Photo editing has become an open secret in the land of social media. Apps like Instagram and FaceTune have made it so easy for us to change the way we look ― through filters, retouching or a combination of both ― that it’s becoming harder to determine what’s real and what’s not. We’d also argue that these apps are enabling us to perpetuate a homogenized expression of beauty, as opposed to celebrating true individuality.
British photographer Rankin (born John Rankin Waddell) explored these apps and their potentially harmful affects in a recent photo series aptly titled, “Selfie Harm.” For the project, which was done as part of Visual Diet, a new online initiative that aims to change the way we consume images, Rankin photographed a group of teenagers and then asked them to edit their own portrait until it was “social media ready.”
The before and after images offered a striking look at what these apps can do with just a few taps of a finger.
Rankin told HuffPost he had been noticing people on social media retouching their own photos for the past few years. What was once a tool reserved for celebrities and models in magazines is now available to pretty much anyone with a smartphone. Rankin said he’d been aware of Photoshop since it was first introduced in photography, adding that he’s always been critical of its use to distort reality. So, he came up with the idea of using photography to show the ways individuals, particularly young people, use these tools to alter their appearances.
“What I was particularly scared by on that was how much like a game it is to do it,” he said. “You take a picture of yourself and, as you’re changing it, you can look at a before and after very easily. It also makes you feel very inadequate about what you look like in this game-y way.”
Photo editing apps, Rankin noted, are increasingly easy to use. So easy, in fact, that he edited a selfie I sent him in under an hour.
“Anybody can do it,” he said. “That’s where the project came along.”
The photographer, whose photography subjects have included David Bowie and Queen Elizabeth II, took portraits of 15 individuals wearing minimal makeup. Some of the girls were models, and others were scouted from a local school. The only real stipulation was that they didn’t use retouching apps regularly.
“I didn’t want it to be about what people do personally but how you can use the app to change yourself even if you don’t know much about it,” Rankin said.
As he witnessed the girls edit their photos, he realized that they all seemed to do the same things ― enlarge their eyes and plump their lips, for example ― which he felt was a reflection on how people see beauty at the moment. Interestingly, he said, the individuals didn’t really like the altered versions of themselves, but they did feel like the edited images would warrant more likes on social media. He clarified that he also photographed boys for the series, but he noted the changes were much more drastic with the girls.
Rankin’s goal for the project wasn’t to blame apps like FaceTune or the people who created them. Instead, he wanted to raise awareness that these apps exist and people are using them to alter their faces to fit an ideal that has become extremely homogenous. We’ve explored this idea before, pointing out just how much Instagram influencers are starting to look like clones of each other. It’s a phenomenon of the social media age we’re living in.
“Why is that the ideal? What made that, the kind of homogenous aesthetic, the ideal? And why are we perpetuating that?” he asked. “When I grew up, at that age being an individual was what was important. Now it seems to be being the same as another person, and that to me feels really strange.”
In his opinion, being the better version of yourself is about looking like yourself, not someone else. And being able to so easily “change the makeup of your face or the makeup on your face to look like somebody else or like a beauty norm or ideal, that seems like a really bad way of approaching who you are as a human being.”
The photographer said he never expected the project to get so much attention. For him, it was something he could do to start a conversation about how we all conceive imagery; he said he really adores photographing images that make people question what they’re seeing or excites them.
When asked whether he believes these apps negatively affect confidence and self-esteem, he responded, “Oh, God, yeah. One hundred percent.”
“Even if you put a blur effect on your image to smooth out your skin, it’s like, this isn’t you,” he said. “When you look at yourself in the mirror, you’re not seeing yourself.”
This point brings to mind another phenomenon known as Snapchat dysmorphia, which really seems to have grown out of our tendencies to edit and filter our photos. Individuals are actually using edited images of themselves as a source of inspiration for potential cosmetic procedures. Some people have gone so far as to argue that filters could be making us forget what we really look like, and studies have shown that our current selfie culture can lead to body dysmorphic disorder.
The young people who use these retouching apps most likely aren’t thinking about how it might damage them in the future, Rankin said, noting that they’re more concerned with how they’ll look in their pictures now or how much somebody likes them.
With the way people are using these retouching tools, Rankin said, he is seeing the art form of photography “being warped and manipulated to really create these images that I think are really dangerous.”
He added, “I’m just trying to get people to go, ‘Oh, that’s a good point.’ It’s important we’re aware of it.”