Before-and-After Photos As A Site of Proof or Controversy

© Copyright 2017 Samantha Lacy, Ryerson University.


Before-and-after photos have attained growing importance in beauty industry marketing, sciences, and on social media. The basic idea of a before-and-after photo is to compare two images side by side, one before a transformation and one after, often taken from the same perspective or angle in order to starkly represent differences and changes. The before-and-after photo is a format that can accommodate different kinds of content and has various usages dependent on the genres and fields in which it is incorporated. I will be using examples of NASA’s recent project, “Images of Change” to discuss how before-and-after photos are utilized in the realm of natural sciences, and will be using BBC’s “The Art of Before-And-After Photos” to show common conventions of the beauty industry before-and-afters in order to analyze the function of the format as a means of truth or proof within the respective genres and their specific techniques.

I will explore how a before-and-after photo conveys truth and why is it such a persuasive and pervasive tool, and how its ability to convey truth can be compromised depending on the genre and its adherence to specific conventions. I am interested in exploring the popularity of before-and-after photos across visually dependent genres, and whether there could be varying levels of truth that the format represents and its rhetorical status in the eyes of the viewers. At this point there is scant research on before-and-after photos and the difference of genre, so I have used past research on truth in photography and logos, as well as some current research of beauty industry tropes to establish its purpose and rhetorical status.

Understanding Truth

While photos are able to act as sites of proof or evidence within various disciplines, there is always anxiety about the potential for editing or manipulating photos can complicate credibility. Wendy Winn discusses early integration of photography into natural science in her 2009 article “Proof in Pictures”, writing that “the idea that photographs could record things as they actually look, implying ‘objective truth’, is a socially constructed view” (354). Scientists realized that while photographs did not eliminate human agency, “the properties of image recording devices did enable the images to demonstrate and prove things” (354). These quotations essentially explain that although humans are still involved in the picture-taking process and have an effect on aspects such as perspective, photos are an effective way to imply a truthful representation of an object. There are different interpretations of truth in relation to photography, such as the artist’s subjective truth through their representation of perspective, which is relevant to selfie before-and-afters on social media, or objective truth, in more scientific based before-and-afters (Thompson 28). Instead, the idea of verisimilitude, or likeness of the image to the object it contains, is more pertinent to before-and-after photos and their expression of truth (Thompson 27).

My focus is situated in the cultural belief that images represent evidence or objective facts, and examining why and how we accept or reject truth in before-and-after photos. As before-and-after photos are composed of two photos side by side, it is interesting to consider what this contributes to their truthiness; the quality of seeming or feeling true even if not necessarily true (Oxford Dictionary). Jeanne Fahnestock’s idea of visual parallelism states that visual arrangement creates an argument through parallelism of three or more images horizontally or vertically aligned, in which the images are “approximately the same size and shape and they incorporate the same color, background, and viewing angle” (Winn 376). This type of visual deployment can facilitate making inferences from the images. Although Fahnestock attributes this parallelism to images in groups of three, I think it is applicable to the argument of comparison that before-and-after photos make, as they meet the rest of the criteria perfectly about being the same size, shape, usually the same background, and angle. Visual parallelism can then be seen as a reason that viewers can find truth or proof in before-and-after photos, as Fahnestock states, “parallel form, whatever the content, is in itself a persuasive device” (Winn 377). Before-and-after photos are even more persuasive because they show a transformation, inviting the viewer to compare differences between the images. Thus it is important to understand how this format operates and stresses its truthiness in different genres.

Environmental Science and Photographic Evidence

Photographs are a moment in time that acts as evidence or testimony, making them very useful tools to extract truth and understanding in the genre of science, allowing for before-and-after photos to flourish in this field and be widely accepted as truthful. In environmental science, most proof is of physical or visual nature, as Winn discusses the fact that scientists have become increasingly dependent on visuals in making their arguments and accompanying their research, “scant attention is paid to how visuals operate semiotically in this context” (352). Winn’s article revolves around this lack of attention to how images in science are perceived and how they persuade. I find that environmental sciences have begun to use before-and-after photos to act as further proof or evidence of climate change, because they allow the viewer to see a transformation in a way that a single photograph does not.

