A reflection on 'photoshopping' on Photoshop's 20th birthday

Adobe's 'documentary' on the 20th anniversary of Photoshop's release makes the briefest nod to what the most of the general public call 'photoshopping' -- allegedly-photorealistic manipulation of photos in news reporting or advertising for political gain or to propel models and celebrities closer to some idealized (and often anatomically impractical) notion of beauty.

The ethics of this is briefly mentioned at the beginning, but is quickly countered with the argument that Photoshop is about art not ethics. This is true -- though for Adobe it's clearly a matter of branding not 'truth' -- but the subject does bear thinking about in more depth. Has 'photoshopping' made our world a better or worse place? I'd say better and I'm about to argue that unethical use of Photoshop in news reporting is a good thing, but before you start sharpening your pitchforks and lighting flaming torches, hear me out.

Firstly, I'm not talking about 'photoshopping' in fashion. A quick nip and tuck to fix a bad angle is fine, but there's clear evidence that permeation of 'perfect' people is detrimental to many people's body image -- especially those at impressionable ages. The problem here though isn't photo-manipulation though, it's that we as consumers respond to these images and actively seem to prefer them, buying more magazines and clothes the more idealized they are.

But I digress. We're talking about photo-manipulation presented as fact, whether for political ends or just to get an image to look better on the page. This is a good thing, as the images you see in newspapers, magazines or on the Internet aren't 'true' and never have been.

Photo-manipulation isn't new. It's been around as long as the camera, and has been used for nefarious purposes since Stalin had Trotsky taken out of the family photos after a tiff. Beyond non-digital darkroom techniques such as dodge and burn, there's the plain fact that a photo is only a small window of a particular moment that's often used to represent a much wider story.

I remember my first History lesson at school quite clearly as we were shown a photo of the First World War and asked about its veracity. It showed four soldiers lounging around on a hillside drinking tea, accompanied by a caption saying the war was going well. From a photo-manipulation point-of-view it's a 'true' photo -- what you see is true and it may not even have been staged -- but as a representation of WW1 it's so far from accurately portraying conditions for soldiers that it's almost laughable. It was a simple lesson in judging evidence -- though eye-opening at the age of 12 -- but it's one that most people ignored when viewing, trusting that their news sources were 'fair and accurate', ignoring that most had an agenda to push, or at least an ideal reader that wanted to satisfy.

The more that the public is aware that the photos they see in newspapers and on the Internet alongside news stories are illustrations not factual records the better. This encourages them to question each image and evaluate each rather than accepting all unquestioningly. It feels strange saying that 'bad' use of Photoshop is a good thing, but anything that helps educate the public clearly is.

If you'd rather see more positive uses of the tool, check out our feature 20 tutorials for Photoshop's 20th birthday.

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