Why erase people from photos?

The most replayed segment of a superbowl commercial for a phone that makes it easy to remove people from personal photos.
The most replayed segment of a Super Bowl commercial for a phone that makes it easy to remove people from personal photos. Credit: "Made By Google" Youtube Channel

12 bodies. That’s the number of people, including a dog and two cats, that were erased in Google’s 2023 Super Bowl commercial. The ad is for a “magic eraser” that lets you fix your photos. It is the banner feature in Google’s new phone, the Pixel. With a lasso motion of your finger around a person in a photo you can remove them as if they were never there.

The ad is really cheerful and light hearted. It is in a rather playful sense that people, who may no longer be in your life, are removed. Or maybe it is someone that never was in your life, but bombed a photo. Or it would just be helpful to tell a different story.

Editing photos of course doesn’t change history. It does however have a history that is as old as photography. A history that has something to say about our motivations and expectations of what the altered image can do.

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Let’s first rewind back to 1995. Super Bowl that year was San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers. The half time show was very weird – a musical promo for Indiana Jones with Patti LaBelle and Tony Bennett. The NFL might want to magic erase this memory.

Windows 95 was a better memory and it was 5 years after Adobe’s Photoshop was launched. With the personal computer and Photoshop, people were starting to get a sense of the possibilities for using computers to scan-in, restore and edit old photos. Keep in mind that digital cameras still have pretty much 0% market share compared to film cameras at this point, so the emphasis on photo editing was really all on the computer. 

There’s a telling article in the Wilmington Star News in 1995 on photo editing under the title: “Restore a memory or vitalize a vision. Digital imaging provides the technology to improve and manipulate photographs.”

The article covers all the features we see in the 2023 Super Bowl ad, but at the level of computers rather than cell phones. And there’s a strong sense of holding on to the physical photograph as the bonafide, original object. Here’s an excerpt: “It starts with a scan – a cool scan because a hot scan would burn the picture … Everything’s done digitally so it doesn’t hurt the original”.

The article goes on: “With digital imaging, ex-wives can be removed from pictures and new wives can be added.” I’m definitely curious about the plural use of wives. But the point is:  new technology made photo restoration services more accessible and those services were giving people new ideas. Such as colorization of old family black and white photos with your idea of the right eye color, hair color and skin tones. 

Reflecting on the motivation for editing photos in 1995, the article quotes a professional photo editor: “[People] are not buying a picture. They’re buying a memory. Most of the pictures are very important to families.”

Intriguingly, it speculates that in the future photographs will have an icon superimposed on the image that identifies whether it was altered. Clearly something that hasn’t happened, but it sure points to the ethical issues around image manipulation familiar to us today. And, in fact, this concern about altered photos messing with factuality dates way back.  

I found an article published and syndicated across a few dozen newspapers back in 1897 about this very issue with photography. The title of that short article was NOT GOOD EVIDENCE. “It is an easy matter to change photographic pictures”. The biggest concern about photography in 1897? Swapping bodies. “Pictures can be made to show the body of one person with the head of another, or it is possible to insert certain features desired in a photograph” Why do this? “…to obtain the most symmetrical results.” In other words, the photo looks better edited!

I love how the author described the simplicity of the process of editing photos. “By the use of nitric acid … any part of the silver print photograph … can be erased.” Easy peasy in 1897. You just need chemicals to doctor the past. 

Okay, though, so what? Are people actually deleting people from their photos? Are they trying to change the past or trying to preserve happy feelings about the past by editing photos? Or do we just love the idea that this is possible, but no one is actually doing it? And even if they are, maybe it is just for fun?

I don’t have the budget right now to conduct a survey, but if I did here’s the questions I would ask to help explore this topic further. I invite you to complete the survey on your personal photo editing experience! Your response is anonymous. Once I have 50 or more responses, I’ll report back in a future post on the summary of results.

In working on this piece, a friend directed me to the personal photo editing project of Conor Nickerson. Instead of erasing people from old memories, he inserted the image of his adult self into images of his childhood self. To me the result of these composite images of a man hanging out with his younger self makes me think of the generation growing up with mobile devices. With a photo library, right here in their pocket, they are likewise living with the image of their younger self always with them and not there, say, on the mantel of their parent’s fireplace, an object to leave and return to in time.

Finally, I want to end with some speculative ideas. 

First, I expect that people will start to think tactically about posing for a photo, asking: What should I do to avoid getting removed from photos? Maybe you could wear noisy clothes and pose against a noisy background. Or you could squeeze your face close to other people’s faces in group photos or stand in front of other people forcing your deletion to create an awkward hole to fill. You have to start to think like pattern recognition software. 

Second, what if, in the future, we had control over every iteration of our image across all photos, across all connected devices. In Europe they have a “right to be forgotten” concept embedded in privacy laws. The ability to remove yourself from everyone’s photos is perhaps not so far fetched given that law. In that case, you may want to be as machine readable as possible so that you can easily be automatically removed from all digital images. There’s an idea.

Thinking tactically about your fixity in photos is actually also not new. To prove it, I’ll turn to Abigail van Buren from her Dear Abby column. Here she is in 1985 giving a photographer the following advice:

“Dear Kim: I heard many years ago from a political figure who never missed an opportunity to get his picture in the newspaper. “Honey”, he said “when you’re posing with three or more people, never stand on the end; they might cut you off.”

Here’s a playlist of some music I enjoyed in March 2023. I hope you enjoy!

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