There are always discussions around the “fakeness” of social media and Instagram – how it’s made up of perfectly composed images that crop out the ugly parts, people doing something just “for the gram”, only showing all the best parts of your life, and editing/photoshop.
I totally understand this; obviously I’m not going to post a photo of my sweatpant-outfit or a breakfast I just threw together, and even though my reality is mainly me sitting at a computer, I’m not going to post that either – I’m going to post the interesting places I go. It’s normal to want to share the best parts of our life and have nice photos. We already edit what we post quite a bit just through deciding what to share and taking a bunch of photos to get the perfect one. What I’m unsure about is photoshopping or all these other photo editing tools. When does editing go from improving a photo to making it misleading or fake? Heavy editing generally seems to acceptable and endorsed with artistic/creative photos but where is that line? And the big question for me is, as a content creator focused on ethics and promoting transparency, does editing my photos make them and me inauthentic, and is editing something that should be disclosed?
Consider the following as Instagram photos and how you’d feel about the editing in each case:
- A beautiful beach photo with the litter edited out.
- A fashion photo where the person has been edited to appear taller and thinner.
- A food photo where the colours and textures have been enhanced to make it more appealing.
- A beauty photo where the model’s skin has been smoothed, and wrinkles and spots have been removed.
Maybe, like me, you feel conflicted. I asked members of the My Green Closet Facebook group what they thought of Photoshop and editing on social media which resulted in a really interesting discussion. The vast majority of people, however, thought that some editing was fine.
Another perspective also came out of the discussion – it matters whether the image is intended to sell something. So for the above examples, would you feel different if the beach photo was promotion for a vacation spot, the outfit sponsored by a fashion brand, the food to promote a restaurant, or the beauty photo to advertise a makeup brand? Also, with companies, we know that they are trying to sell something, but with “influencers” it’s more of a grey area. You could argue that even if a blogger wasn’t paid to advertise something, by posting an image they are still helping sell that product and promote the brand.
Something else I find interesting is how editing is often seen negatively, but skilled photography, styling, or makeup is not. People seem to assess a photo more critically if they know it was edited after it was taken. While you can edit someone to look taller and thinner, you could also light and shoot them in a way to make them appear taller and thinner (those low camera angles make a huge difference!); but Photoshopping to create those same changes is typically seen as wrong. Of course it depends on the extent of the editing – there is only so much you can do with lighting and how it’s shot – but it’s an interesting distinction even though both might have the same result. Another example of this is the use of makeup, which can drastically change a face, but is often viewed differently than editing. For the beach travel ad example, would it be viewed differently if they had instead moved the garbage out of the shot beforehand? Besides “unnatural” editing, there often seems to be two ways to achieve a similar photo, one with more work before the photo itself is taken, and one with more after; and yet these are judged in a different way.
Is there a line where images are manipulated “too much”?
Here is an example using one of my photos; the leftmost shot is the original image. The center image shows how I would typically edit photos: brighten the light, clean up some spots and blemishes, and maybe make some other small corrections. The rightmost image has a lot more editing: the texture of the skin has been smoothed, any lines and uneven skin has been fixed, areas have been brightened and darkened, the hat’s shadow has mostly been removed, and more. You can really see the difference with them all side by side, but if I posted the last image alone you probably wouldn’t think too much of it. I’d likely also get comments about how nice my skin is, which I think also speaks to the issue of misleading images because I don’t look like that in real life. Something else to note is that the final image is tame compared to some editing on Instagram; it could easily be taken much further.
Personally I feel the final image is edited too much and it feels inauthentic, but I also can’t say where exactly the line is.
There’s also an issue of disclosure. In the group discussion people mentioned that editing should be disclosed, but what kind of editing should be disclosed? Technically an Instagram filter edits a photo a lot and almost every photo is edited in some way; is lighting adjustment okay but body/skin changes not?
I unfortunately don’t have answers to these questions. I think it’s an important discussion and we need to be aware of these things regarding social media, but here is how I can at least be transparent about my image-editing:
All my videos and photos are edited in some way. Typically, there are light and colour adjustments or a filter added. My Instagram photos likely have some skin/blemish editing as well. Because of the discussion around disclosure, I also have decided that if I ever post a heavily edited photo, it will be disclosed as such.
So that’s where I’m currently at with this- a lot of questions. I’d love to know what you think about photo editing, authenticity in social media, and transparency. Do you think the creator, brand, or blogger/influencer has a responsibility regarding editing or does it lie with the content consumer to be media-literate and understand that editing is happening?