What Happens When You Give Up Your Ethics for a Paycheck?
This is the year it happened– I sold out. I gave up my ethics and morals for a paycheck.
It started much like any other gig. I got an inquiry and responded. I went out on recce to identify subjects for the story. I did interviews and found out that many of the people I was interviewing were receiving only nominal help from the organization. I made a full report prior to the organization of my findings.
The day I received the final shot list, my stomach dropped. There were several people that were receiving very little help on the list to be photographed. I immediately felt uncomfortable and contacted the organization. They delved further in and were able to give me a more detailed list of what exactly was being provided. It wasn’t much but they were helping every person in some small way.
Even though I felt uncomfortable, I decided to uphold my end of the contract. I’m still not sure why I did it. My gut told me to walk away. But my business brain told me that I need so many jobs to make my goals for the year. I met some truly vulnerable people. I photographed them. Doing my job never felt so wrong.
Months later when the donation campaign rolled out, my gut proved its accuracy. The photo that had been selected was my subject with a sad, serious expression. It had been digitally darkened to make the situation seem dire. And that resilient woman I met, who had survived so much seemed small and powerless.
I pride myself on connecting with my subjects. I present stories that show my subjects with dignity. And I believe that everyone has the capacity to change his or her lives. Sometimes they need resources to do that. And those resources often come from nonprofits. But this was the first time that I had seen my image being used as poverty porn.
The organization was fully in their rights to do what they did. Nonprofits are businesses. They have a brand and they create materials based on those brands. This nonprofit was doing what it had always done to raise funds.
The mistake was mine. I hadn’t done research. I looked at the paycheck instead of fully researching the ways my photos could be used and how the organization had used imagery in the past. In retrospect, I can say there is not enough money in the world that justifies removing a human beings dignity. I have the freedom to choose what kind of photos that I create. It is up to storytellers to make ethical choices with our lenses.
What about you? Have you ever taken a job that you were ashamed of later? What action have you taken to prevent it in the future?