retouching myself – ways of seeing and retouching

this was my very first tablet as a teenager. my little niece dropped it on the floor once, and that was the end of it.

[originally published on unfriendly hamsters in 72 dpi]

i was 17 old and my lifelong toxic relationship with bangs had reached a new low. i had a boyfriend and i wanted to gift him a frame with our photo, but my bangs were looking pitiful. i opened the image in photoshop and filled them in a bit. one eye was smaller than the other, so i opened it. upper lip seemed a bit too thin, so i beefed it slightly. while on my lips i also red myself a vaguely enigmatic mona lisa smile. extremely galvanised like a kid in a candy shop with an unlimited gift card i gave myself bigger boobs too. "nobody's gonna know. –they gonna know. –how would they know?” and of course they wouldn't. i would try to keep it as natural as possible (remember the nonchalant beauty efforts we talked about). looking back, i guess this was such a great incentive for me to get into realistic retouching. i just wanted to look like what i thought i looked like, no face-tune or deep face-altering retouching. just me, minus all the tiny details that made me not photogenic.

with time i got better and better at seeing myself from the outside. through the years i had mentally mapped out all the areas of concern for my face and i knew exactly what could go wrong in a photo of myself. trying to detach myself from the photos of myself, realising they are just a mechanical trace of a moment in time and space has been a never ending process throughout my life. to live without mental images of yourself –it is freedom.

“a woman must continually watch herself. she is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself” (john berger, ways of seeing)

a woman retoucher is also continually accompanied by the possibilities of the images of herself granted by the very image-based medium she masters.

when people ask me what do i do for work, i jokingly say that i am one of those evil people making women look perfect in photographs. a lady once exclaimed, laughing: i see, you are the reason why i got traumatised for my appearance." and i do feel her. i also got traumatised by all the (overly) retouched images i have consumed. there is an awful lot to unpack and you keep receiving all sorts of packages all day long. and contrary to evri, the driver will always find you at home.

i do believe retouching is not inherently evil though. a photograph records too many pointless and distracting details that our eyes find overwhelming and it does so mechanically and automatically (i wrote about this in 2015 in the short essay if this is reality, i am not interested”). digital photos, sometimes only living in the ethereal realm of screens and never printed, can achieve a lot of sharpening without any grain. this makes them look uncanny, because it basically removes all visual evidence of the medium. so you are effectively looking at a canvas (or the object ‘photograph’) but your eyes perceive it as the reality, borderless. in reality things aren’t that detailed though, lots of details are left unprocessed -if that wasn’t the case your brain would explode for the information overload. retouching is nothing new –painters were embedding their retouch in their brush strokes. it’s ok to retouch an image that we conceived and created from scratch in order to show a specific thing and nothing else. it’s ok to remove anything that is not conducive to the intended message. the problem is not the retouching in itself but the message, and some messages seem a bit questionable and unethical.

going back to my 17 years old retouch, we could say that filling my bangs was ethical while making my boobs bigger wasn’t. fuller bangs were in the realm of reality, bigger boobs clearly weren’t and to imply that i needed bigger boobs was not a nice message. anyway in a sense retouching gave me some sort of agency on my own image and retouching myself has also been about that. i just can't help but wonder how much of that agency has been co-authored, informed and influenced by the myriad of images i had been seeing until that moment in time.

of course it's always worth to keep unpacking, but sometimes the stuff we retouch in photographs has been already glued to our eyes by someone else and we don’t even fully realise it: society, misogyny, ageism, fat-phobia, our deep-seated insecurities or simply our clients. so please don’t shoot the retouchers, sometimes it’s a bit like shooting on the red cross.

get updates about new blog posts –join the newsletter.
but first please read the privacy policy otherwise we go to jail.

Contact Us