The Internet has made it easier to share images and ideas across the world. Publications that were once limited by the location of print products can now be distributed digitally for everyone to see. With easier accessibility comes the ability to be criticized on a global level. W Magazine recently learned this the hard way with their April issue. The magazine featured Zendaya, Willow Smith and Kiernan Shipka. Critics said the young women appeared to be whitewashed. A closer look at the cover would beg the question, however, just how far artistic license can go without being shut down by public scrutiny.
While there is no doubt that photo manipulation is an issue magazines have been engaged in, not every altered image has malicious intent. In the case of W Magazine, for example, the faces of all three celebrities were visibly paler. It was not a racially charged choice, though. It is clear that the whiter appearances are a product of high contrast to bring out the blue undertones in the portrait.
Despite this, critics took to social media to accuse the magazine of deliberately editing the skin tones of Zendaya and Smith in a way that is racially motivated. Conversely, the two stars both shared the cover image on their Instagrams. In fact, they expressed no discontent about the way they were portrayed in the issue.
Considering creative approaches is essential to keeping an open mind and ensuring that art is free from suppression. Publications like magazines are known to be largely visual and design-heavy. If it were a newspaper, then the altered images would be in violation of journalism ethics. These ethics still apply to magazines, but in a way that attempts to balance audience perception, intent and artistic license.
This not to say that all cases of photo alteration are valid. In one instance, Time Magazine infamously darkened O.J. Simpson’s mugshot during his trial in 1994. Although James R. Gaines, who was the managing editor at the time, stated that no racial implications were intended by the magazine or its artist, the damage was done. What made this case different, though, was the nature of the image editing and where it was originally used. The photo was not taken for entertainment purposes, but during a court proceeding. News outlets used it to cover the case. The darkening of the photo implied an effort by Time to make Simpson look sinister. Associating evil with darker skin was highly unethical. More consideration and sensitivity toward public perception should have been taken into account.
Just like media outlets have a responsibility to their readers, people should use good judgment in measuring controversy. Not everything is intentionally offensive and the benefit of the doubt should be given to creative projects. Art is, after all, a form of speech, and to discourage creativity is to discourage the voice of the person creating it. Instances of unfair media portrayal do occur, but being selective in calling out injustice is essential to presenting a valid claim when the time arises.