FEATURE : Retouching—a touchy subject

Photo manipulation is not a modern phenomenon. Before Photoshop, photographers used various techniques such as applying ink to the photographic print, or darkroom tricks such as dodging, burning, or double exposures, to alter the image captured by the camera. The original image below of Civil War generals by Matthew Brady was altered to include General Francis Blair at right. More ominously, this photo of Stalin was altered for propaganda purposes—a Russian official who fell out of grace with Stalin was executed and later “rubbed out” of the group photo.


Today’s sophisticated technology makes photo tampering harder to detect than ever before. We’ve all seen images circulating the Internet like the one of the shark attacking a helicopter or the giant human skeleton found in the Saudi Arabian desert. It’s easy to dismiss them in spite of the verisimilitude. Websites like Snopes do a good job of separating truth from fiction when an image is not so obviously fabricated.

We educational communicators must take care when we use photo-retouching technology. Is it okay to retouch blemishes on the close-up shot of a professor? What about a little Photoshop to clean up the peeling paint on the column of Old Main? Or seeding the grass on the athletic field? Or removing a distracting cluster of paper cups in a lab scene? I think all of these examples fall well within the permissible range of retouching. But retouching that manipulates the truth of the institution falls beyond the acceptable range. In one high profile case, a university edited a shot to include a minority student in a cheering crowd because the original shot was not diverse enough. That same university added an African American student—who wasn’t there before—to a group shot in the viewbook. The retouching was discovered after publication and aroused a storm of controversy.

When deciding which edits are acceptable, a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself: “If the retouching were discovered, would it harm the reputation of the institution, your office, or you?” If the answer is unequivocally “no,” then go ahead and polish the shot.

Suggested reading: All Things Photography

Contributed by Domenica

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