Artists can be a self-righteous bunch. There will always be the purists, those who don’t even own a digital camera, and then there are those who recognize the importance of Photoshop and other tools. When it comes to the ethics of photography, post-processing tends to get the bad end of the stick because it involves the direct manipulation of a photo after it’s been taken. There is always the opportunity to cover up bad photography with computer-generated effects, so some consider it to be evil. But is it?
Whenever we’re addressing a question of morality, we need to realize that morality is somewhat a matter of perspective. Most people seem to agree on what is right and wrong, but there are always outliers, those whose moral judgments differ from the norm. Call them the purists, the elitists, or whatever you will. They’re out there, but they are the fringe element of society. It’s more important to pay attention to what “normal” people think.
What can make post-processing evil?
I think most people would agree that post-processing is only evil in certain circumstances. What might those be? Fakery can be one of them. If an image is intentionally fake, it can sometimes cross an ethical boundary. People who Photoshop spaceships onto an image and then claim it to be representation of the real thing are liars. Their “photography” crosses a clear ethical boundary because they are using it to make us believe something that is false.
But not all fakes are evil. Some fakes are welcome. We delight in the fake miniature pictures that are often the result of photoshopping techniques. The perspective they give us is so strange, so out of this world, that it’s remarkable. Even if you hate fake miniatures, you probably thought it was a cool effect the first time you saw it.
Ethics is not black and white
O.K. So we’ve got a clear example of unethical post-processing. But ethics is rarely ever so clear. There are bound to be fuzzy cases where half of the population thinks it’s okay and another half disagrees. How much post-processing do you need to do to cross an ethical boundary? At what point does your work move away from being photography to being something that more or less resembles computer art?
Whenever I think of this, I’m reminded of the classic example of the old ship. Every year, a few boards and nails on the ship are replaced. As time goes by, all of the original boards and nails are taken out and replaced with new ones. Here’s a question to ponder. Even though the ship looks the same, is it really the same ship? How many boards need to be replaced for the ship to take on a new identity?
Keep this in mind when you’re considering the ethics of post-processing. The line is not drawn in the sand, but there is a line. It exists in the minds of those who view your work.
Trust your gut instinct when it comes to the ethics of photography
Do you feel good about the way you’re presenting your work? Here’s an example to get you thinking. It’s normally considered okay to touch up a profile picture. After all, nobody wants to have acne scars on their Facebook page. But how far do you go? At what point does it become false advertising? Is it okay to get rid of a few wrinkles but not okay to add intensity to your eyes? Where do you stop?
It all depends on the way the photo is displayed. If you display a heavily-edited photo as if it’s meant to be a representation of the real thing, people will call you out for being a liar. But if you present that same photo in a photography portfolio, next to other heavily edited photos, people understand that it is not meant to be real. They appreciate it as a work of art.
Nobody points their finger at cartoon characters, accusing them of perpetuating falsehoods. Quite the contrary. We love cartoon characters because they are so stylish, so free of the tiny imperfections and personality flaws present in all of us. Yes, they’re fake, but that’s what makes them so great. They are better than we could ever hope to be.
In the end, it all comes down to the way you present yourself and your work. Post-processing amplifies great photography. It is not a replacement for good photographic technique. If you’re a terrible photographer who over-processes your work, people will pick up on it. In that case, it won’t be a matter of ethics. It will be a matter of taste.
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