Retouching Reality (9-12)

What are the creative and ethical aspects of digital-photo manipulation?

Students think critically about the different purposes and contexts of digital image editing.

Students explore various benefits and drawbacks of photo manipulation with three case studies. The first prompts students to think about photo editing as a fun and artistic activity. The second raises ethical questions about altering photos, specifically within the context of journalism. The third invites students to think about the impacts that digitally manipulated photos have on different audiences. All three case studies highlight various ways that online communities both celebrate and regulate digital photo manipulation.

Note: Though the issue of digital photo manipulation may seem specific, it can be used as an example of the much larger and more general problem of what happens when easy access to user-friendly new technologies outpaces the formation of an ethical roadmap regarding their use.

Students will be able to ...

  • consider both the creative benefits and ethical drawbacks of digital photo manipulation.
  • understand the importance of purpose and context in evaluating digitally edited images.
  • think critically about how the Internet allows users to both celebrate and regulate our “copy-change-paste” culture.


Materials and Preparation

  • If possible, prepare to project the websites used in the activities so that students can view them as a class, or have students view them on shared computers. If computers are not available in the classroom, prepare for the activities by printing out the two photos in the Introduction and the photo prompt from Teach 1, so that students can pass around and view printed images.
  • Copy the Photo Fuss Part I and Photo Fuss Part II Student Handouts, one for each student.


Teaching Plans


Warm-up (5 minutes)

ASK: Have you ever been fooled by an image online that you thought was real but turned out to be fake?
Invite a few volunteers to share their answers with the class, or ask students to discuss with a partner.

DEFINE the Key Vocabulary terms digital photo manipulation and deception.

TELL students that as a class they are going to explore the role that digitally manipulated photos play in our 21st-century world. Students should keep the following questions in mind throughout the lesson:

  • Where do we draw the line between creativity and deception?
  • How do the purpose and context of photo editing affect how we feel about it?
  • What role does the Internet play in allowing us to share, inspire, and critique images that have been edited?


teach 1

Photo Fun (10 minutes)

ASK students if they have ever played around with any photo-editing programs. Invite one or two students to share a personal example. (Note: Many teens use the word photoshop as a verb to describe editing a digital image. For example, students may say that they “photoshopped” an image to change its color saturation, or to change the background to something more fun. Others may share their experiences using image-editing programs in simpler ways, such as removing red-eye or cropping a photo.)

EXPLAIN that digital editing can be a fun and creative process – something that people not only do professionally, but also as a hobby.

SHOW students this webpage from The Pioneer Woman blog.

EXPLAIN that The Pioneer Woman is a blog run by a woman in Oklahoma. She sometimes blogs about her passion for photography and shares tips for photo editing. She even hosts photo-editing contests for her readers. In this particular contest, she invited anyone to digitally edit a photo of her family’s dog, Charlie, and submit it online.

INVITE students to read through The Pioneer Woman’s “Edit THIS!” assignment online.

DIRECT students to some samples of people’s submissions to the photo contest, for example:

INVITE students to comment on the different submissions.


  • What are some different editing techniques that you see?
  • Which photos are meant to look artistic? Which ones are meant to look funny?
  • Which photos look real, and which don’t? Why?

​ASK: Why do you think users would want to submit a photo to this contest – especially since there were no official prizes?
Guide students to recognize that some people digitally edit photos as a hobby or as a form of art. Sharing your work online with other people also may make people feel that they are part of a community. Or, in the words of The Pioneer Woman herself, “It’ll be fun to see everyone’s different take on the same photo!”


teach 2

When Retouching Gets Touchy — Part I (15 minutes)

DEFINE the Key Vocabulary term retouching.

EXPLAIN that retouching is a form of digital photo manipulation. For example, you can retouch someone’s eyes in a photo to make them look brighter and bigger. Or you could retouch a photo of a room by adding a door, or editing out cracks in a wall.

DEFINE the Key Vocabulary terms context and controversy.

TELL students that photo retouching can be viewed as a form of creative self-expression. However, depending on the context, photo retouching can also be viewed as deceptive or unethical, because it might mislead people and violate viewers’ trust.

TELL students that retouching can cause particular controversy in regard to journalism or news reporting, when people expect the information they receive to be factual.

ARRANGE students in groups of three or four.

DISTRIBUTE the Photo Fuss – Part I Student Handout, one for each student. Instruct students to read the article together and then write down their answers to the discussion questions that immediately follow.

INVITE students to share their answers to the following questions:

  1. Why did the news service apologize for this digitally manipulated photo? Why was it so controversial? (Guide students to recognize that people trust major news organizations, such as Reuters, to provide accurate, credible reports on current events. In this case, the digitally edited photo represented an air raid as more damaging than it really was. People may also wonder whether the photographer had personal or political motivations for editing the photo this way.)
  2. Do you think it’s unethical for news articles to use digitally edited photos? Why or why not? (Student responses may vary. Some may argue that newspapers have a responsibility to present information to the public as accurately as possible. Readers should be able to trust their news sources, and digitally manipulated photos are not factual representations of reality. Other students may argue that editing is not always a bad thing, and that photographers should be able to correct the color and lighting of their photos, to make them visually appealing, for example. Students may also argue that all news is told through a reporter’s perspective anyway, so no news story is truly “real.”)
  3. Who were the first people to notice this photo mishap? What role does the Internet play in allowing us to recognize and judge digitally manipulated images? (Students should realize that bloggers were the first to notice that the photo was manipulated. This indicates that the Internet pushes digital photo manipulation to a new level, because online communities can rapidly share images and draw attention to deceptive or controversial ones.)

