Monday, March 19, 2012

Photoshopping Non-Fiction

A few weeks ago a magazine showed up in my mailbox with a cover story on actors with Downs Syndrome. I knew the shows they all were on, so I quickly flipped to the article. In the two-page photo spread three beautiful actors sat around a table. I didn't recognize one of them.

I puzzled over them a while, then flipped through the rest of the article to see who these imposters were... and realized they were the same actors I knew... just.... photoshopped. So much so, they didn't even resemble the people in the TV shows – the people they really are.

Photoshopping is so common in media now, we should all look at photographs with a wary eye. There is a great visual reminder of this on called 15 Photoshopped Transformations of Celebrities and Models.

If it seems actors don't seem to age, maybe it's not great genes, or even great make-up. Maybe it's airbrushing.

If you don't recognize a model when she's walking down a runway, maybe it's because the post-process editing has changed her bone structure and the shape of her head, and eyes, and nose, and mouth.

When, a few years ago, my mom was creating a scrapbook and debating about whether or not to include a picture of a work party that had an unwelcome person in the background, I told her, "Clone her out." And so we did. History rewritten.

When I take pictures of my children and they have food on their cheeks or a bad patch of acne, I've been known on occasion to airbrush it out. History rewritten. (And before you get on a high horse about documenting our kids' lives accurately, how many of you would rather your teenage years be documented with acne rather than without?)

We can't trust pictures.

But we are still trusting of journalism, of the written or spoken word that shows up somewhere with the implication of fact. 

It's a point of discussion in my school, where the term "creative non-fiction" is debated with high energy. History seems to be like taffy now, where it can be pulled and stretched and twisted and pressed together in new ways, the color and texture of it changed into something else entirely while the creator screams, "But it's all the same ingredients!"

For "artistic purposes." Right? Or, as Mike Daisey calls it, Dramatic License.

I listened this morning to the uproar over Daisey and NPR. If you haven't heard about it, here is a good article on the situation. In short, Mike Daisey is performing a one-man theater show called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. In it, he details appalling working conditions in the China Apple plant. A segment of this went on NPR, and the Apple name and reputation came under fire. 

Only now, it seems, none of that information on the deplorable conditions of the China plant was true. It was done for "dramatic purposes." And Daisey has no problem with this. “What I do is not journalism,” he said. “The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism."

True. And yet... 

it still feels awfully wrong. 

Like photoshopping pictures of celebrities to make them more appealing, are we also photoshopping the truth to make it more interesting?

It's not just that this fictional theatre presentation was aired on a news station as if it was true, it's that, even in the quiet dark of the fictional world of the auditorium, people will believe it's true because there is enough fact mixed in to make it seem that way. Here is a guy, telling his own story, with true facts that you know to be true about people and about Apple, and he's telling stories of inhumane conditions of workers in China, which you also know to be true of so many other manufacturing plants in China, so why would you not believe the meshing of those two ideas to be true?

Writer Pam Houston has come under fire for the same sort of thing. Mixing fact and fiction in liberal amounts. She says (a bit tongue-in-cheek) that her books and stories are 82% true. The rest is from her incredible imagination. Her newest book, an amazing collections of experiences entitled "Contents May Have Shifted" (which I HIGHLY recommend!) reads like a memoir. If you know Pam, you know much of that book is truly her, or pieces of her. 82% fact is about right. But right on the cover, in case you might get angry at the "creative" part of "creative non-fiction" she has clearly written, "A Novel." 

Of course, what Pam is messing with is the facts of her own life. And labeling them clearly as not pure truth.

What Daisey messed with was the reputation of a company and its now-deceased founder. He can defend his artistic label all he wants, but it was never presented that way. It was presented as truth.

I'm all for art. I'm for making stuff up. I'm for creative license. But I think there's a point you cross a line. I think people might KNOW that pictures in magazines are photoshopped, and still try to attain impossible perfection themselves believing it to be possible. And I believe people listen to the news and read non-fiction KNOWING that everything isn't the exact truth, and still choose to believe certain things because they want to believe them, or because it makes sense to believe it.

And whether we like it or not, words have power.

What do you think?


  1. I think you wrote a compelling post! Words do have power. I've come to not trust anything said on the news anymore and that is sad. But I've seen how events have been blown up to make them newsworthy.
    On another note, we have been looking at homes here and have found how horrid the pictures lie that have been used on Realtor etc to show them off. I never believe those either but they are doing it to sell.

  2. Arrrgggh! I can't believe anybody! And I want to, by my own nature, I really want to!

  3. I think this is one reason why each generation grows more untrusting than the last. (Yes I just made up a word: untrusting. :))

    My hubby posted a pic on FB of a hippo on a treadmill staring at a poster of a unicorn, trying desperately to look like that unicorn. In the comments he urged people to think about that picture. Only, people didn't see the truth this picture showed us: a completely real being trying to push itself hard enough to somehow become like a fictitious being. Instead people made comments on how they needed to loose weight too and someone used that same picture on her FB and said she too would achieve weight loss.

    The pictures you showed are a good reminder that even something that seems real can be made up.

  4. Powerful line: "History seems to be like taffy now."

    It always amazes me in the school pics the options there are now to airbrush kids (KIDS).

    ~ Wendy

  5. This is a really thought-provoking post, Heidi. I think creative license is fine as long as you're always clear when it's fiction. And I suppose even if it's 82% true, just to be safe I'd do what Pam did and call it "a novel."

    In other words, if it's not 100% true, then be clear and call it fiction!