Do you airbrush the real you?

Photo manipulation in progress

I am running the risk this week of being disciplined at work. If my boss reads this (and she often does) she will discover I have done something naughty. Recently, I posted a picture on social media of her speaking at a conference. But before I uploaded the image, I “enhanced” it. My phone has an AI system embedded into it and it asked me if I would like to make some changes to improve the snap I had taken. I pressed the “yes” button, and the phone did the rest. The image I posted on social media was therefore not the one that I took with the camera. There, I have admitted it. I airbrushed the picture. Sorry, boss.

But I’m not the only one doing this kind of thing. The Princess of Wales ended up in hot water this week for editing a family picture. The edits were spotted by the world’s leading global photo agencies who put out a “Kill Notice” which instructed media outlets to stop using the picture.

The reason the agencies did this is that they were concerned about being responsible for distributing fake images. The agencies are right to be scared. Just a few weeks ago, BBC Panorama revealed that fake images of Donald Trump with black people are being distributed by his followers. Plus, over in Australia, The Channel 9 network recently had to apologise for using AI photo editing to enhance an image of an MP. The result was that the MP’s dress had a section removed over her abdomen, replacing the middle portion of her dress with a bare midriff. 

Airbrushing images is not new, of course. It can be traced back to the late 19th Century and became a popular technique for businesses wanting to enhance their product catalogues in the early 1900s. In those days, airbrushing and enhancing images were in the hands of professionals. Nowadays, we’re all at it. 

Yesterday, I was at the highlight of the academic calendar, Graduation Day. My picture was taken dozens of times by proud family members snapping their son or daughter with one of their lecturers. But each time the picture was taken, my former student wanted to check the image. A couple of times, after looking at the picture, the student would hand it back to their mum or dad, asking for a re-take. They were not happy with the first picture and wanted a better shot.

It reminded me of my days in the music industry when I would arrange photo shoots for the bands I looked after. We would spend hours and hours at a location to produce just a single shot that we might use on an album cover. Dozens of shots would look pretty much the same, until you noticed that in one picture one band member was blinking, for example, so you had to choose a different one.

These days, you don’t need hundreds of shots to get the right picture. Indeed, AI photo editing software can remove the blink from someone in one of your group shots. The students yesterday who asked for a retake didn’t need to do so. They just needed to let the airbrushing system on the phone deal with the issue they had noticed.

But why are we so keen to get the “right” image in the first place? What’s the problem if there’s a wrinkle on your face, or your daughter’s hand looks a little odd? The image is reality, but the editing or airbrushing of your picture is not presenting the truth.

We have fallen in love with photo editing and airbrushing because it enables us to control the way others might perceive us. In the classic book from 1956, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out that we rarely display our true selves to others. He suggested that, much like actors on a stage, we are constantly manipulating our “performance” to suit the situation in which we find ourselves. This is at the root of the mad rush for airbrushing images. We see things in our own images that no one else would notice. So we manipulate the image just in case they do because that is an aspect of our “performance” that we do not want to display.

However, there is an issue with this. The more we manipulate and airbrush, the greater the difficulties we may face. Last year, a German study found that people who airbrush their pictures have self-esteem problems as a result. It would appear that the more opportunities we have to manipulate our images, the more we notice something “wrong” with ourselves. Furthermore, there is evidence that as we focus on our appearance in social media pictures, we increase the chances that there is a reduction in our quality of life

There is plenty of research around which shows that the rise in photo manipulation is not just a problem in terms of “fake news”, but it is also an issue for our mental health. We are constantly focused on the presentation of ourselves. The availability of photo manipulation tools on the phone in the palm of our hand just increases that obsession. The more you airbrush and manipulate your images, the greater your chances of psychological ill-health. Given the furore over the Royal Family picture this week, I’m sure that the Princess of Wales has realised this. But perhaps someone should tell Donald Trump.

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