Thursday, December 18, 2008

Airbrushing Our Memories

Digital Photos May be Pretty, but will vanity airbrush our memories too?
The National | December 16, 2008

By Tala Al Ramahi

Two years ago, my family and I decided it was time that we had a family portrait taken. My sister and I were both visiting from college, and my two brothers were going through a growth spurt, dwarfing not only my sister and I, but my parents as well. And the relatively new addition to our family, my five-year old brother, had yet to steal the spotlight of any of our formal family portraits. We could not leave such changes undocumented any longer.

As technologically adept as we were (or at least, my siblings and I), we unanimously decided that a professional photographer with a studio who could “tweak” the photographs a little would present us with photographs that we would treasure most. Instantly after our photo session, we were invited to view the pictures on a 42-inch flat screen television in order to select the photos that we wanted to “process” and print. Two weeks later, we picked up the photographs, but as I relished my new blemish-free skin, courtesy of Photoshop, my Mother reacted to another kind of photo refinement: “Those are not your dad’s hands!”, she shrieked. And she was right. They, most definitely, were not. It seemed that our over eager photographer had taken the art of doctoring his photos a little too far.

But he isn’t alone in such a pursuit of perfection. Technology has allowed us, average Moe’s, to be able to do just that. Editing our photographs no longer means the simple use of the “red eye reduction”, but has become a more nuanced process that includes airbrushing, nose-thinning, and thigh-slimming – processes that have slowly spilt over from spreads in fashion magazines to facebook profile pictures. We can now use the programme, Picassa, for example, to blur our photos, in order to, well, blur out, any imperfections we posses. HP also ingeniously capitalised on our vanity by producing a digital camera that promises to make us appear ten pounds slimmer. Who needs to diet for an important function when we can slim ourselves without the caloric deprivation and painful gym visits?

I am old enough to remember when we still used 35mm film cameras. It was, after all, less than ten years ago that digital technologies became available. Before that, someone posed while another looked through the peep hole and clicked the shutter. We then had to wait until we finished the whole roll before the film could be processed. The sheer anticipation of discovering how the photographs turned out was part of the novelty of the photo taking process. Now, all we have to do is look at the LCD screen on our digital cameras, click, and repeat. Often. We get infinite second chances at perfecting our pose, figuring our best side and finely adjusting our facial profiles to most effectively get rid of our double chin.

While going digital has certainly improved the state of our photographs, our vanity has more often than not trumped the spontaneity of the moment we are trying to capture. We begin to notice that our digital albums are filled with monotonous photographs; we start to continuously pose in the manner that most aesthetically flatters us, rather than allowing our imperfections to create an unpredictable, more “real” picture of the moment. I can only imagine what will happen twenty years from now, when I start to compare the photographs that were taken by film with the ones I took digitally. Will I lament the fact that the digital process took out the reality from my perfectly poised, finely doctored photos? Will nostalgic scans through digital albums remind me of an alternative reality; one where I had “perfect” skin and flattering lighting throughout my young-adult years? Or will I be able to recall the reality of the moment, with all its imperfections that make me, and everyone else human. Unpredictability is the essence of life – if only our vanity didn’t urge us to edit that out of our lives.


On another photography-related note: Polaroid Corporation announced earlier this year that it would discontinue the production of the film used for its instant Polaroid cameras. By 2009, they will no longer be in stock. Photography enthusiasts will miss witnessing the transformation of the ghostly murk of chemicals into a colour miniature masterpiece. In ten years, I can only imagine that shimmying away to OutKast’s 2004 hit, “Hey Ya”. I will sing along to the lyrics, “shake it like a Polaroid picture”, but my children, when and if I have any, will have absolutely no idea what that means.

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