Virtual Thinning: Websites Offer Expert *Photoshop* Services For The Masses

It's not cheating...!
It's not cheating...!
Caroline Stevan

BARCELONA - The couple looks in love and relaxed. The evening twilight gives the picture perfect lighting and the background is idyllic. But right next to them, in front of the Alpine range, there's a herd of tourists with their horrible fluorescent bobble hats.

You know them – the photo bombers, the people who just won’t leave that spot you’re trying to take a photo of – they are legion. Then there are the red eyes, the ungraceful bottle of Coke on a beautiful table, the electric poles, the shadows and of course… the “exes.”

Despite software available online, and software provided by Canon and other digital camera manufacturers, as well as the editing tools integrated to most digital cameras, many amateurs still aren’t able to fix their problematic photos themselves.

But now there’s help! Based in Catalonia, Spain, the company Muchbetterpictures will fix their photos for them. After Spain and the UK, the company is now expanding to the rest of Europe. “People in this business always work in fashion or advertising. We work with photos from private individuals and they’re usually pretty bad,” admits Felix Tarrida, the company’s founder. “It’s not very glamorous but everyone deserves pretty pictures, right?”

On the website, there are numerous examples of photos that have been more or less saved from mediocrity. You have the classics – erasing cranes and signposts that ruin the landscape; a white sky turned blue; bright lights dimmed. Then there’s your more sophisticated fixes – a divorced son-in-law eliminated from a family picture; a bonnet falling from a baby’s head put back in place; baby drool wiped off; two group portraits merged together to please everyone. “These are souvenirs of a lifetime. So if everybody looks great on them, it’s worth the 30 euros,” says Felix Terrida. The cost of a photo fix ranges from 15 to 45 euros depending on the degree of adjustments to be made, and delivery is guaranteed within three days.

The modifications can go very far. For instance: this shot of a wedding in which the missing groom was added afterwards and where plates were emptied of their half-eaten food. In effect, photography ceases to be a document. “We are going back to the pictorial logic of photography. The composition depicts an event, but is not a snapshot anymore, while the models are made better,” analyzes image sociologist Gianni Haver. “The photo is turner into an idealized souvenir, not a real one. This is somewhat problematic for us because photography is considered as an imprint of reality.”

Portraits of dead people

Most people want people erased from their photos, not added. Laura Stucki lives in Lausanne and used Muchbetterpictures to clear the background behind her at the London Olympics last summer: “I was at an Athletics final and wanted a nice memory of it. The guy behind me, an organizer, was spoiling the shot. The two pictures are completely different, I look so much better without him!”

At Muchbetterpictures, fixing holiday pics comes first in the list of requests. At Studioregard, in Geneva, a company that provides editing services in addition to their traditional photography activities, they don’t get many requests, but when they do, they are very specific. “We restore many old photos but most of the time, we are asked to cut deceased people out of a recent group shot to paste their portraits onto a more neutral background,” says Carmelo Azzarello. Photograph David Maréchal, on the other hand, says that his job for Swiss company Altitude Pictures is mostly about fixing red eyes and removing dust-spots.

Sometimes, it’s about making the subject more presentable. For instance, Muchbetterpictures offers “virtual thinning.” “The dating sites and social networks that require photos have opened a whole new market of digital enhancement,” explains Gianni Haver. “More and more people have their first meeting via a photo, and there are lots of other profiles competing with you, so you better look good on that photo.”

Should this be considered as a kind of manipulation? “The photo has to be believable; the person needs to be recognizable. But we use make-up and dye our hair, which is pretty much the same thing. There’s nothing shocking about this,” says Felix Tarrida. Loïc Olive, founder of Photograpix, based in Brittany, France, agrees with him: “As long as the person is okay with it and gave the green light for every modification, there’s no problem. My limits are technological; there are things we can’t do, like erase someone if he’s standing in front of a very complex background.”

Felix Tarrida has already had to turn down requests. “During the campaign for the secession of Catalonia, we were asked to dress a political figure in a way that was offensive.” And while websites specialized in fixing photos for the larger public are still rare, it is better to check first before you send them your most precious memories. Recently, clients who had sent pictures that where too blue got them back unaltered, but with lovely little fishes swimming in the backround.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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