The Ethics of Digital Manipulation
This past weekend we celebrated my father’s 80th birthday. His actual birthday was August 3, but the weekend worked out better for a surprise party, and surprise him we did. About 80 people turned out for the first Taylor male to make it to the age of 80. Obviously, such an occasion calls for documentation for posterity, and it also brought to mind an unusual ethical dilemma involving technology.
My brother and his wife are our family’s archivists. Their patience, documenting and labeling all of our mass of family photographs, is nothing short of astounding. They also strive for the highest possible, longest lasting format for these archives, so they have been reluctant to enter the digital age. Even with digital, only the highest resolution scans will suffice, creating massive files.
At this past celebration, I heard the phrase "photoshop" (no capital) tossed about as a generic verb. For example, a cousin’s ex-girlfriend had been digitally removed from a reunion photo, and the picture was re-printed on photo stock, thus sparing potential embarrassment for a new mate. I know it was an academic excercise for my brother, and he did an amazing job, but it does bring up a quandry. Historically, the woman was there, so if our purpose is documentation of an event, she needs to be left in.
The same problem exists with group family shots. Our family is huge, and it’s a big deal when all of us are together, worthy of documentation. At Christmas a neice didn’t make it to our gathering on time, and so there was talk of photoshopping her in when she arrived later. Again, that’s nice if you just want a collected photo of the individuals present, but we might accomplish the same thing by just e-mailing our current images and having them placed, say, in front of the Eiffel Tower, or in Yellowstone (or at Mount Rushmore.)
At this latest gathering, my brother took one set of group photos with himself behind the camera, and his wife took another set with her behind the camera. The intent was that they would photoshop each other into place during the final processing. I guess this use of digital manipulation is OK, since both were there, and both were in at least one version of the photo. However, should such photos be labeled as "retouched?" Would that cast suspicion on the authenticity of the rest?
As digital cameras were just becoming commercially available, comments were made about the admissibility of digital images as evidence. Digital images could be altered, so only printed images should be allowed, as the argument went. However, as seen by my brothers creative editing, now, with higher-resolution cameras, an altered image can be taken to your local Wal-Mart and printed on Kodak paper. The digital photo is almost indistinguishable from film. The argument was probably moot from the beginning, because even photographs could be altered in the darkroom. Just think of how many celebrities have had pimples air-brushed away to maintain their perfect images.
I guess the issue boils down to intent. A Photoshop contest on Fark.com is going to have an entirely different purpose than historical documentation. If the intent is documentation, then altered images should be labeled as such.