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A critical analysis of advertising photography with a discussion of the various ethical implications that exist concerning beautification and truth telling

Written by Crystal McLeod September 2010 1|Page

Photographers in the 1960s were in search for “a more thought-based and lasting development in personal work.” (Langford, 1997a: 164) The next generation of photographers was concerned with reflecting change and emerging ideas. It wasn‟t just a change to more contemporary subject matter or new techniques, but a deeper way of thinking about photographs. There was a greater presence of photography and it was also technically more accessible. Photography practically defined how life was experienced, be it the fantasy world of advertising images that had been skillfully calculated to encourage consumption. In her essay “The Heroism of Vision,” American writer, Susan Sontag, calls the history of photography a struggle between two imperatives: beautification and truth telling (1977:89). This essay will discuss the nature of Advertising Photography and the ethical issues around this topic, in light of the statement made by Sontag. It will aim to provide a balanced argument, showing the positive and negative associated with these issues. This specific debate will be focused upon the construction of images, and using post production, namely retouching, as a way of „beautifying‟ images (using fashion and beauty photography as an example), rather than giving a truthful account. These are the two main issues associated with the „beauty versus truth‟ debate. There are various theorists and important public figures in the field of advertising that raise valid points in favour of their own arguments, concerning the issue of discussion. Issues concerning the self-image of teenage girls have become prevalent, and there are certain threats that go along with this, the main threat being various eating disorders and an unhealthy self-view. Another problem that exists, which is not as often discussed, is that of playing with emotions, from an advertising point of view. The purpose of advertising campaigns and advertisements, which use photography more often now than ever before, is to create a „play‟ on people‟s emotions in order to persuade them to buy certain products, or simply put, to create a desire for such things. Photographers can be considered artists, and they therefore have the creative license to construct imagery.


This construction of images can be done in various ways. The image may be “set up� as in advertising when a product is arranged, or a model is directed to do something specific. Another example, which is not as closely related to advertising photography, but is still relevant, is that of construction in documentary photography, for example, when a person has been asked to pose, rather than the photographer just recording the reality of the scene and thereby showing the inherent truth in the scene. Through this construction of images, photographers can mediate what is shown, and what is seen by the viewer, as a result. This is an issue which is controversial in itself and one which can clearly lead to ethical implications. A famous or rather, an infamous example of this is the following image which is a very controversial one. This image has not been constructed, and shows the truth of the situation, yet there was a huge outcry after the image was released. It seems that people want the truth, with no beautification, but when they get the truth, they cannot handle it, and cry out about ethical and moral implications. This is an extreme example, but one that is apt in bringing home the point Fig 1: Kevin Carter. 1993. A vulture watches a starving child in southern Sudan.

of the discussion.

The image consists of two main subjects, the first being the starving child, and the second being the vulture that is sitting sinisterly watching the child. Natural light was used, showing the situation as it was at the time. Depth of field has been used, but could also have resulted from the background being so far from the subjects. There is no actual movement in the image, but a sense of implied movement exists, because it seems as though the vulture is going to fly towards the child. There are clear ethical 3|Page

implications, and the moral responsibility of the creator was questioned after the release of the image (as mentioned earlier in this text). It is possible to say that this image serves a utilitarian purpose in that it served to educate the public. This image definitely had a social impact, and was also a call to action because of the message that it produced. Although the above image was not constructed, it is one which the photographer could have mediated. Kevin Carter, a South African photojournalist, had to judge whether it was safe to take the photograph, portraying the truth of the situation, or whether to remove the child from the situation, without taking the photograph. One can say that if the photographer had moved the child, he would have „beautified‟ the situation, and by doing so, he would have hidden the truth and the magnitude of the situation. The next set of images are two of several other images that have been used in a campaign to show how it is that gaming consoles and games played on them can affect young viewers. The images show the fun that can be had while playing games, but also shows the control that the gamer players have over their „world‟, or at least over their gaming world. These images have been constructed and are, in a way, „beautified‟ in order to tell the truth. The self-esteem of the game players can be affected by these images, and somehow the images are beautified in order to show the truth and actuality that can playing games can result in (not the gamers thinking that they can change their actual appearance, but the fact that they can choose what their avatar looks like and can be in control of what happens, therefore escaping into an alternative reality).

