like eating disorders and publication images.  Does such hard evidence exist?  I’ve heard it repeatedly said since the 80’s that fashion magazines and such ads are the prime reasons; not nearly the only culprits, as to why today’s society is plagued with eating disorders and low self-esteem issues related to poor body image.  There is a recurrence of media factions reporting that unnamed “diet and nutrition experts” link the images of women found in leading fashion magazines to eating disorders.  I honestly look for those reports but I can never find them.  This doesn’t mean that such declarations are false.  It also doesn’t mean that they’re true.  I once read an article that specifically named a faction called Anorexia Nervosa & Related Eating Disorders, Inc. as publishing such a report.  I can’t find any organization anywhere with that specific name, nor the report.  The closest I came was ANAD; the US-based National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.  I requested such a report from them, if they had any, and to direct me to sources who might have published a study of that magnitude.  ANAD kindly responded by saying, “I am sorry we do not have any report or study with outcomes related to photoshopping and eating disorders.”

From seeing it first hand more times than I can count, here’s what I know does often happen to create body image problems in people.  I’ve seen fathers ridicule their sons for being too skinny or too fat.  I’ve heard mothers constantly harping on their lovely daughters; large and small, saying things like, “You can’t be serious about thinking to wear that dress, you just don’t have the body for it.”  They openly scoff with their friends and family members at the sight of their daughters, fiancees, sisters and brothers trying to look their best and be proud of themselves.  Sending mixed messages, those same folks were only saying 30-minutes to a few days before that their son or daughter is precious and beautiful.  It’s understandable if being exposed to such an environment long enough can push some people, especially impressionable young girls, over the edge about how they look.

As we’re supposed to be a society living by accepted standards, so too would such laws have to be based on critical standards.  I want to know who does the research, when and how?  Then I want to know, to what extent would those laws cover?  Would it be restricted to only fashion, glam and tabloid images, and celebrity portraits?  Would that be fair?  Such laws would have to also direct the portraiture of non-celebs in order to be a just law.

Photo retouching is not restricted to the images of famous actors, fashion models, pageant contestants, sports figures, Fortune 500 moguls, major retail outlets, consumer product producers and politicians.  You’d be hard pressed to find a professional portrait or wedding photographer today of any status who doesn’t touch up at least the majority of the photos in the packages of everyday non-celebrities to at least a small degree.  Do clients fully understand this?  It appears that most do but there are clearly some who don’t.  Even of the ones who do, it seems there is some portion of them who only have a vague idea of what goes on to doll-up their photos.  This is why it’s common for portrait and wedding photographers to point that fact out on their websites, during client consultations, in their price quotations and sometimes in their consignment agreements.  They’re trying their best to make sure that all of their clients are well-informed.

So why bother “Photoshopping” the pictures at all?  It’s primarily about supply and demand.  When prospective clients look at the untouched sample photos of one photographer, and compare the results with the retouched shots of another shooter, most of the clients select the shooter who retouches.  This happens regardless of if the client usually is critical of retouching, or even if the non-retouch shooter is able to charge less than the photographer who retouches.  Clients have a perception of what is a better standard of portrait or wedding shot.  It’s the standard that says this photographer will make beautiful images of me, my children, family, husband or wife.  With this perception, clients will demand those results and select photographers who need and want to make money by supplying the type of images that clients want.

Additionally, retouching is done so that; dare I say it, photographers don’t get sued for not retouching enough or at all.  Such suits are not yet common, fortunately, but modern society’s profound obsession with always looking good has definitely set the stage for it.  Photo retouching is that expected now.

Do I retouch photos?  Yes, and quite often.  Converting colour street photography to black and white, and post processing them to make their blacks darker and their whites brighter is largely what happens there.  Street photography is a genre that requires far more depictions of reality than glam and fashion images.  I pull out almost all the stops; however, on most—not all, portrait and wedding photography (even I have my own perception of what is too much retouching).  I also encourage retouching for those types of images to my clients.  No one has complained once about it.

So, should there be laws governing retouching in photography?

7 thoughts on “Viewpoint: Laws Directing No Retouching Policies

  1. I think that small retouching here and there can be essential, especially for amateurs or those just turning professional who do not have the sharpest equipment to compete with the elite. Colour conversion is also quite a regular occurance, however I think that a line has to be drawn when an image is meant to depict a real life object to a potential customer, because to me this constitutes fraud. Take for instance shampoo or make-up adverts, which are trying to sell a product, yet the models used have had professional make-up services and do not actually utilize the product offered. We should not have to look at a regular photograph and question whether it is real or edited.

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  4. Interesting piece on this ongoing debate to which there’s no easy answer. I personally feel that a law such as this would be taking it too far. Photographs have been retouched long before the days of photoshop.

  5. In Norway it’s illegal to advertise anything that isn’t possible to prove or is a directly lie. You can’t say this is the worlds best whatever if you can’t prove it. The same law applies to photography, which I totally approve of. But a law regulating retouching in general I would not approve of. Otherwise you are quite right in that photoshopping is often a question of demand and supply. But for me as a photographer more important is my integrity. An important discussion (as you already know). 🙂

  6. So the make up used in the ads for make up isn’t the product advertised? To me that feels like fraud. Touching up photos, fine. We all do to some extent. Reshaping bodies, legs, whatever, in PS seems wrong to me too. I don’t want laws we don’t need though. I think we have too many unclear and overlapping laws now.

    • UPDATE! – Since writing this piece in 2011 it appears, according to The Jerusalem Post, that Israel actually established civil law (not criminal law) regarding photo-retouching back in 2012 based on scientific evidence collected by Microsoft. Kadima MK Rachel Adatto, a gynecologist and lawyer, had been fighting for two years to get her anti-PS bill passed when she discovered that Microsoft had recorded scientific evidence that links PS-ing to deadly eating disorders in young people.

      “Dr. Elad Yom-Tov, of Microsoft-Israel’s research and development center, and Dr. Dana Boyd, of its R&D center in New York, examined the connection between web searches for performers and models regarded as anorexic and the fans’ searches for websites with tips on to ‘how to become anorexic.’”

      “Microsoft says this was the first peer-reviewed published study to establish such a link.”

      “The Microsoft research found that anorexic models and celebrities appearing on websites led to an almost two-fold increase in subsequent searches for these people and the development of anorexia itself. People who develop anorexia tend to become more interested in celebrities who look as if they are starving.”

      “Media coverage that does not mention cases of very low weight results in a 33 percent growth in the likelihood that the fans will become anorexic.”

      “When the coverage clearly discusses anorexia, the tendency for searches is relatively small.”

      “When thinness is praised as a sign of beauty, web surfers try to copy them. When the way they look is identified as a disease, not many are keen on aping them.”

      The research is said to have been published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

      “The Photoshop Law” went into effect January 1, 2013, and seems to be the only one of its kind in the world, so far. There doesn’t seem to be any indication of the evidence bolstering efforts to enact similar laws anywhere else on the planet.

      “Models who want to work in print ads and runway shows in Israel must provide potential employers with medical proof certifying that they have a body mass index (BMI) of at least 18.5. The new law is nicknamed ‘the Photoshop law’ because of an additional regulation placed on advertisers requiring clear labeling on ads featuring digitally-altered images of models.”

      As for Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, in 2013 critics exposed the fact that the brand had in fact retouched their ads just as much as any other fashion magazine does.

      Their own top retouch artist, Pascal Dangin has supposedly been quoted as saying:

      “But it was great to do, a challenge, to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.”

      Now we hardly see such ads from Dove anymore. The campaign continues to live in a less publicized format.

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