Digital Photography and Ethical Issues

Photograph editing is the process of altering an image using automated tools to accomplish specific goals. Although certain photography manipulations are known to be skilled art, many of these manipulations are surrounded by fraudulent behaviors that fool the public. Photography tampering has sparked public outrage and resulted in a slew of contentious court cases. According to the International Center for Ethics, the concept of overlapping pictures has existed since the beginning of photography (International Center for Ethics). Computers are heavily used in image doctoring in today’s digitalized environment. Various reasons drive editors to manipulate photos, including political and the desire to attract consumers in the advertisement. For this reason, many magazines tamper with the photos of many models and celebrities through enhancing their bodies in sexual ways to attract people (Terras et al. 7). As such, many digital photographers engage in unethical behavior violating the professional code of conduct.

The International Center for Ethics made an ethical inquiry to explore the ethics of digital alteration of photographs in attempts to make the subjects to appear more beautiful. Photographing in pursuit of beauty results into psychological damage to the individual when used without consent. It is also harmful to consumers and narrows the scope of socially acceptable beauty. This paper will evaluate the ethical issues associated with digital photographs and draw its reference to a famed Indian movie star, Khushboo whose photo was published by Maxim magazine.

The Context and Photographer’s Motivation in Khushboo’s Picture

The Maxim magazine in January 2006 featured a full-page morphed picture which indicated that Kushboo was posing nude in swimming costumes. This controversial picture was manipulated and imposed the actress’ face on a body of a woman dressed in lingerie with a description noting “Of course I am a virgin if you don’t count from the behind” (BBC News). The doctored photo was published in the Indian version. The heading of the article read “Women you will never see in Maxim – 100% fake” (BBC News). The photographer of Maxim was motivated by advertising the magazine using the India model. Maxim is an international magazine for men that features actresses and models dressed skimpily, and thus the photographer knew that having Khushboo who is a renowned Indian actor will profoundly market the publication. For this reason, Khushboo’s photo was intended to attract attention from the public and thus result in many sales. This was staged particularly after Khushboo’s remarks that educated men should not expect virgin brides. Additionally, after Khushboo’s adverse response to comments concerning premarital sex where she stated that “nothing wrong with pre-marital sex as long as the girl protected herself against sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy” (BBC News). The photographer aimed at advertising the men’s magazine using the Indian actress.

Controversy over the Photo and Public View

The controversy of the photo emanated from the doctored photo which damaged the public reputation of the actress. The picture was fake, and it did “impose Khushboo’s face on the body of a woman” who had put on a two-piece swimming costume. Indians are said to be traditionally conservative to their mode of dressing, and the sexual display is highly prohibited by their culture. Traditionally, India was not expected to adopt the western culture. At its core, a criminal defamation suit was filed in Chennai court, against the Maxim magazine publisher under Section 292 (A) of IPC for violation of an Act. This act offers protection of women against cases of representation. The caption made under the photo which read ‘‘Of course I am a virgin if you don’t count from the behind’’ raised more controversies (BBC News). The actress alleged that she was not an object and thus she must be paid by the publisher for the damages. The editor of the magazine, Sunil Mehra apologized to Khushboo stating that they respect women celebrities. The state of the photo prompted Khushboo to file two complaints with the police including the indecent representation of women and defamation. With this, Kushboo sought to be paid 30 million rupees in damages of her public reputation after the publication that showed her to be dressed in skimpy swimming costumes. The punishment meted to the Maxim magazine was intended to deter anyone who tries to treat women as commodities and involved in the exploitation of their bodies as they pleased.

The photograph was received negatively by the public. It critically ruined the reputation of the actress. The negativity of the photo was embedded to the fact that Kushboo is an Indian who is expected to follow the Indian culture and not the western way of displaying sexual pictures. The Indian concepts on sexuality and marriage are highly traditional and do not permit women to show any sexual advances through pictures. Due to this, Khushboo’s photo raised a lot of debate where the public viewed it to be an erosion of the celebrated Indian culture.

Ethical Issues Associated With the Photograph

Certainly, Khushboo’s photograph depicts a violation of the ethical photographing code of conduct. The editor failed to maintain the integrity of the photographing process in both context and content. The editor manipulated and doctored the photo in a way that misled the public and misrepresents the subject. The photographer did not stick to the ethical rule which stipulates that “While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events” (International Center for Ethics). Also, the photographer used the actress photo without her consent. The photo was aimed to the magazine a creative, dramatic and proactive visual boost to generate public attention and high sales. For this reason, doctoring the image in an attempt to maximize attention violated ethical issues and failed to have clear guidelines that were meant to reflect reality.

According to International Center for Ethics, the best practice in photography “editing should maintain the integrity of the images, content, and context” (International Center for Ethics). Manipulation and alteration of the photos misinform and misrepresents the person. Modifying an image of a model to appear appealing drives a desire in young people, particularly those in a college to struggled in the body image to appear like the model. Undoubtedly, the process distorts the perception of beauty to the society. International Center for Ethics provides five-step scale to what is and what is not acceptable in digital manipulation of photos. The first and the second step comprised of typical and interpretive darkroom practices which are acceptable. The third stage which involves minor alterations like removal and addition of elements on the image is acceptable. However, ethics stipulate that the essential message of the images should not be changed. According to the report, step four and five encompassing major alterations and image montage is unacceptable in digital manipulations. Ethical inquiry notes that manipulation distorts reality. Supporters of digital photographing allude that this process transforms the image into a digital art making it more appealing to viewers (Terras et al. 14). However, Photoshop has received a lot of negativity in public and significantly accused of creating unrealistic beauty standards due to its ability to control color, exposure, balance, and contrast which is harmful to women’s psyches.

Indeed, posting Khushboo’s sexual photo on an international magazine was a violation of individual rights and a defamation which saw her public image getting ruined. The image was deceptive, and the unrealistic. It promoted a flawless physique and features in young women who feel the pressure to conform to the expectations of societal beauty. Besides, Khushboo’s photo sends a poor message which caused low self-esteem to herself. The distortion evident in the photo where the Khushboo’s body was morphed on another woman body is awful. The image depicts women as being sexual objects through portraying the sexual physique. Khushboo was right to sue the publisher for the damages caused by the photo. This sent a lesson to other publishers who engage in exploitation of female bodies in attempts to advertise their magazines (Terras et al. 4).


Photograph manipulation is a practice that has survived years and occurred even before the invention of digital imaging and invention. The tremendous growth in photo manipulation trigger negativity in the society. At its core, the proliferation of computer technology has driven many photographers and editors into engaging in unethical practices such as posting of unrealistic images that are controversial. The aspect of the photo tampering significantly affect the young people who strive to look like the models exhibited in magazines. It lowers the self-esteem and body image as well as make them think that beauty is only associated with looking like the models. Impracticable demands of body perfection set by these images are detrimental. The sexual display makes them be viewed as sexual objects. For this reason, Khushboo was prompted to sue Maxim magazine not only for defamation but also for the negative portrayal of women.

Works Cited

BBC News. Indian star to sue Maxim over photo. BBC News Channel. 31 January 2006. Accessed on August 22, 2017 from

International Center for Ethics. Ethical Inquiry: The Ethics of Digital Photo Manipulation: Alterations in Pursuit of “Beauty”. August 2012. Accessed on August 22, 2017 from

Terras, M M et al. “Digital Media Production And Identity: Insights From A Psychological Perspective.” E-Learning And Digital Media, vol 12, no. 2, 2015, pp. 128-146. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1177/2042753014568179.

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