I work as a freelance photographer in several fields: fashion, wedding, portraiture, and events. I’ve been taking photos for almost 9 years now, since I was 16 and studying art at GSCE, and even have a degree in the subject from Norwich University of the Arts. When I first started out, it was easy to get sucked into the stereotypes. I only took photographs of conventionally-attractive women (thin, young, blonde, perfect skin, perfect figure). The photoshoots I set up were incredibly girly. I asked my models to wear lots of makeup, or I brought in makeup artists to do it for them. And I airbrushed my photographs. Well, I airbrushed them as best I could, considering I only had Photoshop Elements and very little knowledge about what I was actually doing.
Fast forward a few years to my second year of university. I was still doing all of the above things, but I was growing increasingly uncomfortable with it. For my first project of the year, I began studying photobooks, and from there I stumbled upon zines. Photo zines led to feminist zines. I then began researching feminism as a whole. Eventually, I was reading about the impact of fashion advertising (and fashion photography) on women. By the time third year rolled around, my entire perspective had shifted, and I based my final major project on body image and, specifically, the discomfort that people experience when viewing large-format photographs of natural female bodies compared to the everyday bombardment of exploitative imagery in the media.
And that brings me to the present day: 3 and a half years after graduating. I work as a copywriter, and in my spare time I take photographs of anyone who wants their photograph taken. But my technique has transformed. Nowadays, if somebody wants to meet up to take some portraits, I tell them to select their own outfit, do their own makeup, and style their hair however they want. The reason behind this is that I, as a feminist and as a photographer, want to capture them as they are. I want to photograph them, not a unrealistically altered version of themselves.
I am a photographer because I love capturing moments, and I love photographing people. But I’m also a photographer because I love giving people that confidence boost they might need. Many of the models I use for portraiture are not, in fact, models. They’re not signed to agencies, and they haven’t worked with every other photographer in Norwich already. They’re bloggers, or friends of mine, or people I know through social media who just want some nice photographs of themselves. What kind of portrait photographer would I be if I went out on a shoot with them, then went home and transformed their appearance to something that barely resembles their real-life counterpart? How would that be considered a confidence boost? It would just be another unrealistic body or beauty expectation for them to try and live up to.
When I go home after a photoshoot or a wedding, I load up Photoshop and alter a few levels such as colour, exposure, blacks, noise levels, and contrast. That’s it. That’s as complicated as my photo editing process is. Believe it or not, not even my fashion, editorial, and wedding photos get the airbrushing treatment.
Now and again I’ll use Photoshop to edit out an unsightly object in the background, but I never use it to get rid of blemishes, wrinkles, or flyaway hairs. In particular, I never make my models look skinnier than they actually are. I feel as though I would be failing myself as a photographer if I did so. I pride myself on barely needing to edit my photographs at all, and capturing them almost perfectly in-camera. And I pride myself on using my skills and my eye for detail to make people look amazing, regardless of whether they’ve got bags under their eyes or a rash on their arm. Because that is the true skill of any photographer: being able to make people look and feel like models, even if they’re not.
I embrace the flaws that make us human. You are you, and you do not need your image to be edited into something unrecognisable in order to be validated.
I might never get work for high-end fashion designers or for fashion advertising companies, but in all honestly that doesn’t bother me. I don’t want to work for anyone who profits off the exploitation of women’s insecurities based on their appearance and body image. On the other hand, if the face of fashion advertising ever shifts to natural beauty, and drops the airbrushing, you can count me in. Because I would love nothing more than to see our TVs, magazines, and internet saturated with photographs of non-airbrushed women. To see ourselves truly reflected in the media that we consume.
What do you think about photographers and companies that airbrush their photographs? Let me know in the comments!