• Did You Say Photo Retouching Ethics? #retouchethics

    By Dominique Fraser

    Following the recent withdrawal in the UK of two L’Oreal ads with the faces of actress Julia Roberts and model Christy Turlington that were deemed overly retouched, it is high time to clarify a few things about digital retouching, especially in the advertising world. As of now, the usual suspects should no longer be the first to be accused.


    Guaranteed Not Retouched”

    This slogan is a popular one that is seen more and more because it has a way of reassuring the public. It is a sign of purity and a symbol of the absence of Machiavellian manipulation of the image. However, the message inferred is misleading.


    Have you ever wondered what retouching is exactly? And most importantly, at what stage of the creation of an image it begins to appear? Today, professional tools first create files in RAW format, not directly from images. Such a file consists of a compilation of information to create an image. This information must then be transformed into an image before you can view the results. And that is exactly where the retouching begins. By converting data into a RAW image, the colors and brightness are adjusted, and various other effects are added – in much the same way a negative was developed not so long ago. This means that “Guaranteed Not Retouched” would be like saying “Guaranteed Not Developed,” a claim that simply doesn’t make sense. The intention behind this message could not be clearer: to disassociate itself from a certain category of images where the retouching can be described as excessive.


    Eye Candy

    A term must be found to replace such a misleading message, one that mocks the trade and all its artisans. And it should be known that photo retouching is an art form that few specialized people can perform well, one that requires much more than just being able to use Photoshop. Behind every image is the work of many artists, including retouchers. There is also a client who has well-defined requirements, not to mention an audience that also has expectations. These expectations often result in sales volume that is directly influenced by the product image displayed.


    But why is it that today most images are manipulated to perfection? It has been proven that, regardless of its intrinsic quality, a product with a more than perfect image sells better than one that is not as well presented, even if the packaging is misleading. Have you ever been disappointed upon opening a box of cookies and realizing that what looked like large, soft and fluffy cookies filled with generous nuggets of chocolate chips on the packaging, turned out to be small dry cookies with chocolate chips that were less that what was promised? Mission accomplished. You were the victim of an image. It is images that sell products to begin with, not the products as such. However, the quality of the product will determine the level of consumer satisfaction and will ultimately impact its brand loyalty. But at the time of purchase, it is the image that attracts and influences consumers.

    In recent years, encouraged by market research, performance analysis of certain advertising, marketing strategies, product placement and consumer purchasing habits, imaging standards have been established – needless to say, at the expense of reality. This act coincides with the search for perfection in our lives and people’s obsession with success at all cost.


    Stepping Over The Line

    Recently, a movement began that was initiated by many people who have the desire to return to simpler values and to harness a touch of authenticity, a trend that fits in well with the new ‘organic’ wave. Unfortunately, critics of this movement have set their sights on the last link in this chain of perfection, and photo retouching has become the scapegoat of the advertising system, led by consumers who unwittingly contributed to the establishment of these measurements through their purchases. Here, the saying “the customer is king” speaks volumes. A good example of this new phenomenon can be found in the now famous images of movie star Julia Roberts and supermodel Christy Turlington. Used in two L’Oréal campaigns, the images were withdrawn from the market by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the organization that oversees advertising in the UK, due to excessive retouching after a complaint made by Jo Swinson. The youthful appearance of the two celebrities, who are both in their forties and their lack of wrinkles – made invisible “through using the product offered,” according to L’Oréal – raised eyebrows at the ASA, which instead saw it as a result of relentless digital retouching made unscrupulously. At the insistence of the organization, which has UK law behind it, it demanded to see the original pictures. Instead, L’Oréal preferred to have both questionable advertising images removed altogether from English soil.

    According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in a few years one of the biggest causes of death in the Western world will be directly related to mental depression. This depression will be directly related to these images of perfect human beings that surround us. Frustration with the idealized representation of reality is all the greater when it is seemingly within reach and offered by the promise of a miracle product – one, I would add – that disappoints only once it is purchased and the illusion has vanished. The example of the small dry chocolate chip cookies is not far off, but this time the cookie is replaced by a person who wants to improve their appearance, but who is unaware that the result will never be achieved until the day when their body can be treated in Photoshop becomes a reality.


    “Overly Perfected and Unrealistic Image”

    It is society’s buying habits that must change if we are to return to a fair representation of reality and “stop perpetuating the myth that tells us a perfect body is synonymous with a perfect life,” says the personal trainer of celebrity James Duigan, in the article “The Better Body Special” by Emine Ali Rushton and Perri Lewis in British magazine Psychologies. In this article, Rushton and Lewis also noted the recent statement by Lily Allen in the documentary Riches To Rags, where she denounced the hypocrisy of the situation. It was when she was at her thinnest, she says, and suffered from serious eating disorders that Allen was most in demand. In interviews, articles, on magazine covers and as a representative for designer clothes, many mentioned to her how “comfortable with herself” she looked.



    Consumers are influenced by trends they are presented, they don’t invent them. It is clear that something must change this way of thinking. Sublim believes that every step in the production of advertising images must do its part, because it is the collective effort that makes the difference and inspires new trends and a broader movement. It is for these reasons that RetouchethicsTM is being developed right now. It is not because we have the power to change an image almost infinitely using software that the person behind the machine must be freed from using common sense, judgment and even ethics. To bring our point of view to the debate, we are establishing the basic principles of retouching, an ethics of retouching. At Sublim, we hope that if our philosophy and actions generate greater awareness among all stakeholders – consumers, retouchers and clients – this will allow the wonderful world of retouching to be seen for what it really is: a tool, a craft and an art form that make an image irresistible in the eyes of consumers and the world, all the while respecting the most fundamental of basic human values.


    Dominique Fraser is CEO of Sublim Creative Studio and founder of RetouchethicsTM.

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