Figure 1 “Climate Change: Images of Change: Exceptionally Early Ice Melt In Greenland.” Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet, NASA, Jan 2017.

These before-and-after photos follow the visual parallelism requirements previously outlined and thus act as a persuasive tool for scientists to visually display their data in this field. This can be seen in Figure 1 and Figure 2, taken from NASA’s “Images of Change” 2016 project, which used primarily satellite imaging data to compose before-and-after photos depicting various climate change related transformations around the world (“Climate Change”). In Figure 2, the screen grab shows how the website photos are accompanied by the month and year each photo is taken and the area and issue that has caused the transformation, contributing to tropes of the before-and-after photo that often requires dating the images. This additional information further contributes to logos, or the appeal to reason and logic, as it presents more evidence to back up the visual proof of the argument. Logos is effective in persuading viewers with facts, statistics, and is even employed visually through the images of the before-and-after format as it demands the viewer to use their reason and logic to differentiate between the before and the after for themselves.

Figure 2 “Climate Change: Images of Change: Older, Thicker Arctic Sea Ice Declines.” Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet, NASA, Jan 2017.

The before-and-after format is useful in displaying the transformation of the ice in both Figure 1 and 2, as one single image would not be able to communicate these changes as effectively. Both Figures use visual parallelism in a very noticeable way, whereas some other before-and-after photos are not able to look so identical. This is partially due to the ability of scientists to compile their data and images through computerized systems, which is enclosed in the captioning of the images. This can be seen in the description of Figure 2 on the Images of Change website, “In these visualizations of data from buoys, weather stations, satellites and computer models, the age of the ice is indicated by shades ranging from blue-gray for the youngest ice to white for the oldest” (“Climate Change”). This is an important example of the disclosure of modifications and compositional techniques within the science genre, as they intend to be as forthright and factual as possible. Due to the intuitive format of the before-and-after, which draws our eyes from the before on the left to the after on the right, mimicking conventional reading patterns of left to right, the viewer is still able to tell which image came first even without dates or titles. Overall these before-and-after photos from NASA effectively provide visual evidence to climate change research and appeal to logos because they follow Fahnestock’s criteria of visual parallelism and enclose dates and compositional data, implying an objective truthfulness to the viewer as backed by facts and reason.

Beauty Industry and Exposed Deception

The beauty industry has often been criticized for its concealed manipulation of photos, which has denigrated the ability for photos in this genre to be held as truthful. This is also the case with beauty before-and-after photos as a marketing technique, leading to a lack of perceived truthfulness by the viewer. Before-and-after photos are most popularly used in marketing cosmetic surgery or diet supplements and plans, as the format is understood to be a tool of authority and reliability in reaching an uncertain or sceptical viewer. As published in Plastic Surgery Practice Los Angeles, “Used on websites, advertising, and in the office, before-and-after photos can be one of the best ways to showcase the results of a procedure and provide a level of assurance that the plastic surgeon will deliver the desired results” (“Are Before-and-after Photos HIPPA Compliant?”). This quote shows that promoting before-and-after photos is an effective mode of proof to potential clients, as it is able to depict positive transformations and prove credibility.

One issue that has arisen from the growth of this before-and-after tactic is the lack of proper consent of the individual whose transformation photos are being used, as well as fraudulent after photos that have been edited or included the wrong dates (“Are Before-and-after Photos HIPPA Compliant”). The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) provides advice on how to properly use before-and-after photos in marketing, as many beauty ads exaggerate the efficacy of their products, and hold no evidence to prove otherwise, leading to legal consequences (“Before and After Photos”). Further, CAP states, “The main message here is that advertising claims (including visual claims) should not mislead by exaggerating the effect the product is capable of achieving” (“Before and After Photos”). The need for a specific page on the Committee’s website speaks to not only the pervasiveness of before-and-after photos in advertising beauty products, but also the enormous issues that come with ensuring authenticity within the photos and their lack of manipulation or exaggeration.

Figure 3 “The Art of Before-and-After Photos” BBC News, March 2015.