Fig 2: PlayStation Advertisements: (Left: Complexed Bodies / Right: Potato Head)


The above images make use of different body parts, arranged in a specific manner, to form new images. They look unnatural and are considered “disturbing”, but in this way, make an impactful statement. There is some eye contact made by the subjects, in order to engage the viewer of the images. Form and depth have been used in both images to show and highlight the nature of the body parts that have been used. Aside from the eerie feeling created by the images, and the humour that has been used, the images create a feeling of control by the user (the game players in this case), and also perhaps question the morality of the creator, and his/her ethical responsibilities, as there would be young children exposed to these advertisements. Another set of images will be shown next. These are images that are used by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in their advertising. They make use of “photo-shopping” (photoshopping & photo-shopped: terms that have become universally recognized as a standard term for retouching or manipulating images, regardless of the software used) to make a statement. These images are comprised of the conventional wildlife images, but they have been changed in order to create social awareness about the situation, and comment on human behaviour by showing how it affects these animals. These images serve a utilitarian purpose in that they served to educate the public. The tagline is: "What will it take before we respect the planet?" These advertisements are meant to be a shock to the viewer, and a direct call to action. Fig 3: WWF Advertisement: "What will it take before we respect the planet?" Agency: Ogilvy


As mentioned before, this essay is one which is twofold in its discussion. Together with what has been discussed, it will also discuss the issue of retouching, and the effects that it has. This is the second issue that will be dealt with. The ethical implication, namely that of a negative self- image, brought on by retouching images without giving credit where it is due, is the issue at hand. In April this year, in France, there was a movement by fashion editors towards a trend that gives credit to retouchers (the people who edit and manipulate images according to what is acceptable by the fashion and advertising clients), publishing the extent to which the images in magazines have been worked on. The outcome of this movement has not yet been established, and getting access to French magazines is also not a reality for young South Africans, especially girls, who are affected by this issue. In saying this, it is reasonable also to say that as far as can be seen, no real progression has been made in the media to assert any laws about retouching and crediting of retouchers in magazines. Moreover, it is not just the negative self-view that retouching creates, but an ethical dilemma that is presented by this. Models and other persons who have been retouched in magazines, can no longer even live up to their own image, because this is not what they look like in reality. It is true that some celebrities insist that their pictures should be retouched, while there are others, such as Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears, who have recently said that they will show unretouched photographs of themselves. Retouching is by no means a new concept. Famous fashion and beauty photographer, George Hurrell, is one of the early users of retouching methods. Below is an example of his work. He spent six hours in the dark room, retouching the film negative of this image of Joan Crawford.


Fig 4: Joan Crawford by George Hurrell (Left: Unretouched Photograph / Right: Retouched Photograph)

In her series, For the Love of Wisdom (1997), Helen Buss Mitchell discusses beauty and truth. In the opening scene of the episode (lesson eight) she asks: “Is truth beauty and beauty truth?” She goes on to discuss how aesthetic experience can be a kind of knowing, and posits that visual art can lead to a direct and intuitive understanding of what “is.” She continues to say that the emotional impact of the meaning of life is something that is ineffable. Poetry, paintings and novels are discussed as an outlet to these emotions that cannot ordinarily be expressed using spoken words. American philosopher of Art, Susanne Langer, advances that art is a very appropriate medium for the life of feeling and emotions. It serves as a translator of inward experience, in the same way that words translate outward experience. She says that arts teach us how to feel, and that this is done through fine art, television, music and even advertising jingles. Mitchell discusses the identity that is created by art, and exists within artists, but she suggests that “great art always seems to point beyond itself to the source of the vision. 7|Page

