13 May The image of a woman with a body and no soul
This is a piece I wrote a little while back, and what sparked the idea for the name of Soul Woman Portraits! So I thought it deserved to be published here.
I think there is a problem with this image:
Are you expecting me to say it’s been Photoshopped? You may already be familiar with the video that the screenshot above was taken from [view here]. It’s been doing the rounds recently. But actually I’ve taken this screenshot before the Photoshopping got started. Can you still see anything wrong with it?
Yes, it’s of a model who has been professionally styled, posed, lit and photographed. And she already looks vastly different from the ‘before’ image when she walked into the studio.
But it is all still ‘real’. The woman is real. The shape of her body is pictured as it truly is, even her makeup and hair extensions, it could be argued, are physically ‘real’. No pixels were moved, is what I’m trying to say. In industry speak, it is “straight out of camera”.
So what do I think is wrong with it?
The video attracted a lot of (fair) comment about the need to reduce, or even remove entirely, the Photoshop work that is standard practise on imagery we see in magazines and adverts. But every time I read an article focussed solely on lambasting the use of Photoshop, it riled me, because it ignored the real issue that I saw.
I took the screenshot at just 25 seconds into the video. Before any Photoshopping had taken place.
And the picture STILL makes me sad.
I still think there is something deeply wrong with it. The way Photoshop is subsequently used only inflates the massive problem that is still very much there and visible at 0:25.
The image presented is of a woman with a body and no soul.*
This is the heart of why I think the image is wrong. Everything about the way the photograph is taken shows she has a body. That much is clear. Images are constructed, and there is an enormous amount of thought and decision that goes into every element of them – the lighting, posing and styling – all of it here is geared towards highlighting that she has a body. And I don’t believe that showing that women have bodies is bad! Women are beautiful. Their bodies are beautiful.
But the image shows no accompanying soul.
She has no expression. The photo taken has deadpan eyes. Would you believe she has a personality? A name, a background, a family, a career, things she cares about, people who are close to her? I bet the model actually does have these things. But no, storytelling is not the purpose of images like this. Nothing else is shown, hinted at, or any prompt given to even consider that she might be more than just a body. A person without any of those things has been dehumanised, and a picture showing none of those things has no soul.
Perhaps this image, isolated and on it’s own, would not be so bad. If it were only one image. But it is typical of so MUCH imagery of women used time and time again all over our culture. It is the same thing that is wrong with so many of those countless other women with bodies and no souls that fill our newspapers, magazines, billboards, TV sets, shops, leaflets thrown onto my doormat and posters covering the sides of buses.
What is the effect on boys and girls, men and women looking at pictures like that, again and again? Doll-like pictures of women with bodies and no souls filling their entire visual landscape? It’s certainly not healthy for girls and women forming their own identity and sense of self-worth. And it also can’t be healthy for those that they live alongside, those that relate to them, love them, marry them, employ them, are employed by them, or simply pass them in the street.
The pictures with no souls aren’t healthy for anyone, Photoshopping or no Photoshopping.
I’m definitely not defending airbrushing, or the overuse of the liquify button to morph bodily shapes into some inhuman, Barbie-fied proportions. That certainly exacerbates the problem and we should be restricting how much Photoshop can be used on magazine/advertising images.
But banning Photoshop on it’s own won’t touch the heart of what’s wrong with a lot of this imagery of women. We’re going to need to address much more than just whether a certain piece of software is used or not. Photoshop is just a tool. A neutral, indifferent tool. Don’t let it become the scapegoat of those who are really responsible for creating images like this and reinforcing the attitudes that lie behind them. That’s image-makers, the industry that commissions the image-makers, and the society that fuels the industries.
(ie, that means all of us!)
Let’s all work towards and demand a more balanced view of beautiful women with beautiful bodies and beautiful souls.
This last image HAS actually been ‘Photoshopped’. Her body shape has not been altered. But the background has been cleaned up and the shadow tones reduced to create flat areas so that your attention is drawn to her face and the highlights in her eyes. My purpose throughout the whole process of photographing it, using the light, directing my subject, and in editing it, was to convey a sense of dreaming and aspiration. The woman photographed is a very driven woman who has many goals and aspirations in her life and I wanted to give her imagery that reflected this. But I’ll leave you to judge for yourselves how successful I’ve been.
* I have shamelessly taken this phrase from an article I read – about Christian feminism, not about Photoshopping in particular. When ‘the image of the woman with a body and no soul’ was described, the phrase stuck with me so strongly, I couldn’t move on for ages, reading and re-reading the line, as I realised and recognised the clones of her that I’ve seen throughout my life.
Ps, Since writing this piece, I have written an accompanying poem: The Woman With A Body And No Soul. Let me know what you think!
Originally published on 8th November 2013 on Hannah Beatrice, Documentary Wedding Photographer.