In a hilarious mixup, I recently received the ‘before’ and ‘after’ versions of a heavily Photoshopped corporate photograph.
I’m not going to share the pictures with you as that would be unfair to the person concerned – you’ll have to take my word for it that the difference was pretty stunning. It was also quite creepy, and part of a trend of official photos being excessively touched up.
Of course, we’re all used to digital airbrushing in the fields of showbiz and fashion – everyone knows that movie posters, album covers and cosmetics ads have been extensively Photoshopped to make the stars look inhumanly beautiful. You can often tell by looking, and there have been numerous exposes of the extent to which images are manipulated.
I say down with this sort of thing (and I applaud the work of people like Jo Swinson who stand up to it) but I can also shrug it off because it’s part of the crazy world of entertainment and marketing. It’s not real life.
But what happens when the subjects of the Photoshopping are ordinary people? Not people who make a living by parading around in skimpy outfits, not people who have ‘bought in’ to any sort of celebrity lifestyle. Just people.
I don’t know how many of the corporate headshots I see have been touched up, of course. But you can certainly spot a lot of them. The telltale signs include flawless, silky smooth skin and dazzling white teeth. I’ve met human beings, and they don’t look like that. Rather than photos, these are artist’s impressions of what this person might look like, in a perfect world. You might as well stick in a unicorn galloping by in the background.
It seems to be more an American phenomenon than a British one – perhaps as part of a more formal workplace culture or as a result of more pressure to look good, I’m not sure.
I know my way around Photoshop and I admit that I’ve done a bit of retouching myself in my time. But it’s quite clear to me where you draw the line. There are innocent changes you can make that don’t mislead the viewer about what the person looks like – such as changing the colour balance to make them look less red (something that is as much a result of the lighting in the room as it is of the number of flights of stairs the subject had to walk up) or tidying up their hair.
But when you start changing tooth or eye colour, smoothing skin, removing marks, and (worst of all) trying to make someone look thinner, that’s when it gets creepy. The camera can be unflattering sometimes, and the result isn’t always as you had in mind. But you need to come up with a picture that shows what someone looks like – not what they’d like to look like.
The photo I received this week had had the skin lightened and smoothed, marks removed, and most noticeably an entire double chin thinned to nothing, completely changing the shape of the person’s face. I have to hand it to whoever did the Photoshopping and say they did a pretty good job – if I’d only received version B, I wouldn’t have realised there was a version A. But when you look closely, it’s obvious: people’s necks just don’t curve like that.
I don’t get it. Why would a person want this? What happens when the porcelain doll of the corporate headshot has to meet people in person who’ve seen this photo? They’re going to have to embark on a serious health drive (not to mention surgery to alter their jawline) if they want to look like the edited version any time soon.
I also don’t know where the pressure comes from – if people push for this themselves, if companies have just got used to doing it for all their employees, if they think they’re doing the person a favour, or if they feel under pressure to Photoshop their own employees for public consumption.
Whatever the thinking behind it is, this trend for faked photos leaves everyone concerned looking bad.