Artists must move beyond a narrow personal identity and must enter a focused state of intuitive knowing. From it, a deeper, fuller glimpse of reality is often possible. Plato postulated that artists are dangerous workers of illusion, and questioned why people would want to view copies of things if the real subjects were available for contemplation. Art offers us an alternative route to truth, with the artist as an intermediary. We can catch a glimpse of eternal truths or of ordinary reality as we have never seen before. This is useful in the case where humans want to see new things, and with the help of an artist, people can see things that they cannot, possible because of financial restrictions, ordinarily see. Although Helen Mitchell posits that “Art has the power to reveal and communicate on an intuitive level,” and that “beauty, it seems, can lead to truth,” (Magil, 1997) it is vital to understand that art can also alter our way of living, and our perception of reality. Langford says in his book, Story of Photography, that “simply put, a photograph carries messages to several levels of meaning. At first level it represents what was in front of the camera. But at the next and deeper level it triggers the viewer‟s associations with life experiences.” (1997a: 168) Langford continues to say that the use of a metaphor can raise the photograph above the level of simple description and begin to make people think about wider issues. In light of Langford‟s argument, the next section of this essay will delve deeper into this vast expanse of meaning, and will attempt to decipher the chosen images in a way that enforces the argument already made, which is that sometimes without beautification, truth telling is not possible. The seven perspectives for photographic image analysis will be used to decipher these images, as in White‟s view, “the significance of an image can‟t be comprehended by an immediate response.” (Langford, 1997a: 171) The images that have been chosen are of such a nature that they have been either completely constructed to form an idea about certain subjects (as in advertising photography) or that they have been retouched as in fashion photography, which is also used to advertise products and clothing, and which conversely, enforce a negative selfview as a result. 8|Page

In a study which looked at the way in which individuals of differing body mass indexes (BMIs) responded to pictures of thin or heavy models, various fascinating results were obtained. The study showed that normal weight females felt better when exposed to extremely heavy models and moderately thin models. They felt worse when exposed to moderately heavy models (because they feel similar) and extremely thin models (because they feel dissimilar). Overweight females felt worse no matter what size models they looked at. ( This means that advertisements, no matter what size the model, do in fact have an impact on self-esteem. The size of the model does not seem to matter as much as the size of the viewer seeing the model. This brings me to another point associated with this argument. What about us as photographic students? What are our ethical responsibilities? We are required to edit our final images. In some cases we edit because of mistakes made during the photographing stage, and in other cases we carry out the post production workflow, but what about the other times? Naturally we want to make the image look its best as this is a reflection our photographic skills. Here is an example from my own work. The requirement was a Hollywood style, glamour portrait. In the example below, an already beautiful girl was made more beautiful. The project required this style of retouching, and the model signed a model release, knowing that the photograph would be retouched (over-worked because of what was required). This is one of the problems in fashion and advertising photography. Models know full well that their images will be retouched, so we cannot say that their self-esteem is affected, and that they might feel inadequate as a result. In most cases, as in the example above, the model is beautiful and slim to start with, so adjustments that are made are really just to clean things up and round off the image.


Fig 5: Hollywood Portrait. 2010. Crystal McLeod. (Left: RAW Original Photograph/ Right: Retouched Photo.)

Young girls, who are most affected by this issue are the ones that want to be retouched. They manipulate and often times destroy their images whether it is in Microsoft Paint, or a trial version of Photoshop that they have downloaded, in an attempt to „Photoshopâ€&#x; their party pictures, and photographs taken with their cell phones. These are the times that we live in, and one of the realities that we have to face. Whether it has been caused by the media, models, advertising agencies, or the women involved, there is a problem that exists, and it is one which must be fought against in unity, or people must realize that this beautification is not always a truthful account of reality and accept it as beautification. This essay has aimed at discussing the nature of advertising and fashion photography and the ethical issues associated with it. This has been done in light of the statement made by Sontag. The debate has been focused upon the construction of images, and 10 | P a g e

using post production, namely retouching, as a way of „beautifyingâ€&#x; images, rather than giving a truthful account. It was also found that in some cases, depending on the context, that so-called beautification is necessary in order to tell the truth or to make people more aware of certain social issues. (3000 words)

