A friend of mine emails with an amusing ethical conundrum. With her permission and assurance of anonymity (the names are changed to protect the innocent), here it is:
I’ve just done a photo shoot with Clarence for pics to send out with Christmas cards, and I am feeling guilty as all get-out because I used Photoshop to straighten Clarence’s teeth. I am dying for some third-party input. Is it bad to alter your loved one’s facial features so they look more cosmetically attractive in the annual Christmas card photo? Is it less bad if I add the fact that I reshaped my own eyebrows?
In a follow-up email, she goes on to explain:
The question is not so much about whether it’s okay to alter your photos, but more whether it’s offensive to correct your loved ones’ dental work…without asking them. Whitening wasn’t actually required, but I filled in a bit of a gap where one tooth is kind of turned crooked. His crooked teeth are a distinctive part of him, but the corrected version looks quite good… er, better. I just wonder if this is the height of vanity and I am falling victim to the bombardment of commercial messages that say teeth should look perfect. And, since the loved one in question is out of town at the moment, what kind of reception should I expect from him in the matter when he does arrive home to find that I want to order prints of this altered photo to include in this year’s Christmas cards?
And, would it be more acceptable if I had done it to myself? I should point out that I did do some cosmetic pixel work on myself, fixing an eyebrow which was thoroughly cocked up by pulling a sweater over my head just before the shot was taken. I didn’t, however, change any permanent facial feature of my own. And there, as they say, is the rub.
I told her not to sweat it. Every single photo that ever gets published gets the crap photoshopped out of it. So, why not one’s Christmas cards?
As for your signficant other’s response to a little aesthetic modification? That’s harder to call. To rely on a stereotype, if the genders were switched, I wouldn’t dream of doing this. It’s a variation of the wrong answer to the “do I look fat in this” question, and fraught with danger. Speaking personally, I wouldn’t mind it if somebody else ‘straightened up’ my photo, though it might make me think twice about the feature they were fixing.