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When will we stop glorifying human 'perfection' in portrait photography?

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

This article is about our mental health pertaining to self-worth, our self-confidence and our perception of self. We discuss how the photography industry perpetuates an antiquated stereotype, and how we, as photographers, can help to support change.


There is nothing new about the concept I am discussing today. Have a look are the links below. Ask yourself how many of the 'without make-up' photos with the correct lighting and a decent photographer's skill would have still been judged poorly at the salon or photography club level.

Then let's look at some of the men. In the first article below, the bodies glorified by the media are shown vs. the second link, wherein we see how 'normal' some of those dudes look off-screen, even the ones that are mega-built anyway.

Ask yourself, as a photographer, do you want to be a part of the society that glorifies these false realities? I don't, but I suppose it is easier for me because I do not make my living off portraiture; but surely, within the fraternity of photographers in South Africa, where judging is not based on Client demands, we can start to change the status quo.

Above: A street portrait of Mr. Ivan Bolt, a man who used to live under the bridge in the background but was displaced by the flooding in Durban in 2023. His expression, his eyes in particular, tell a story.

The Spark that Ignited the Fire

Leeanne and I watched the new Barbie movie last night. For all those who do not know, it is really not a traditional 'kids movie.' They will enjoy the songs and colours, but the undertone is what this movie is all about. The message. A message about self-worth, humanism and equality. It was the nudge I needed to write this article, one that I had been thinking about since the first photo club judging evening that I had been to...

The Problem

The above image of Mr. Bolt is not the type of portraiture I am referring to. Street and candid portraiture is characterised by rawness and emotion. It's not here where I have the problem. It's the portraits where the comments at judging (of the photo) are, "The blotches in the skin, bumps and blemishes should have been removed in post-processing, it would be more flattering." This is prevalent in photos of women more.

In judging photography as an art form, I am all for comments on lighting, shadows, composition, eye contact and overall well-executed posed portraits. However, why, in 2023, are we still promoting post-processing that paints an unrealistic picture of what humanity is?

A Rant About Society (Feel free to skip, but I'd prefer if you would give it a read)

I understand that the industry demands it in magazines etc., but if body-shaming, body shape, skin colour and deviations from the 'norm' or 'handsome' or 'pretty' can become so well supported that we are starting to see change (albeit slow) in society, why are we as photographers still supporting the timeless stereotype?!

I was born in '89, so I was a teenager in probably the most psychologically toxic decade in recent history. You wonder why so many millennials and Gen-Z'z have mental health, self-esteem and insecurity challenges today...It is partly because of the perfectionism that was portrayed in the media and promulgated by people like us - photographers. People like us who bend to the economic controllers of society. Notice that I do not absolve myself from the situation. As much as I shy away from portraits that require excessive retouching to be considered good by Clients or society, inaction is equally as damaging.

Look at popular movies from the 90's and earlier 2000's. They promoted muscular 'jocks' and slender cheerleaders. People who were mean to others to prove their relevance. Bullying was glorified. Let's face the truth, most of the movies about high schoolers and teenagers glorified the aggressive Caucasian frat boy. Go watch the documentaries on Woodstock '99 if you don't believe me. We promoted a toxic culture, in the name of money. Unfortunately, at that time, in what could be described as propaganda, the media had far more control over what we had access to, and how it was moulded to support their narrative. Thankfully today, the internet has made information accessible enough for us to each make up our own minds with all the angles of view considered.

Fast forward more than 20 years, and progress has been made. It's cool to be a good human now, regardless of skin colour, sexual orientation/gender or physique. Wearing baggy clothes that don't promote discrimination based on body shape is a rising trend. Hell, being cool matters so much less now; loving you for you is promoted more than ever.

I was raised on progressive but nonetheless Gen-X values. I was part of the generation that lived through the boom of the internet. I sit between two very important worlds. The honest, hard-working, respectful, resilience-promoting virtues of Generation X and Baby Boomers, and the emotional, self-respecting, humanist views of the later Millennials and Generation Z.

The ultimate truth is that the sooner we realise that we need to draw on each others' strengths and stop criticizing the 'weaknesses' of each generation, the sooner we build a better society. They are not weaknesses, really; they are just different values. I want our daughter to grow up in a society where she does not struggle with insecurity, where she is not judged by her looks or 'intelligence' based on a flawed concept of IQ, and an education system where there is heavy bias in favour of congnitive ability. I want her to grow up in a world where just being a good human takes priority.

You know the old adage, "Judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, and it will always fail."

I am not oblivious to the fact that the world is not that simple. Money and station rule it. A few men with power still move the chess pieces, and through inheritance, they always will. F*%! living in that world, make your own little world with the people that matter. The reality is that we have to live within the bounds dictated by the economy and society, but those things should take the back seat. I don't read the news anymore; it just depresses me and tells me all the bad things about the world that I should stress about. Then complain about, it until I immigrate and go complain about a new place, but not to the people from whence I came, of course.

That's why I am not going anywhere. We are equipping our daughter to stand up for herself in the real world, be a good human and enjoy the best of what we can in our little bubble. Obviously, not losing sight of the bigger picture, but at the same time not allowing it to detract from us living whilst we are alive.

How Does This All Link To Photography?

Quite simply really. As photographers, we have the power to support change. We have the power to promote less make-up and celebrate people for what we are. We have the ability to stop calling 'plus size models' that. They are just models. Maybe I am not 'woke' enough, and that's already happening. Good for us. And for Pete's sake, can we please stop making people feel like they are only there because their race or gender balances the equality requirements? I think that's even worse. Those people lose all sense of self-worth, never knowing whether their achievements are genuine or just token.

I know we are not going to change the world right away, it's far too big and financially controlled for that. But ask yourself, if you had a little child today, like I do, how would you like for them to see themself?

There is a very small change that we, as a photographic community, can start making. Maybe we will not be able to change Clients' minds right away, I accept that, but we have absolutely no reason why we cannot change the judging of portrait photography to exclude post-processing that alters any natural feature of the human appearance. I am talking about retouching. Else, we may as well let smartphones and AI kill our beloved art form.

Contour with shadows and contrast, not make-up. Photograph realistic men and women who live 'normal' lives, who are good fathers and mothers with work, relationships, mental health, physical health and personal challenges, because don't lie to yourself, we all have some of those. Glorify men and women who prioritise spending time with their family, over excessive hours in the gym, taking supplements or pumping themselves full of botox. We should be making it popular to be 'real.'

I am appealing to those who have control, with this article. Can we move toward changing the rules for portrait judging? I won't try to say how, but I think that this article hints at my view on the matter.

Change starts with those who have the power to influence it.

Until next time,

Your Bipolaroid Photographer...

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