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Reference List: Amanpour, C. 2010. CNN Transcript of CNN Episode aired April 1, 2010. “Body Image in Advertising and how we perceive ourselves.” [Transcript Online] Available: (Date Cited: September 2010) F, J. 2009. “Overweight Women: Stop Looking At Models” [Online] Available: (Date Cited: September 2010) Langford, M. 1997a. “Chapter 11: Concern for Meaning” (pp. 164-178) In Story of Photography: From its beginning to the present day. (2nd Ed) Oxford: Focal Press. Levey, B & Lloyd, J. 1884. “Part one: The Psychology of Visual Perception” (pp. 1-13) In Thinking in the Photographic Idiom: A book of perceptual Exercises. USA: Prentice-Hall, Inc. Magil, C. (Producer, Director & Editor) 1997. Truth and Beauty. Lesson Eight of “For the love of Wisdom” Series. (Written and hosted by Helen Buss Mitchell) New York: Insight Media. [n.a] 2005. “Real Girls are beautiful” [Online] Available: CFTOKEN=87204500&CFID=40536046 [n.a] 2006. The Loerie Awards 2005. South Africa: Interactive Africa Newton, WJ. 1853. “Upon Photography in an Artistic View, and its Relation to the Arts” In Newhall, B. 1981. Photography: Essays and Images. London: Secker & Warburg. Ogilvy, D. 1983. Ogilvy on Advertising. London: Pan Books Petenji Arbutina, S. & Vorgucin, J. 2010. Demand for Consumption of Culture Advertising Photography. (Proceedings of Informing Science & IT Education Conference InSITE) Sontag, S. 1977. On Photography: The Heroism of Vision. London: Penguin Books

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Image Source List: Figure 1: Chideya, F. 2006. “A Pulitzer-Winning Photographer's Suicide” [Online] Available: (Date Cited: September 2010) Figure 2: [n.a] 2009. “10 Most Disturbing PlayStation Advertisements” [Online] Available: (Date Cited: September 2010) Figure 3: Ogilvy. [n.d] “WWF: Biodiversity and Biosafety Awareness” [Online] Available: (Date Cited: September 2010) Figure 4: Epstein, J. 2009. “Op-Ed: Sex, Lies and Photoshop: Why magazines should let readers know if images have been retouched.” [Video Online] Available: (Date Cited: September 2010) Figure 5: McLeod, C. 2010. Hollywood Glamour Portrait. (Model: Claire Jerling)

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Reading List: Davis, S. 2009. Beautification and Truth telling: An essay that looks at censorship within publication. [PDF Online] Available: sorship-in-publication.pdf (Date Cited: September 2010) Field, N. 2007. Fashion Photography: Beautification versus Truth-telling. [PDF Online] Available: ion.pdf (Date Cited: September 2010) Hatherly, S. 2008. Beautification and Truth-Telling in Fashion Photography. [PDF Online] Available: 1.html (Date Cited: September 2010) Langford, M. 1997b. “Chapter 12: Photography in a Post-Modernist Age” (pp. 179-198) In Story of Photography: From its beginning to the present day. (2nd Ed) Oxford: Focal Press. [n.a] 2009. “How Does Media Exposure Affect Self-esteem In Overweight And Underweight Women?” [Online] Available: (Date Cited: September 2010) Sinclair Baker, S. 1969. The permissible Lie: Inside truth about advertising. Great Britain: Lowe & Brydone Ltd. Solomon-Godeau, A. 1987. “Living with Contradictions: Critical Practices in the age of supply- side aesthetics” (pp. 247-268) In Squires, C. 1999. Over Exposed: Essays on Contemporary Photography. Canada: The New Press Wilson, E. 2009. Smile and Say ‘No Photoshop. [Online] Available: (Date Cited: September 2010)

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Beautification versus Truth-telling  

A critical analysis of advertising photography with a discussion of the various ethical implications that exist concerning beautification an...

Beautification versus Truth-telling  

A critical analysis of advertising photography with a discussion of the various ethical implications that exist concerning beautification an...