Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Airbrushing - a photographer writes

Jo Swinson was on the TV this morning saying that the airbrushing of photos aimed at children should be banned and that other images which have been altered should carry some form of warning to indicate what has been done to them.

Is this a ridiculous suggestion as Tom Papworth and Paul Walters seem to think? On balance I think it is. And here's why.

Jo's campaign splits into two sections:

- that images aimed at adults should carry a strapline to say what alterations have been made to the original image.

This is just impossible. You could carry a bland 'this image has been digitally enhanced' strapline on it, but every single image you see in advertising or glossy magazine editorial will have to carry that line and so it will mean nothing. It's the equivalent of a packet of peanuts with the warning 'Contains nuts' - well duh!

At the other extreme, you could require a list of precisely what has been done. With most advertising images would will be running into hundreds of alterations. Some will be relatively minor - such as altering the lighting levels. Others will be slightly more advanced - rebalancing the colour levels because of the 'colour temparature' of the lighting used. And then you come to the more extreme alterations - changing the shape of the body outline, changing the colour of the eyes or hair or airbrushing out skin imperfections. I have no doubt that Jo would suggest that there is a line to be drawn part way along this scale. But if you are seeking to make something subject to legal regulation then you should be pretty sure that you can accurately define what is and what is not allowed or you will have created a worthless law.

And where do you stop? Was Jo wearing make-up on the TV this morning? And was this because she wanted to enhance her own looks or because the TV company demanded it due to the lighting used? Should we be told that in a running strapline along the bottom of every show or should we take it for granted that some people wear make up and in TV studio shows everybody does?

- that images aimed at children should have no alteration at all.

Here I have some sympathy with Jo's aims, if not with her demands. It is true that many young people grow up believing that their bodies are imperfect and that they should aspire to be like the people they see on TV and in the magazines - images which are, all too often, false. If there were a simple way (and parenting is not the only answer) of getting around this, then fine. But banning airbrushing is not the way forward.

As discussed above, there is a massive scale of what counts as airbrushing and it is impossible to firmly draw a line part way along it. According to Jo's campaign, absolutely no light balancing would be permitted. Even the best photographer needs artificial help. Nowadays we do it on the computer. In the old days it was done in the developing tank or when making the print.

I think Jo wants to ban the sort of body re-shaping and skin blemish removing that often occurs, but you try defining that in law.

So much for the theory, but what about the practice. I've done a lot of photography of different types and here are the general rules that I would work to...

In editorial photography - that is, news photography for newspapers and magazines - then you cannot alter what is actually in the image. So you cannot add James Prunell to a photo he wasn't in or remove the trainee from behind Gordon Brown at Budget time. You cannot alter body shape. What you can do is alter lighting levels and colour balance and you can crop images along straight lines. If I submit images to stock websites, I have to declare any changes that I have made to the original image and these are the requirements that they work to.

At the other end of the scale is wedding photography. For the special day, brides and grooms are allowed to want to look perfect. If the bride wants to have her body altered then I'll give it my best shot on the computer. On one occasion, a bride brushed against a vintage Rolls Royce (you can see her - and it - in the photo on the blog strapline above) and got an oil stain on her dress. Was it legitimate to airbrush this out before the photos were printed? I think it was.

But what about images that fall somewhere in the middle? The sort of images that a party will use in its election literature for example. These are advertising shots to all extents and purposes. So have I altered any of the shots I have taken of Nick Clegg? Yes. How much? Pretty much only along the lines that I would for editorial images. I may have gone slightly further and removed the odd stray hair on a close up head-shot, but that's it.

In other times we might choose to go a lot further and I don't think that this should be banned. But I think that most of the alterations could be obviated by the skill of the photographer. Getting a great shot of your candidate is a matter of skill and time. Put the effort in and you will be rewarded with a photo that makes your candidate look great on paper but recognisably the same person when they walk down the street. If, on the other hand, you put all the effort in on the computer then your result will look much more false and nothing like the candidate.

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