Using Photoshop to Reimagine One’s Past

The New York Times ran an article a couple weeks ago about people who use Photoshop — or more likely pay others to manipulate their photos in Photoshop — to remove unpleasant aspects of the photos, such as ex-husbands,

Removing her ex-husband from more than a decade of memories may take a lifetime for Laura Horn, a police emergency dispatcher in Rochester. But removing him from a dozen years of vacation photographs took only hours, with some deft mouse work from a willing friend who was proficient in Photoshop, the popular digital-image editing program.

. . .

As image-editing software grows in sophistication and ubiquity, alterations go far beyond removing red-eye and whitening teeth. They include substituting head shots to achieve the best combination of smiles, deleting problematic personalities or adding family members who were unable to attend important events, performing virtual liposuction or hair restoration, even reanimating the dead. Revisionist history, it seems, can be practiced by just about anyone.

As people fiddle with the photos in their scrapbooks, the tug of emotion and vanity can win out over the objective truth. And in some cases, it can even alter memories — Cousin Andy was at the wedding, right?

In an age of digital manipulation, many people believe that snapshots and family photos need no longer stand as a definitive record of what was, but instead, of what they wish it was.

I can’t imagine doing that. Obviously, there are people who enjoy pretending that some things simply didn’t happen, but once you start preferring what you wish had been to reality, where does it stop? I’ve had personal experience with people who choose to concoct elaborate fantasies around past events to the point where they no longer realize they’ve come to believe the comforting lies they tell themselves, and it comes off as more pathetic than anything else.

The NYT concludes its story with a quote from clinical psychologist Alan Entin which nicely summarizes the desire to alter our past in this way,

“They’re [photographs] a record,” he said. “They have existed over time and space. They are important documents.”

To alter them is to invite self-deception, he said. “The value to accepting a photograph of yourself as you are is that you’re accepting the reality of who you are, and how you look, and accepting yourself that way, warts and all. I think the pictures you hate say as much about you as pictures you love.”

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