Rankin is turning a critical eye on photo retouching apps with his new project, Selfie Harm. For the past two years the renowned photographer has been exploring different apps, curious about their addictive nature and what they can do. His overall opinion is less than favorable. “Most of the programs I’ve experimented with allow you to change everything from the tone of your skin to the shape of your face or body with shocking ease,” he noted. “It’s so simple, almost like creating a cartoon character of yourself.”
For the project Rankin photographed British teenagers, aged 13 to 19, and then handed the un-retouched photos over to the subjects. The teens were told to tweak and filter the images until they were “social media ready,” using the easily downloaded smartphone app B612 (although many apps could have stood in for the project).
The retouched photos were displayed next to the originals during Visual Diet, an exhibit by M&C Saatchi, Rankin, and MTArt Agency last month that explored the impact of imagery on mental health. “There’s little or no debate happening around this,” said Rankin. “Photoshop, which is a much more complex and inaccessible program, is actually part of a huge social ethical discussion, bringing the issues and harmful aspects of it to light and exploring its effect…These filters are something very new and, in my opinion, a lot more dangerous. It’s almost like giving a teenager access to a Photoshop expert.”
There is at least one reason to sigh a breath of relief: the teenagers involved only edited themselves as part of the project, not necessarily because it is what they normally do with selfies. In fact, they actually preferred the original images (although the models said they knew of people their age doing this type of editing). But the ease of which they were able to edit, and the ubiquity of these apps is still cause for worry.
“Imagery, like anything else, can be healthy or harmful, addictive or nutritious,” Rankin concluded. “Now, more so than ever, this has become a massive issue with the huge cultural impact of social media. Every platform is full of hyper-retouched and highly addictive imagery, and it’s messing people up.”