REMIND students that they have discussed two different contexts for photo manipulation. The Pioneer Woman blog showed the fun, creative side of digital editing. The Reuters article showed why digital manipulation can be viewed as unethical and deceptive, especially when used in journalism.

EXPLAIN to students that they will now consider a third aspect of digital manipulation: audience. (This third case study can be used optionally, or assigned for homework, if there is not enough time for it in class.)


teach 3

When Retouching Gets Touchy — Part II (15 minutes)

DISTRIBUTE the Photo Fuss – Part II Student Handout, one for each student. Tell students to discuss the article in their small groups, as directed.

INVITE students to share their answers to the following questions:

  1. Is there a difference between a digitally manipulated image in an advertisement and one in a news article? Do the benefits and drawbacks of photo manipulation depend on the context, which means where and how the photos are used? (Answers may vary. People often expect advertisements to be creative and catchy, not necessarily factual. Rather than delivering news to an audience, advertisements target certain audiences to sell products. But advertisements do communicate a company’s values, and they can certainly offend people.)

  2. Some people wondered if Microsoft changed the photo in order to appeal to a mostly white Polish audience. Would that be a valid reason to manipulate the photo? Do you think what Microsoft did was ethical? (Answers may vary. Some students may argue that Microsoft had a right to edit the photo as a business strategy to help market the company. Others may argue that purposefully editing something that’s as significant as someone’s race is offensive and unethical, no matter what the motivations are.)

  3. Do you think we should have rules about how photos are digitally manipulated? Why or why not? If so, what would they be? (Answers may vary. Students should show some awareness of the ethical challenges involved in digital photo manipulation, but also in policing such alterations. Some students might suggest that photos should be labeled if they have been altered, while other students might believe that the online community should be left to identify and call out controversial instances of digital photo manipulation. Students might conclude that there are no easy answers to these ethical challenges. You may use this opportunity to point out that in this case, as in others, new technologies are developing faster than our ability to form an ethical roadmap for their use.)



Wrap-up (5 minutes)

You can use these questions to assess your students’ understanding of the lesson objectives. You may want to ask students to reflect in writing on one of the questions, using a journal or an online blog/wiki.

ASK: Where do we draw the line between creativity and deception?
Many would argue that manipulating a photo, in and of itself, is not unethical. It depends on context, and how the edited image is presented to other people. For example, some students might argue that news media and entertainment media should be held to different standards. People depend on the news for objective, factual information and rely on unedited photos to learn about current events. Some might argue that advertisements are creative, and advertisers should be allowed to do whatever they want. Others may think that while advertising can be creative, advertisers still should be held responsible for their power to shape people’s impressions of gender roles, minority groups, etc.

ASK: How do the purpose and context of photo editing affect how we feel about it?
Sometimes it is for fun, creative, and artistic purposes. Sometimes people manipulate photos to alter people’s perception of reality, or to reach out to a certain audience. The context changes what we expect when we view a photo, and how we might feel about having it altered without our knowledge.

ASK: What role does the Internet play in allowing us to share, inspire, and critique images that have been edited?
Students should point out that bloggers played an important role in each of the three cases. Students should realize that people have been editing photos for a long time, long before digital media was even around. However, the Internet takes digital photo manipulation to a new level because it’s very easy to share and discuss edited content online. The Pioneer Woman and TechCrunch are examples of blogs that inspire people to be creative to show off their digital-editing skills. In the Reuters and Microsoft cases, bloggers were the first to notice – and spread the word about – controversial, manipulated photos.



Have students edit The Pioneer Woman’s photo of her dog, Charlie, as if they were submitting it to her Edit THIS! contest. Students can use free, online photo-editing software, such as Picnik, GIMP, or Seashore – Mac only. Be sure students provide proper credit to The Pioneer Woman’s photo. Students should write a sign to accompany their photo, similar to a museum placard, which includes the subject, name of the original photographer (Ree Drummond), their name, and a brief description of their editing approach. Did they try to make the photo look realistic? Or were they trying to be playful, and funny? Thinking beyond the contest, under what circumstances – if any – would students have to let people know that the photo was edited?

At-Home Activity

Have students read the following and then answer the questions below:

In 2003 actress Kate Winslet released the following statement about a photo of her that was retouched for the cover of GQ magazine:

“The retouching is excessive. I do not look like that and more importantly I don’t desire to look like that. I actually have a Polaroid that the photographer gave me on the day of the shoot. ... I can tell you they’ve reduced the size of my legs by about a third.”

What are your opinions about photo retouching in magazines? Do you think that it’s unethical for magazines and ads to feature images of men and women that have been retouched? Or is it okay? Do you think these images influence our standards for beauty and health? Why or why not? In what way?


Alignment with Standards

Common Core & NETS•S
Common Core State Standards Initiative ©2012 & National Educational Technology Standards for Students ©2007, International Society for Technology in Education

Common Core:

  • grades 9-10: RL.4, RL.10, RI.4, RI.7, RI.10, W.4, W.6-8, W.10, SL.1a-d, SL.2, SL.5, L.6
  • grades 11-12: RL.4, RL.10, RI.4, RI.7, RI.10, W.4, W.6-8, W.10, SL.1a-d, SL.2, SL.5, L.6

NETS•S: 1a, 1c, 1d, 2a, 3d, 4d, 5b, 6a