British Lawmakers Take Stand Against Photoshop

Illustration for article titled British Lawmakers Take Stand Against Photoshop

In the wake of a disturbingly wrinkle-free Twiggy ad campaign, British Members of Parliament are calling for a ban on Photoshopping ads aimed at children, and disclosure of digital alterations in ads aimed at adults.

Britain's Liberal Democrats would like to ban Photoshopping entirely in ads aimed at those under 16, and require all other ads to carry a disclaimer describing the extent of their alterations. They also recommend "media literacy" lessons to teach kids about advertising techniques. Member of Parliament Jo Swinson says,

Today's unrealistic idea of what is beautiful means that young girls are under more pressure now than they were even five years ago. Airbrushing means that adverts contain completely unattainable perfect images no one can live up to in real life. We need to help protect children from these pressures and we need to make a start by banning airbrushing in adverts aimed at them.


Coverage of the proposed ban cites the recent removal of Gisele Bundchen's baby bump, and an Olay campaign that appears to have polished Twiggy's face into that of some non-existent twenty- or thirty-year-old. Says the Daily Mail's Richard Simpson of the 59-year-old model,

Out on a grocery shop to her local London Marks and Spencers, a brand she also promotes, she appeared to be the age of, well, a woman of 59.

With slight jowls and only hairline wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, Twiggy does indeed look good for her age.

However she bares very little resemblance to pictures, apparently of her, recently distributed to advertise Olay, whose catchphrase is 'Love the skin you're in.'

Twiggy's campaign is especially upsetting given that she has publicly eschewed plastic surgery and Botox, and advocated "embracing" aging. "I'm grateful for my lines of wisdom," she has said. Apparently Olay isn't.

So should Photoshopping really be banned? Britain and western Europe have historically been more comfortable with speech restrictions than the United States, and it's unlikely that such a ban would ever go down here. But plenty of Americans are angry about the process of retouching — so widespread, according to an LA Times article that namechecks us, that "it's quite possible that the vast majority of images seen in the public arena have been altered." Professor of pop culture Montana Miller tells the Times that advertisers may consciously tailor images to make women feel bad about themselves, thus convincing them to buy more products.


Scott Kelby, president of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals, counters that Photoshop just makes the camera as forgiving as the eye. He says,

If you met Faith Hill in person, you would think she's absolutely beautiful. And when you take her picture, you will see every flaw that you never saw in person. Those flaws not only become visible, but magnified. . . . If I were talking to someone, I'd look at their eyes, not at the blemish on the side of their face. But as soon as you open up that photo on a 30-inch monitor, you'd say, 'Oh my gosh, where did that come from?'


But retoucher Amy Dresser unwittingly reveals multiple pressures that result in photos like Twiggy's. She says,

When it comes to notable people, I feel like embracing the details of that person's face is what I'm supposed to do. Obviously a person wants to have a nice picture of themselves, and the photographer doesn't want to look bad, and I don't want to look like a lazy retoucher, and the magazine wants an appealing image, so you have to find that middle ground.


According to the Times, she also "says she doesn't take liberties, such as over-softening facial features and turning subjects into plastic-like dolls, a look often seen in rookie Photoshop work. She abhors that style, leaving in freckles and moles and sometimes drawing in stray hairs to retain a person's humanness."

It's pretty sad that our visual culture dictates that someone has to add stray hairs to "retain" a celebrity's humanity — and that an ad for anti-aging treatment has to use a digital anti-ager on its spokesmodel's photograph. Extreme as it seems, a ban could return us to a time before magazines were populated by vaguely human-like cartoons — if advertisers actually abided by it. On the other hand, lets not forget that Photoshop is also force for good — like these photographs of Wolverine and George Clooney without pants.


Photoshopped Images: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly [LA Times]
Don't Beef Up Keira's Bust! Lib Dems Take Aim At Advertisers Over Altered Images [Independent]
Airbrushing Of Photos Should Be Banned, Liberal Democrats Say [Telegraph]
The Two Faces Of Twiggy At 59: How Airbrushing In Olay Ad Hides Truth Of The Skin She's In [Daily Mail]
Pantsed Celebrity Photoshopping Contest [BoingBoing]

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So, here's the thing. I usually get pretty antsy at the thought of government restrictions on expression, publishing, etc. But there's something about photo retouching and manipulation that just rings the wrong note for me. Maybe it's the association with the way Stalin had his enemies retouched out of photos, and out of history ([]). But I can't think of too many good things that extensive photo retouching is used for.

Now... in a certain sense, there's no such thing as a photo that hasn't been worked over in some sense. I used to do B&W darkroom stuff, and even at that most basic level you always make a choice about the contrast, focus, exposure, cropping, amount of time you let it sit in the chemistry... to say nothing of the various techniques you can do just with your hand to burn an area here, dodge an area there. I haven't done colour, but there you make choices about your colour balance too, which is another layer of interpretation and manipulation.

Still, even though there's no such thing as a photo that's true to life, we still somehow think they are, and this is what makes them so dangerous. I would support government-mandated or industry-mandated standards for the amount and type of photo retouching organizations are allowed. For example, I don't think a newspaper should be allowed to take out a political candidate's wrinkles to make him or her look younger. But a magazine profile? Maybe. And an ad should not be able to retouch a real human being in a way that deceitfully implies the product produced the incredible result.

What are your thoughts?