Further, while these before-and-after photos should share the same visual parallelism as the environmental science genre, there are certain noticeable tropes to the beauty before-and-afters that not only diminish the parallelism, but undermine their logos and effectiveness in promoting credibility and truthfulness. Focusing on the weight loss genre specifically, there have been many efforts to expose the falsity of these before-and-after photos and the apparent conventions of these fake transformations. BBC did a segment on the popular tactics that go into making fake before-and-after photos, as can be seen in Figure 3, making changes such as spray-tanning, better lighting, and better posture in order to make the after shot look better (“The Art of Before-And-After Pictures”). BBC’s participants only took 2 hours to be transformed cosmetically, exposing the simplicity of producing a false before-and-after photo, as many companies have been accused of doing (“The Art of Before-And-After Pictures”).

Figure 4 @Corrynstabliefitness, 30 second transformation before-and-after, Instagram photo, April 2017.

Similarly, Figure 4 depicts a photo that is part of a social media hashtag #30secondtransformation, which gained popularity as fitness coaches and models alike took part in attempting to debunk weight loss before-and-after myths by posting a photo of them sticking out their tummies or posing naturally and then posed to show how different the results could be. The fight against fake before-and-after photos in the beauty industry shows that content of before-and-after photos is very relevant to the truthiness or persuasiveness of the format, as without believable, or extreme differences, human transformations seem to be perceived as less truthful. Another reason that beauty before-and-after photos appear to be less representative of truth or proof to the viewer is because of their playing on insecurities and vulnerabilities of the viewer such as body weight, wrinkles or the like, making a less objective appeal to logic and reason in its presentation of evidence. Ultimately, it appears that beauty before-and-afters need to adhere to stricter parallelism and post dates on their photos or provide further proof in order to be identified as legitimate.

Concluding Thoughts

While before-and-after photos are popular in many genres, environmental sciences and beauty industries both heavily rely on visual proofs and often employ before-and-after photos as evidence. Both genres contain the basics aspects of before-and-after photo formatting, while NASA photos exhibited a more correct adherence to visual parallelism (e.g., similar size, lighting, background, and viewing angle), beauty marketing often contained noticeable differences in lighting, pose, and expressions in the after photo which seemed to diminish truth. The sciences seems to incorporate before-and-afters into research and accompany it with dates and facts as a strong appeal to logos, whereas the beauty industry often omits a timestamp and were often perceived as deceitful due to their noticeable manipulations, making their appeal to logos less effective. The loss of truth appears to occur partially due to the way the image in circulated, as beauty industries promote before-and-afters in ads, which are already often a site of distrust, while scientific before-and-afters are often published in scholarly or scientific forms of media, such as official websites or journals, often a trusted or more credible site of publication.

While there is not much research done on the format and rhetorical status of the before-and-after photo at this time, I believe that it is an interesting area for further study. A possible inquiry could be whether beauty before-and-after photos operate as a visual representation of pathos, embodying an emotional appeal of desire for transformation in the viewer. Another potential analysis could probe into how the visual format of before-and-afters helps the viewer draw conclusions based on the comparison set up. For example, NASA’s before-and-after photos lead us to the conclusion that the observed transformations are not only happening but are bad, whereas in beauty industries, the after photo is considered to be an improvement over the before. The presence of this format in marketing, sciences, and social media is only a small sampling of the reach it has; the utility of before-and-after photos has implications for almost any visually dependent industry as well as for individuals and their own digital accounts, necessitating further study of its rhetorical status.


Works Cited

“Are Before-and-After Photos HIPAA Compliant?” Plastic Surgery Practice (Online); Los Angeles, Anthem Media Group, June 2016.

Corryn, @Corrynstabilefitness, “Please stop comparing yourself to others”, Instagram, 3 April, 2017.

“Climate Change: Images of Change: Older, Thicker Arctic Sea Ice Declines.” Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet, NASA, Jan 2017.

“Climate Change: Images of Change: Exceptionally Ealry Ice Melt, Greenland.” Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet, NASA, Jan 2017.

“The Art of Before-and-After Pictures.” BBC News, 3 March 2015.

Thompson, Jerry L. “Truth and Photography.” The Yale Review, vol. 90, no.1, 2002, pp. 25–53.

“Truthiness”, OED Online, Oxford Dictionaries, 3 April 2017.

Winn, Wendy. “‘Proof’ in Pictures: Visual Evidence and Meaning Making in the Ivory-            Billed Woodpecker Controversy.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication vol. 39, no.4, 2009, pp. 351–379.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.