Presidential Photoshop Ethics

bildeOne of my biggest fears each summer as I lounge on the beaches of the Jersey shore, marine-mammal style after a sixth consecutive meal of boardwalk fries, cheesesteaks, and ice cream, is that I’m going to end up on the cover of some magazine. Never, though, have I worried that some unscrupulous Photoshop user was going to change the color of my bathing suit.

This is exactly what happened to President Obama, whose black bathing suit was digitally altered to appear red on a recent cover of Washingtonian magazine.

In an article on, media critic Howard Kurtz said, “While the alterations of this picture might seem to some people to be kind of minor, it is absolutely unethical. It is dishonest. It is not journalism. You cannot present a news photo, particularly of a president, but of anybody, and alter it through digital technology without being honest about it with readers.”

On the other hand, Washingtonian publisher Cathy Merrill Williams said, “When you’re in the magazine business you’re trying to get across a concept or an idea. Changing…the color of his shorts didn’t change the overall image portrayed.  It was President Obama in a bathing suit walking.”

In an article in the Mansfield News Journal, the magazine’s lifestyle editor Leslie Milk said, “I know we changed the color of his (bathing) suit to red, and dropped out the background.” (Leslie is all about the facts.)

I think that one of these changes (dropping out the background) is legitimate, while the other (changing the bathing suit) is dishonest.

Years ago, I worked at a really terrible job for a really terrible person who asked me to alter in Photoshop images that ended up printed in magazines. I removed my boss’s double chin from one photo, removed a person whom said boss disliked from another, and made a cloudy day sunny in yet another, to name a few changes. These alterations were largely harmless, but they were dishonest.

I used to bathe for hours after work and still felt dirty.

To be sure, once a photo is taken, it is already an abstraction of reality, interpreted through a camera and presented on paper or screen. Photos that are manipulated in any way become further abstractions (for instance, black-and-white photos are further removed from the reality they represent than color images). So I have no problem with images that have been corrected for quality.

In ethical terms, I have always felt that Photoshop should be used to adjust or correct photos (adjusting lighting, removing dust, etc.), to create original works of art that do not purport to be photographs, or to make obvious changes (like dropping out a background) that are not intended to deceive.

shea-hatOnce an attempt has been made to deliberately deceive a viewer (for instance, by changing the color of an item of clothing or by making a person think that my old boss was not fat by removing her double chin), an ethical line has been crossed. To demonstrate, I have subtly altered this recent photo of Shea. See if you can guess how.