With the world increasingly represented as digital data and images as pixels, the desire to rework our visual past and present has never been greater.
Everybody wants to secretly rewrite history, and given half the chance, people generally airbrush out parts of their lives that they’re uncomfortable with, or involved a rubber suit and a gimp mask. Yet it’s more than selective memory we deploy to remix our personal histories – we now use the History brush in Photoshop to retune photos and make them match a reality we want to convey. Reality today is pixelated – and those pixels can be reordered and reworked to make ourselves and our message work better for our needs.Warping reality goes hand-in-hand with being creative.
We are visual story tellers, and our narratives are often unreal, based not in the harsh light of day, but in our creative, murky minds. We need tools to composite images, add effects to video, animate 3D characters of bygone actors, and create Web sites where amateur Photoshop users can post spoof print ads and celebrity porn. Photo retouching in this sense is like using an artist’s brush and a blank canvas – we change reality as a painter would interpret it through oils.
Yet there is another use of retouching technology – and that is to lie. The vast majority of the world aren’t fluent in the tricks artists can do with images – they are not privy to the magic of photo manipulation. The upshot is they believe in the image, or video footage, that they witness. ‘The camera never lies’ is still one of those sayings that people subconsciously subscribe to. On most occasions, they’re right.
Why shouldn’t people expect the truth when they see an image? If the context is one of communicating facts – such as a newspaper or image that claims to be a photo of a person, say – then misleading through manipulation is clearly wrong. Yet it’s increasingly being deployed by a news media who need to use visuals to communicate a story – even if the photo doesn’t communicate the message they want to convey.
Got a story about two people romantically linked? Simply find two separate images, cut out the two separate people, then paste them together – as many newspapers have done with Prince William and his new ‘girlfriend’. So what if it isn’t real?
Or, need to secure that famous face for the cover of a magazine, but the star insists they be made to look good? No problem – a digital nip-&-tuck in Photoshop generally ensures you scoop the cover deal. And, even though it seems as if cover stars are looking younger by the year, and your readers struggle to come to terms with the perfection they see on a cover, but not in their own lives, this surely is still OK? Just a bit of fun?
Well, not really. Creative photo manipulation and editing is a wonderful profession – but news propaganda is not. By all means we should foster and nurture artists and visual story tellers who use Photoshop like a digital canvas, but even we should stop short of approving the use of image manipulation when it seeks to be passed off as the truth.
It’s not a new thing, this rewriting of history. Stalin didn’t have Photoshop, but he did manage to rework many photos of him with people that fell from favour so they were written from the history books. Rewriting history is rewriting the truth – an historic evil which I’d hoped we’d left in the past.