Let’s talk about the latest high school Photoshopping controversy

Earlier this year, we caught wind, via Reddit, of an all-girls high school in which photos had been retouched for student IDs: faces appeared thinner, eyebrows seemed adjusted, and skin and lips looked recolored. Students were upset seeing strangers staring back at them on their IDs, and to the school’s credit, once the issue was raised, students were assured that the edits had been made by the photography company, not the school, and that the students’ original and unretouched pictures would be used in the actual yearbook.

Now, we’re hearing of another school Photoshopping snafu, this time in Australia. As the Bendigo Advertiser reports, “Piercings, blemishes, acne, monobrows and freckles were airbrushed out of school portraits at Daylesford Secondary College last week, outraging students and parents.”

The thing is, the administration seems to be on the side of the students on this one. Principal Graham Holmes admitted that the school took the “wrong approach” in ordering the retouches, and has promised that the original photos will be made available to students and their families at no charge.

Holmes asserts that the Photoshopping was only instigated in situations in which students had violated school policy, like in the case of facial piercings, which the school dress code insists must be limited to studs,

“Next year, we will ensure that students have plenty of notice that they will only be able to participate in school photos if they meet our uniform policy,” Holmes explained.

Holmes maintains that the Photoshopping was limited to the removal of certain piercings that violated dress code, and in a letter he sent home to students, he insisted that they were the only aspect of the photos altered.

“The photographer explained the lighting effect reduces the visibility of these features which may make it look like these features have been removed,” Holmes explained. “I will emphasize there has been no airbrushing of skin tones, freckles or blemishes.”

Of course, not every student is satisfied with the school’s apology. As The Age reports, student Jackie Lipplegoes (who had her piercing digitally removed from her photos) feels slighted by the Photoshopping practice.

“We paid for a photo to show how we looked in 2015, but this isn’t how we look,” she said. “Our identities have been changed and it doesn’t make you feel too good at all.”

Though these schools that have come under fire have both apologized and made amends, it seems like a concerning trend is emerging: Photoshopping is sparking conflict between students and school administrators, and raising questions about the right to personal identity. Some students want the freedom to have their photo reflect who they are IRL, and not feel like they need to be altered to fit some guidelines and that’s totally understandable—powerful, even.

It’s also understandable that schools have certain dress codes (i.e. no piercings). But it’s problematic when digital retouching gets involved and skews the power dynamic in a (literally) manipulative way. We support every person’s right to live in a Photoshop-free world. It seems that the main issue—and solution—is transparency. If digital retouching is an option offered by the photography companies, students need to know about it, and more importantly, they need to have a choice in the matter.

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