Confessions of a Retoucher

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This week, I tweeted a link to The Photoshop Hall of Shame which caused some interesting discussion amongst my peer group about how important it is that people know images are retouched, how our minds can process them knowing this, how to NOT buy into the media machine that tells us we aren’t good enough. I then came across something shocking: a “photographer’s best friend” (a digital retoucher) who decided less than 2 months ago to quit his job and call for reform in the industry. Below is a video of him explaining what happened, and an accompanying letter (posted here with Roy’s consent.) WOW.

My name is Roy A. Cui and I live and work in Los Angeles, California. You may be familiar with my work. I have worked on many clothing and beauty advertising campaigns. I’ve worked on covers and editorial spreads for popular magazines that you see in the grocery store. You’ve probably even seen my handiwork on the billboards or bus stops you pass by on your way to work. You may have even seen my work in well-known art galleries in Los Angeles, New York, and Europe.

If you’re thinking that I’m a photographer, I’m not. I’m a photographer’s best friend. My pseudonym is EyeConArtist: I con the eye, and my tagline is “making the unreal appear real.” My chosen profession is being a digital retoucher. I’m a part of the media machine that has suckered you into thinking that you need to look like this flawless person who does not exist anywhere in the world. You then feel unhappy with how you really look, so you buy the products that the person of perfection is using in the image that I retouched.

I didn’t enter this profession with the intention of deceiving people. My first passion was photography and I worked as an assistant to many Los Angeles based photographers in the early 90’s. Then I was introduced to the “magic” of Photoshop and I was in awe of the endless possibilities that Photoshop offered.

When I started out as a retoucher, photographers made every effort to make sure they had near flawless sets, models, apparel, makeup, and products. They shot their images with film, which were scanned and then retouched. If the images needed digital retouching, it was extremely expensive and only large companies could afford to have it done. If small commercial companies needed retouching back then, it was minimal.

Today, with photographic technology where it is, it’s not just the major campaigns that have retouching done. It’s every image produced for public consumption that is retouched, whether it’s a model, a bar of soap or even a dog. EVERY image used in advertising is retouched.

It’s standard for me to thin and elongate legs, thin down the waist and arms, remove any bulging flesh, remove wrinkles, bags under the eyes, blemishes, freckles, tattoos, fix a lazy eye, remove or minimize creases where there should be creases, like the underarm or the neck. As more and more has been asked of me technology made it easier to do more in less time, I never questioned the ethics of what I was being asked to manipulate.

It never occurred to me that what I was doing was causing anyone any harm. Everyone knows everything is retouched right? If they don’t, it’s not that big of a deal. We take everything we see with a grain of salt, right? It didn’t cross my mind until about ten years ago when I was out with a friend at a popular apparel store. The store had several images of their product all over the store that I had worked on. I mentioned this to the young woman that was helping us and she looked at me in disbelief and wanted to know what was done on the images. I pointed at one image and explained that I had cleaned up every square inch of that model’s skin, brought in the bulges from where the bra and panties were tight on her hips, torso and shoulders, thinned down the sides of her body to give her a smooth hourglass look, and even changed the color of some of the garments. She was horrified. She told me that she had no idea and that she came to work everyday thinking that something was wrong with her because she didn’t look like the girls modeling the clothes in the pictures. I told her that everything that she sees in print media has been retouched, especially women in ANY ad, and reassured her that she looked fine…the MODELS don’t even look like that.

She was only one person. How many other women feel that way when they look at the images I’ve had a hand at retouching? Maybe those thoughts filled my head that day, but I had more important things to focus on like making living with what I know how to do, retouching… What was pressing me to keep going: Feeding and clothing my two sons and daughter.

My daughter is 11 now. She’s old enough to internalize what she sees. I think she’s beautiful inside and out and I’d hate to think I had anything to do with making her dislike herself. So, I tell her about how retouching is used in every printed image she sees and even show her before and after’s of files I’ve worked on, because I’m on the inside. But what about all those other girls, young women and ladies that have no clue as to how the images they see affect them? I’ve felt, for years, that I should do something about it.

These thoughts of needing to spread the truth have haunted me and grown greater with every passing year. It all came boiling to the surface after seeing the screening of Miss Representation at the California Endowment on May 17, 2012. Periodically during the movie there were images flashing on the screen that were taken from print ads to show examples of how women are being negatively portrayed in media. Then one of the covers that I retouched popped up in the movie and a lightning bolt of anxiety shot through me.

During the Q&A after the screening I mustered up the courage to go up and ask the director, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, how I could help turn things around, stop being a part of how the media portrays women, and maybe still be able to make a living. She was so impressed by me coming forward to start being part of the change that I decided to get my story out, risking career suicide, just to try and do my part to change the culture.

Which leads me to here, my first video blog. Now that I’ve decided to make this change, I don’t know what happens next. I’m scared, but I know it’s the right thing to do. I don’t know where, when, or how, but I need to find a way to use my talents in a positive and constructive way.

Hopefully my story can help women understand how they are being manipulated and maybe even get magazines, photographers, art directors, ad agencies AND their clients to realize what they are doing to the women of the world.

So, please help me support to get magazines to have ONE UNretouched image of a model printed per publication for this summer.

Thanks for listening to my story and stay tuned to see how this turns out for me.


Check out some very interesting comments on this post on Reddit.

Got time for more? Read about The Day I Lied To Facebook. And please, Don’t Call Me Beautiful.

26 thoughts on “Confessions of a Retoucher

  1. I’ve added “beauty redefined” to my blogroll. As a father of girls it’s something I feel really strongly about. Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much for your courage!! As a former psychologist, I know so well the damages, often hidden and working through the subconscious, that the media can cause in terms of people’s self-image and self-esteem. Again, Thank You!!

    2. Thank you so much to Gemma for featuring our Photoshop Phoniness Hall of Shame and Gerry for your support! Fathers are such a hugely important force for good in a girl’s life, and your support means so much to the Beauty Redefined campaign as well. Thank you!

  2. He has(had) my dream job. I’m stuck photoshopping boring bike parts. I’d rather be photoshopping people. I would probably not be happy changing somebodies weight, but wrinkles, spots and blemishes is just standard. Its just digital makeup.
    Its become a bit of a merry-go round. Are the people affected by the media? Or does the media deliver what the people want? If all magazines suddenly started showing un-retouched images, I’m afraid I think it would take a very long time to seep through and affect the deep routed notions of our culture.

    1. Clive, the movie that really challenged Roy, Miss Representation, suggests that the media is both the message and the messenger; it is as you say a merry-go round! I think you’re right in that it would definitely take a long time to get used to unretouched images etc – but I think, when the purpose of airbrushing and editing is to make consumers feel that they are not enough in order to sell a product/lifestyle/person, it would be worth the effort.

    2. Clive, *something*, *somewhere*, has to break the cycle. It has begun, but you’re right — it took decades for advertising (which is the main culprit for disseminating warped body images) to reach this level of psychosocial impact. It will take decades to heal it. Doesn’t mean we should continue to feed ourselves and our kids poison, though, does it?

  3. Thank you, thank you! As a woman and as a mother of a daughter, I appreciate what you are doing. I know it has to be scary careerwise, but you are my hero today!

  4. Thanks so much for sharing this! I’m an International Wellbeing Consultant and the amount of issues my clients come to me with, regarding their poor self esteem and imbalanced perception of themselves is astounding. They are constantly comparing themselves to a “fantasy woman” that doesn’t even exist!! I really appreciate what you are doing Roy!

  5. I am grateful to you for stepping up to this and speaking out! Thank you for sharing your story. And I support you and your new direction 100% 🙂 Very courageous.

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