Yesterday, ethicist Kwame Anthony Appiah published his response to a parent of the bride’s question: would it be ethical to digitally alter the hair color of a guest at the wedding? Appiah argues yes, but I think that answer misses the mark.
In the column on the New York Times, Appiah is presented with the following situation: a parent says that their daughter recently got married and the guest of an invited friend was in attendance who had “beautiful bright pink hair.” There was no seating chart, and that friend sat on the aisle towards the front of the ceremony. The parent says that in the video of the ceremony and in most of the photos, the pink hair “distracts your gaze so much that it takes away from the focus of the wedding: the bride and groom.”
They conclude with what appears to be a simple question: “Would it be ethical to replace the hair digitally with a more neutral-colored hair? Or would it be disrespectful to the pink-haired guest?”
Appiah starts his response by first saying that he is not an expert on how cameras work and his column is not focused on technology, but immediately follows that with a statement that he does know that light “that came into those (presumably digital) cameras would have landed on a variety of color detectors whose output has to be interpreted by algorithms in order to produce an image.”
He says that since white balance settings can vary, who is to say that the way her pink hair appears in the photos and videos is “the only way to represent reality?”
“My ethical preset would focus on the fact that the person with the pink hair surely didn’t intend to photobomb the wedding and would probably be mortified by what you’re seeing. Having pink hair doesn’t mean you think that every situation you enter is about you,” Appiah says.
“Any reasonable choice you make in editing the images that mitigates the problem is one you could defend to the guest. You wouldn’t be disrespecting this person; you would be respecting your experience of the event.”
Appiah’s response is a bit confusing, since he bases his response on how he assumes the parent of the bride remembers the event, which they never specifically bring up. Additionally, I have issues with his statement that changing the appearance of a guest would be ethical in this instance, notwithstanding the extreme technical difficulty of altering one guest’s hair color in video footage.
If we look at this purely from an editorial standpoint — wedding photographers and videographers are very much editorial professionals who are documenting an event as it happens — I think it’s wrong to edit people’s appearance in a substantive way without their consent and direction, just on principle.
That said, I wouldn’t tell a client “no” to such a request.
While wedding photographers are editorial photographers, they are also beholden to a client’s desires. If I had a terrible sunburn on my back and it was visible in photos, I would want that removed (this is an actual example from an actual wedding I attended), and while that’s not being true to editorial guidelines, it is being true to what a client wants. And in weddings, what a client wants, a client gets.
So while I disagree with Appiah on how he got there, I actually do come to the same conclusion he does: I agree that it would be okay to edit photos of an event as described. Now, it’s not clear if the client — the bride and groom — actually feel the same way as the parent of the bride who asked the question of Appiah, but if the client wanted this done, I don’t think I would judge them too harshly for it. I would say that it is not something I would recommend, but I would do it if they pressed. They are totally within their rights to make the request.
But at this point, we don’t know that is the case since it wasn’t the client who posed the question and we have pulled the discussion into a debate on ethics, where I don’t believe it should have ever been to begin with. I also argue the parent of the bride wanted to feel like they were in the right morally to make this decision so that they could feel good about altering the appearance of someone they don’t really know. Is that disrespectful as the parent of the bride asked? I argue yes. Is it okay to do it anyway? Also yes.
In my opinion, the framing and obvious goal of the question comes dangerously close to the “appeal to emotion” logical fallacy, where a person will attempt to strengthen support for the conclusion by distracting with unrelated emotion. I think the parent asked the question in a leading way so as to get the response they wanted, and it worked.
I don’t agree that this is an ethical issue to begin with, I don’t agree that the ethicist’s answer is actually ethical, and if we do grant that it is an ethical issue, I would argue authenticity is more ethical than satisfaction.
Sure, change her hair color or mute it in editing, but don’t pretend you’re acting ethically while doing so.