When does presenting life in its best light become misrepresentation, and what's the cost?
Updated: May 24
Does the Camera Never Lie?
The American documentary photographer Lewis Hine said, "the camera never lies". But then Lewis was born in 1874, and he'd never met a digital SLR camera or an Instagram filter.
Lewis wasn't a complete starry-eyed idealist about photography. He also said: "While photographs may not lie, liars may photograph".
Truthful imagery is something I've considered a lot in my career as a photographer. Today, as I teach retailers to take desirable photographs of products for e-commerce and coach architects and real estate agents to present buildings in their best light, I also teach the responsibility that comes with a camera.
The responsibility that comes with a camera
When you create an image and put it out there in the world, you're making something that has the power to influence others.
If you're working with me, your ambition is to create images that are inspiring and tell a story. There's nothing wrong with showing a product in good light or creating a campaign that correlates with your brand message. These are key business skills that I use with my clients, and it gives me great satisfaction to see their businesses thrive as a result.
But it's immoral to create an image that gives an inaccurate impression of a product or a place. Because when you do that, you've crossed the boundary from promotion to deception. And that carries a cost for the people you deceive and your business's reputation.
Social media and self-image
I started thinking about the power of photographic images to harm us after watching a couple of powerful documentaries about the way social media and popular culture are affecting body image worldwide.
Hours spent scrolling images of beautiful, slim, toned men and women on social media are fuelling unhealthy comparison and self-evaluation.
This is nothing new. The criticism of idealised beauty creating unrealistic beauty standards has been levelled at the beauty industry since the first beauty adverts popped up in newspapers in the 17th century. But social media may be taking this to a whole new level because social media claims something that adverts never could. Social media pretends to be real life.
This is not my beautiful life.
When we see acquaintances posting stunning selfies of themselves at the beach on social media, we believe these images are truthful representations of their bodies and lives. We compare ourselves, and often we don't measure up. However, much of the imagery we see on social media is as fake as any advert. Not only are feeds carefully curated life highlights. Often images are styled, posed and heavily edited. We're not talking #authentic here.
Your glamourous acquaintance with 5,000 Instagram followers may not have a camera crew and a make-up artist following her around. But she has a knack for a flattering angle and a bag of tricks in her iPhone that a 1950s advertising executive would give their houndstooth suit for.
Media researcher Ulli Weish talks about the "sediment of sadness" social media causes because of the impossible, unachievable ideals it promotes. When we, as real people, compare ourselves with idealised norms, we will always fall short. We're not thin enough, not toned enough, not young enough.
Yet the issue doesn't lie with us. It lies with unrealistic images. Photographs that are, for all intents and purposes, lies because of the distance between them and the lived reality of the people in the pictures.
What's the cost of the lie?
Research into the effects of social media is in its infancy. It may be too early to say if social media is bad. But there are many indications that the unrealistic lives it promotes make people feel bad.
The BBC reported that a survey of 1,500 people by the charity Scope found that social media makes more than half of users feel inadequate. Half of 18- to 34-year-olds said it makes them feel unattractive.
A 2016 study by researchers at Penn State University suggested that viewing other people's selfies lowered self-esteem. Research from the University of Strathclyde, Ohio University and University of Iowa also found that women compare themselves negatively to selfies of other women.
A study of 1,000 Swedish Facebook users found that women who spent more time on Facebook reported feeling less happy and confident. The researchers concluded: "When Facebook users compare their own lives with others' seemingly more successful careers and happy relationships, they may feel that their own lives are less successful in comparison."
Feelings of inadequacy can have dark outcomes
These feelings can lead to self-harm in the form of eating disorders, or the more socially acceptable self-loathing that leads to cosmetic surgery.
In 2019 a group of researchers in Australia found that the more time teens spent on social media, the more likely they were to have an eating disorder.
And although eating disorders are often perceived to be a female disorder, the study also found that disordered eating behaviours in boys was nearly four times higher than found two decades ago in another Australian study Cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Jonquille Chantrey, notes in a Dazed article that social media is a common factor in her patients' decision to get procedures. She notes that social media is often a catalyst, rather than a cause and cites other influences, such as negative self-talk, constant comparison and low self-esteem, (issues also linked to social media).
The responsibility that comes with a camera. Part II
All this got me thinking again about the responsibility we have for the images we create and put out there in the world. Austrian Turkish rapper Esra Özmen says: "Social media is our second public space. We spend more time there than in real life. We're all responsible if we want things to change."
This responsibility holds true in the commercial space too. When we create images to sell, we must hold ourselves true to life. We must ask ourselves, 'is this truthful?' 'Is this an attractive image, or have I created a fiction that is too detached from reality?' As image-makers and business owners we must always stay on the side of truth.
And when it comes to posting on social media, remember Ezra Özmen's words. "We want to change ourselves to adapt to these images, but really we need new pictures." Do the pictures you post affirm your truth, or do they create a glossy fiction that invites unhealthy comparisons?
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