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The Ethical Problem Behind Photographic Manipulation

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Based on our acquired knowledge, when we look at a photograph automatically, we represent that scene as something real. In recent years, we have gained awareness that a photograph may have been retouched to improve its effect, but it still represents something real for us.

After the uproar aroused by the photo published by Princess Kate, surrounded by the three children, even our certainties faltered. After having ascertained that the photo has been retouched, some have even advanced the hypothesis that the little picture of the family is actually the result of artificial intelligence. Nothing real, you know.

Whether or not it actually is, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we become aware that not everything we see is real.

It must be said that photographic manipulation is not a recent achievement, it is almost as old as photography itself, but modern technology has made it common and easy to achieve. Today, photo manipulation techniques are advanced to a whole new level, thanks to editing software that is simple to use and capable of giving us rewarding effects. Almost anyone can make great changes to an image.

The power of photographic manipulation

Photographic manipulation is the art of altering photographs or images to create a new visual reality. This can be achieved by using various methods, such as combining multiple images, adjusting colors and lighting, and even adding or removing elements from a scene.

It has the power to change the way we see the world by challenging our perception of reality and stimulating our imagination. As technology continues to advance, the possibilities of creating eye-catching and challenging photographic manipulations will continue to grow.

It has become increasingly popular as a way to create captivating and challenging artworks. One of the most surprising aspects of photographic manipulation is its ability to evoke strong emotions.  A well-done image manipulation can inspire amazement, curiosity or even fear.  By modifying images, artists are able to convey messages and ideas that can be difficult to communicate only through traditional photography.

For images intended to show reality, manipulation can create major problems. Although it is normal for the media to make small changes like clippings or lighting adjustments, it is unethical to edit a photo in a way that changes its meaning or may mislead the viewer’s perception. 

The ethical implications of image alteration

In more recent times, the proliferation of photographic manipulation tools has led to an increase in the number of false or misleading images circulating on social media. As a result, it has become increasingly important for individuals to develop the ability of critical thinking to succeed in questioning the authenticity of images.

It is essential to consider the ethical implications of image alteration. Although photo manipulation can be a powerful means of artistic expression, it can also be used to deceive or manipulate public opinion.

For example, photographic manipulation has been used in advertising to create unrealistic standards of beauty, with negative effects on body image and self-esteem. Not to mention that the images manipulated could also be used for political propaganda or to spread disinformation.

To ensure responsible use of photographic manipulation, it is critical that artists and photographers are transparent about their intentions and motivations when altering images. In addition, educational institutions and media organisations should give priority to teaching media literacy and critical thinking skills to help people navigate the complex world of digital images. By fostering a culture of transparency, we can ensure that photographic manipulation remains a positive force for artistic expression and communication around the world.

The risks of photo retouching

Although we are aware of the existence of photo retouching, when we are presented with reality, even edited images can affect our mental well-being. By constantly seeing images of artificially flawless people, some of us may begin to believe that these images are authentic and that we can never live up to these unrealistic ideals. This type of harmful thinking can lead to mental and emotional health problems.

A 2023 study published in BMC Psychology examined how editing photos on social media platforms affects people’s self-image, self-esteem, and comparison with others. The results suggest that editing photos can have a negative impact on how people perceive their attractiveness and overall self-esteem.

The data showed that higher levels of photo retouching were associated with greater self-perception of oneself as an object and basing one’s value on appearance, especially among vulnerable groups such as teenagers.

According to a recent study by the University of Warwick, about a third of the false images are not detected by the observer.

A new study, conducted by Sophie Nightingale of the Department of Psychology, found that when people were faced with manipulated images of real-world scenes, about 35% of them could not detect them, suggesting that people in general have an extremely limited ability to detect and locate manipulations.

“When people look at newspapers or magazines, or go on the Internet,” – comments Sophie Nightingale  – “they are exposed to false images, but our research has shown that it is very unlikely that people distinguish between the real and the false. So the challenge now is trying to find ways to help people improve on this task.  For example, fake images often contain telltale signs that have been manipulated and we are conducting new research to see if people can use these signs to identify fakes.”

And how are we able to tell if a photo was manipulated? We just have to test ourselves by clicking here and participating in the study of Dr Nightingale.




Annalisa Balestrieri holds a master’s degree in modern literature with a psycho-pedagogical specialisation from the State University of Milan.

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