Christmas Card Ethics

My family just received a Christmas card from the family of a long-time friend, and my wife commented on how good his wife looked in the photo. I mentioned this to my friend, and he laughed. “That’s what I was going for when I photoshopped out  the crow’s-feet and wrinkles. She does look good–just not that good.”

My gut feeling is that this is misrepresentation, and unethical. My friend is a photographer, but the photo didn’t look like a formal portrait, which traditionally is intended to idealize a family for posterity (as in the pre-photography paintings they have largely replaced). It looked like a snapshot, which is supposed to capture and communicate a moment in time—and, I would argue, communicate it truthfully.

I know eliminating some dark shadows under the eyes and a few wrinkles is hardly earth-shattering, but I now know I can’t trust the picture. Are the children really as handsome as they appear? Maybe the son is shorter and fatter. Maybe the daughter has a longer nose. Is this really the family, or a stand-in? An excellent discussion of photoshopping ethics that I am adding to the links raises several factors to consider, such as:

  • Is the photo a work of art and thus the statement of the artist, or is it presented as an accurate record of reality?
  • Is the intent to deceive?
  • Is the manipulation of the image appropriate for its purpose? What is the intent of the Christmas card, for example?  Is it saying, “Here is the family,”  “Look how great the family looks,”  “here’s the way I see my family,” or something else?

This authority suggests that there is an ethical duty yo reveal any manipulation of an image when its context wouldn’t lead a viewer to expect it. I’m not certain this should apply to a Christmas card, but perhaps.  My friend volunteered the information that he photoshopped his photo, but I know for a fact that his wife wouldn’t be happy that I knew about her hidden crow’s-feet.

I do know this: I have always assumed that the photos I receive in Christmas cards were authentic and unmanipulated.

I will not assume this again.

6 thoughts on “Christmas Card Ethics

  1. I’m going to go with “A work of art”.

    1) The card is to be well wishes from friends and family. The picture is to let you smile upon seeing their familiar face, not their “true face”. How is photo shopping any different than hiring a make-up artist or having a face lift? How is it different from dressing up your dirt-faced hellion children in little suits and strapping them to a post so they stand up straight while putting fish hooks in the corner of their mouths and pulling them taught so they smile?

    2) The card is optional and the images of the people are not attempting to win an award or gain favor based on their appearance. If the card was used to apply for a modeling job – it would be a mis-representation of appearance. But the goal of the card is to provide your friends with an image of yourselves in the best possible light.

    3) Perhaps you are 100% right. I don’t like Christmas cards at all. Everyone is posed, dressed up, made up, and smiling like they just had 1 too many. I find them disingenuous by default. I think the real reason I don’t have a problem with people Photoshopping them is because it’s yet another layer of deceit on something that has long been corrupted.

    • Great comment Tim.

      The make-up-hairpiece-breast augmentation-facelift-nose job spectrum is an unresolved ethical issue for me. At some point in there, the enhancement becomes dishonesty. I’m not sure where.

  2. Jack,
    While I agree with your points concerning PhotoShop ethics, I was struck by your comment that plastic surgery still fell into the “unresolved” column for you. I’m confused as to how you can call professional football unethical because of the inherent risk, while refusing to similarly condemn people who engage in expensive and dangerous procedures to satisfy simple vanity?

    This isn’t to say that I’d consider either one unethical (since I don’t), merely that I don’t see how one is more ethically fuzzy than the other. As always, I look forward to your response.


    • Neil: I don’t consider inherent risk an ethical matter, and didn’t write that. The football point is that paying someone to undertake serious physical risk for pure entertainment is unethical. Obviously one can compensate others for taking risks in the context of important industries, or societally useful activities, but the risk is incidentaly, not the point of the enterprise. In football, the head-bashing IS the entertainment, or part of it, and it cripples people. Inducing people to hurt themselves is wrong; enjoying watching people hurting themselves is wrong.

      How does that relate to plastic surgery? Even in a beauty contest context, the surgery itself is an optional meas to an end. Yes: if a movie producer pays an actress to undergo risky plastic surgery she would not otherwise have to get a role, that’s somewhat similar to the football situation. But a an actress having a breast augmentation on her own to help her move into femme fatale roles—that’s no different ethically than an athlete having knee surgery so he can run faster. My objections to plastic surgery are based on the deception issue, not risk.

      • Jack,
        Understood. But I still fail to see how one is more ethically murky than the other. Athletes aren’t forced to play, they choose to owing to a love of the game and the promise of wealth; women (and men) get all sorts of unnecessary procedures each year owing to vanity and the promise that looks can get you ahead. What makes one more justifiable than the other?

        Although the benefits of plastic surgery are much harder to quantify than an athlete getting a performance-enhancing surgery, both are using it as a means of gaining and edge. Though I have no ethical issues with it, plastic surgery IS deception and it IS dangerous and, most importantly (leaving issues of terrible accident-related injuries aside) are entirely optional.

        Frankly, I see no way in which one could be called morally acceptable while the other is not. Even if you were to consider them different kinds of wrong, they’re still both wrong. Then again, so am I some of the time …


        • Ditto.
          But athletes with head injuries don’t keep playing because its fun. They do it because the people paying money make their employers liable to dump them for not playing. I don’t see either as all that murky, but I know banging heads with 350 pound behemoth is a lot more dangerous than getting botox.

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