As a young media professional, specifically a magazine major, I have absolutely no beef with Adobe Photoshop itself. From acquainting me with design in my magazine curriculum to helping me tinker with images for passion projects, Photoshop has been there for me.
I have this adoration for Photoshop because I can separate the program from its users and the occasional malicious, unethical streak in image-making. Coming from a journalist’s standpoint, photoshopping an image to alter the reality of what’s taking place runs too far for me. Filters change light, shadow and tone. Filters don’t change the meaning or truth of an image, like, say, carving off a dress size does.
Or redoing someone’s hair. Maybe if your hairline was patchy or you were suffering from a severe fly-aways, you would want a designer to lay your digital edges. Something tells me, however, that getting your Afrocentric hairstyle re-worked to fit Eurocentric beauty standards wouldn’t sit too well with most black women.
And why should Solange Knowles be any different?
Initially, I was so pleased to hear about Solange gracing the cover of Evening Standard Magazine. Black visionaries! Magazines! British media! Finally, I had a very real, deep connection to the people yelling to pick up the Evening Standard on the street.
I was aglow with the warm and fuzzy feelings of black girl magic. This was before I heard about the Evening Standard snatching Solange’s braids.
Taking her cover at face value, Solange looks straight-up lovely. No one disagreed there. She is the sun angel Tina Lawson proclaimed her to be.
However, that illusion was shattered when Solange posted on the Evening Standard’s photoshopping on her Instagram story.
Compare with the original photograph, which Solange released to the public.
By taking away Solange’s crown, the Evening Standard upholds Eurocentric ideals and hegemonic standards of beauty.
If you know anything at all about Solange, it’s that she revels in the political power of black hair. As much as any off-the-shoulder action or peplum hem, Solange’s voluminous, fluffy, kinky, coily mane has served as an anti-establishment fashion statement.
Back in 2012, she mused to black magazine Essence, “I think many people, especially from other cultures, just don’t understand the role hair plays in black women’s lives.” This was a few short years after Solange’s big chop caused an uproar. And even then, once her hair had grown back, she was fending off criticism.
Fast forward to 2016 and one of the leading tracks from her latest album, “A Seat at the Table,” is entitled “Don’t Touch My Hair.”
In the song, she says, “Don’t touch my hair / when it’s the feelings I wear. Don’t touch my soul / when it’s the rhythm I know.”
She then goes on to explain that outsiders will never be able to grasp the significance of her hair. They never had to deal with the historical and cultural baggage that makes her cling so tightly to expressing herself through her hair.
Naturally, in that defiant and tasteful manner Solange has about herself, she slyly referenced this in calling out Evening Standard.
To add insult to injury, black hair is a crucial topic of conversation in Solange’s Evening Standard cover story. Hair is an “act of beauty, an act of convenience and an act of tradition,” Solange tells ES Magazine.
She recounts how Lawson’s hair salon might as well have been her bedroom. She spent a lot of time there, especially as a refuge from her hectic life as a dancer, theatre kid and swimmer.
With all of this ugly irony swirling around the disjointed ES Magazine package, the journalist who interviewed Solange has sought distance from the story.
In a Twitter thread, Angelica Bastien went on to reveal how she asked her editors to take her name off of the profile’s co-byline.
“I don’t want this piece attached to my rep as a writer at all,” Bastien tweeted.
Evening Standard apologized, explaining that “the decision to amend the photograph was taken for layout purposes.”
Even if there was a layout riddle at hand, the end result remains the same. The designer not only altered Solange’s body, but did so in a culturally insensitive way. The change made alters the reality of the story being told here. A piece of Solange’s heritage is quite literally erased.
Still, outrage is easy. Change, especially the kind that is genuine and lasts, is harder. If you don’t care about sending the wrong message (i.e. under-handed, aggressive perpetuation of Western beauty standards), then what’s to stop you from thinking these sort of ethical slip-ups are just artistic choices? Should we just take rationales at face value and defer to creative license?
When it comes to image-altering, I’ve discovered designer Sarah Krasley, founder of NYC-based collective Unreasonable Women, has a particularly reasonable answer. It is not a call to cease photo-editing all together.
Krasley has come up with the Retouchers Accord. It’s said to be a sort of Hippocratic oath for designers when it comes to what they should and shouldn’t alter.
The five tenets of the accord urge designers to:
1) hold themselves to “authenticity, integrity, and empathy” when designing,
2) raise awareness for and promote a healthy body image,
3) spearhead discourse about “authenticity, social impact, and diversity” with clients,
4) learn as much as they can about “authentic retouching techniques,” and
5) take pride in participating in the Retouchers Accord.
I think these are solid guidelines for allowing creatives to experiment while also preserving the essence of a subject. Apply these rules to Solange’s shoot, for example.
The designer would realize keeping Solange’s braided updo is crucial to maintaining authenticity of Solange’s beliefs. Keeping Solange’s braided updo would maintain the integrity of Solange’s lived black experience. Keeping Solange’s braided updo would promote a healthy body image for black girls, women and feminine people, telling them that in no way do they have anything to be ashamed of. It would introduce, without any hiccups, a conversation about diversity and have a wholeheartedly positive impact.
Whether or not ES Magazine had consciously colonial intentions, those brighter conversations about black beauty and its potential are sullied now.
Of course, all is not lost: just today, Solange’s Glamour cover story, shot by feminist photographer Petra Collins dropped. And Solange looks just as black and beautiful and ethereal as always.
I know mainstream publications will never stop photoshopping subjects to make them fit neatly into their beauty criteria. I know publications will never stop altering photographs period. There is, after all, a beauty in the finesse that brings a story and photo package together. So all I can hope for is for publications to do better by their models and features by considering the long-term effects of altering photos.