Keeping it Real: In Search of Lost Authenticity.

Exploring what it means to be real through examples of sugar abuse, dishonest ads, and over-edited photos.

Authenticity is not just some abstract concept — it is a choice and it has effects. In this article I will discuss authenticity within the context of food, advertising, and photography. I argue that while there may be short-term appeal in sacrificing authenticity, it distracts from foundational goals and is detrimental in the long-run. The style of this article is only half formal due to the nature of the topic, so I conclude with some photos.

Hiding behind a sweet face

For intuition, consider the abuse of sugar in the food industry.

An average person in the US consumes 126 grams of sugar daily (2/3 of a cup)— the highest in the world and roughly 4 times the maximum recommended by American Heart Association; a diet preference that is immediately gratifying, yet damaging in the long-term.

Over-reliance on sugar and other additives in the food industry is sacrificing their goal’s authenticity. Instead of focusing on the quality of ingredients and preparation, it is simpler and cheaper to mask the imperfections behind a facade.

While cutting corners in food production may ease manufacturing and distribution, it sacrifices the food’s purpose — satisfying customers with nourishing products that are good for them; it makes the food inauthentic, fake.

Loosing grasp of reality

Similar discussion on authenticity could be done for advertising. Many of us describe feeling “bombarded” with ads. General public favorability towards ads sank to only 25% in 2018 — declining steadily from being at 48% in 1992. (Credos, advertising think-tank).

Throwing unsupported claims at consumers is out of touch with reality. You can no longer promise one thing, but deliver another. Building trust with the consumer and focusing on transparency is the newly recommended advertising direction.(source) In other words, authenticity.

There is a difference between raising awareness about a product, and forcing your narrative about it. One gives permanent discounts to college students, the other sends daily email spam with “great deals”. One shows exactly what the product is and how it will work, the other conceals it with extra fine print saying “additional equipment and software used”.

Straying from truth

Mad Men told us that a photo can be “a time machine” to take us to “a place where we ache to go again”. (Source) Unsurprisingly, going through family film photo archive brought back bittersweet memories from more than a decade ago. Yet going through my recent years of phone photos brought vague flakes instead of vivid reminiscence. I felt a disconnect between how the moment felt and what my meant-to-be mementos made me feel.. or rather not feel. At best, they reached the status of a token — nothing particularly off, yet hollow.

iPhone X (top), Sony a7iii (bottom, pc: Max Kazakov). Neither has been edited. I think iPhone does a great job with color accuracy, but it still seems to lack the clarity of textures and feels flatter.

Our world is getting increasingly rooted in perception. With that, there comes more value than ever to authentic, emotion-evoking photography and other mediums of expression.

But we have somehow collectively forgotten how authenticity looks like and what it is. Instagram has incidentally encouraged a FaceTune¹ culture with its emphasis on ‘likes’ design (bright red color for ‘hearts’, vivid animation every time you open the app, etc.; more on addictive tech design from Tristan Harris) — once it is a competition, any means seem necessary. Phone manufacturers have naturally caught on to the trend.

Figure 1: Example of Samsung’s “beauty mode” in 2016. (source)

I had a friend whom I haven’t seen in a few years tell me that my face has “stretched out” based on my recent photos. I was confused until I figured out that my phone had a “beauty mode filter” on by default to 1) make the eyes bigger 2) smooth the skin and 3) make face thinner (see Figure 1) on top of vertical stretching from the camera lens. It took a couple of months of having a proper camera for my brain to readjust to how my face and body looks like in photos.

Less obviously, but similar philosophy could be noted in how the regular photo is approached. The reason why this is a philosophy is because the technology used can be chosen with a different priority in mind. For example, one can do behind the scenes bracketing equivalent (iPhone camera example) — taking multiple photos quickly with slightly different settings — thus collecting more real light information to work with to remove noise and fill in overexposed areas with real signal. Alternatively, one could apply a machine learning model to predict those. To various extent both of these approaches are used by phone manufacturers, but in my experience the more you step away from authentic real world signal, the more the photo feels fake.

The philosophy of over-retouching is masking the reality to maximize short-term appeal, but it diminishes photo’s authenticity and long-term relevance.

¹ FaceTune is an app that provides a user friendly UI for photoshop-like features such as 1) adding a smile 2) moving/changing size of facial features 3) making face slimmer 4) skin smoothing etc.; 60M downloads.


In the pursuit of optimizing immediate metrics (e.g. sales instead of customer satisfaction, clickthrough rate (CTR) instead of customer retention, ‘likes’ instead of long-term nostalgic feeling) and making things brighter, smoother, more vivid than they are, it is easy to forget that every alteration moves us further from the truth — the raw moment in all its texture, and blissful humility. Sometimes, less is more; saturating everything with glitter makes us numb to the subtleties in which the truth lies.

Authenticity is difficult to find and maintain, but it is easier if you know what you are looking for. Whoever you are and whatever you do, recognize the beauty in being real!

Shot on Sony a6300 (~600$) with either kit lens, or Meike 35mm 1.7 (80$).

Related ideas

  • The idea of beauty in the imperfect, transient is elegantly captured by Japanese ideas of Kintsugi (“golden joinery”), wabi-sabi (beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”).
  • Minimalism. Finding meaning in your possessions. Not owning things for the sake of ownership, but for the value they bring into your life.



Tech and good design enthusiast. @amazon, @hackny, @cuboulder.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store