Ethics in the Age of Photoshop

Photography lies. Yet somehow, we tend to trust the images we see. Our expectation seems to be that every photo is an exact record of what was in front of the lens at that moment in time. The problem is, there’s no way of really knowing what we see in a photograph reflects reality. Even when we know the image is altered, we still believe the lie.

It’s important to note digital imaging didn’t create this problem.

The entire history of photography is replete with examples of its suspicious relationship with truth. The 1917 Cottingley Fairies were a photographic hoax declared to be genuine. Numerous photos of UFOs, Nessie, and Bigfoot have played with our imaginations.

But those are more fun than truly believable. The worst offenders are the ones we don’t suspect until it’s too late. I have childhood memories of buyer’s remorse over toys that didn’t look as cool as they did in the TV commercials. Does your Big Mac look like the one on the illuminated menu? Photographs have let us down in the truth department on a regular basis, yet we still fall for them far too many times.

A Stand of Trees, Yellowstone National Park (2013) by Jim Love
A Stand of Trees, Yellowstone National Park (2013)

I’ve heard a few explanations for our misplaced trust. One is that our brains haven’t evolved to fully process the deception of our senses that our technology presents. I’m not sure about that, could be. I think it’s more about photography being accessible to everyone and most of us record our important moments matter-of-factly. We then assume other photos exist by the same intentions. Most of us are unaware of the lengths to which some people go to construct a facade of perfection. At least we usually don’t intend to deceive… to be honest, if I’m in the picture I suck in my gut, is that deception? Probably, but let the viewer beware.

In my mind the trust viewers place in our work demands a responsibility for truth on some level as an artist, but this can be hard to define. Is there a line I shouldn’t cross? What if my image is made of multiple parts that never existed together, a complete fabrication. Is that too far? Gaze at the works of Jerry Uelsmann. While he creates images of complete fantasy, there’s a different kind of truth to his work; dreamscapes that speak to our deeper consciousness. His work certainly is surreal, but it isn’t at all deceptive. The obvious nature of his compositions are a call to action: he’s asking us to daydream. We wonder at their seeming reality, but his images are so blatantly impossible we don’t feel like he’s lying to us. (By the way, he was doing this work with multiple enlargers way before the invention of Photoshop.)

Whether your work must be truthful or not is a deal you strike with your audience.

If your viewers are expecting to see something close to reality and you give them a fabrication, then you’ve lost their trust and likely their respect. What we expect from a journalist is different from what we expect from an artist. The 20th century masters of black and white landscapes wouldn’t paste in a tree where none existed nor would they erase one that was a bit unruly. They did dodge, burn, alter contrast, manipulate exposure times, and much more. Theirs is the creative process I follow because my audience understands this is the agreement we have between us.

As you contemplate using the godlike power of Photoshop, consider the trust your audience has in you and whether they would be disappointed to learn that giant boulder wasn’t actually there. Lately, I’ve seen images of natural forms exhibiting clean, precise geometric lines and if they’re real, I applaud the photographer for capturing the scene. My shots, however, tend to be messy. I do like to open up the shadows so you can peer into them. I also hold back the highlights because snow and clouds have texture and shape. Many of my compositions would be improved if I just cleaned up some branches or cloned out a pesky shrub, but then I’d feel like I was lying to you.


Posted by
Jim Love
Besides being a UX designer, Jim has been practicing the craft of black and white photography for more than 30 years. You may see him on the trail someday, wearing his big dumb hat.

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