Do You Have a Line You Won’t Cross in Photography?

A recent heated discussion on a photographer making her political affiliations known led me to another thought… is there a line you won’t cross in your work? Should there be?

It is a competitive market out there. There are bills to pay, and gear to maintain, and braces for the kids. I know it is hard to turn down work, but I have on occasion. I have some standards that are my own, and they are not forced on anyone else. And I try to adhere to them.

I think when the discussions of politics and religion come up, I tend to shy away if it is in a business setting. At a party, I have no problem with telling someone that they are wrong. 😉 And I am told I am wrong a lot of times as well. (Usually by people that are wrong about me being wrong, but I digress…)

But it also reminds me of Jill Greenburg and her notoriously stupid move with the photos of Presidential nominee John McCain. Not stupid in the way that someone would mean she should have liked him, but stupid in the way it made photographers come into more scrutiny by editors. Stupid in that it made the job of photographers who may agree or disagree with a candidate more under the microscope of the handlers and people around them. And it was totally unethical. It cost her a bit at the time.

I think a photographer has two choices when doing this kind of work:
1. Do the job as a professional, work as hard as you always do to make a photograph that is excellent. Then keep your mouth shut as to what you ‘really feel’ about the person or company or eeeeeevillll corporation. Cash the check, show your book, get more gigs.
2. Don’t do the gig.

ARGGGHHHH… turn down a gig?

Yeah. Why not? If your personal feelings are so strong that you cannot move past them and do the gig right, then don’t do it. Mountains will not crumble, nor will there be rending of cloth and fear in the eyes of children. It’s OK. Say no.

I have a few lines I won’t cross in my work.

1. I do not shoot real fur. Ever. Not that I am one of the wackos who throw paint on people wearing furs (someone is going to try that on the wrong person… ), but I also realize that there comes a time where necessity does not bear out the reality. There is no need for the fur trade in my opinion. However, I also don’t give a damn if someone else has a fur on. Not my issue.

2. “Heroine Chic” – it was one of the reasons for me leaving the fashion world. When fashion turned to making women look like crack whores, I was no longer interested. I have girls and I don’t want that crap to be what they aspire to. Do I march in the street with signs and chant stupid lyric over it? Hell no, I am busy. I just ignore it like I ignore kanye west and lady gagme. Not ‘against’, just not interested.

3. I will not depict smoking as sexy. And yet, I am a huge supporter of leaving people who smoke the hell alone. I think it is a dumb idea to inhale smoke, but if they dig it… not my problem. But depicting it as sexy and cool… well, then I am contributing my work to the situation. And that is not the way I roll.

Recently a very sad thing happened to me. A client I have worked with for nearly 15 years called and asked if I would work with her on a campaign for a political stance I am VERY opposed to. I politely said no, but wished her well. She began to badger me into taking her position… something I am never gonna do. I said that it would not be a good match for me, as I would probably be working on the ‘other side’ of the issue.

She has not spoken to me since. And I miss her.

But it is the way of the world these days I guess. Take a stand and lose a friend.

But take a stand, nonetheless.

Do you have any “lines in the sand” you won’t cross? (And please, keep it generic so we don’t have any back and forth with affiliations and personal attacks. It took less than thirty posts on a recent Flickr thread before Godwin’s law was invoked. I banned the offender. I have a no-tolerance policy for some things – vitriolic name calling for one.

Share your lines in the sand with us in the comments.

As always you can follow me on Twitter, visit the Facebook page and find out more About.Me here.

And if you are looking for an amazing workshop, check out the one Kirk Tuck and I are doing together in San Diego. Very tight group of 10 photographers and 2 instructors for 3 full days.

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  1. I will not photograph smoking/cigarettes… I have COPD and my mother died of lung cancer (and both of us non-smokers). I just made the choice I will not in any form advertise smoking, so I will not take photos of it.

    That is pretty much the only strong and fast ‘line in the sand’ I have.

    But I’m sure, as I get more established and am in a more comfortable position, I may allow for a couple more ‘lines in the sand’.

  2. I think you captured the two basic categories, where I draw the line: a subject that would impact my brand as professional photographer negatively, and a subject that I’m so opposed to personally that it would impact my ability to be creative enough to make a great image. How an individual job ranks on these criteria has to be looked at a case by case basis.

  3. I dunno, hard question unless your in that specific situation and photography does not have to carry all my income which changes the tolerance level a LOT. I don’t have a problem with taking pics within politics or religion and have done that (people are entitled to their own delusions – we all have them) and that might be a line for a lot of people depending on flavour. Some (most) would have an issue with porn but I doubt I would if photg was having to carry all my income and the rates were worth the career risk (never been an issue).

    I guess I cannot think of anything but there probably is…. as the prev comment, it depends on the damage to the “brand” and the risk. e.g. If I lived in a deeply religious area (I don’t) and the bulk of income came from – say – baptisms or school stuff e.t.c. I would likely avoid taking on porn or t&a type jobs just due to the likely damage to the business.

  4. This is a tough issue for me because I have quite a few lines I am passionate about. What’s more I am usually on the side with fewer supporters. I am not in the least bit politically correct. That doesn’t make me wrong but it does make me unpopular.

    I have no problem whatsoever shooting furs or smoking. That is probably enough for some to hate me but I promise you there is a lot more.

    It’s a tough issue for me because I am aware I will turn off potential clients not because they would want me to shoot something I disagree with but because they are supporters of something I’m agin. It’s difficult for me to keep my mouth shut.

  5. I won’t do anything even remotely against women’s rights or anything that makes light of or purposely inflames racial tension. I don’t want that kind of drama.

    I also am NOT interested in doing boudoir, erotica or pornography and no one can convince me to like these genres simply because they are popular. I’ve never done anything popular for popularity itself so I don’t see a reason to start now. I like fine art nude for the intent to share the beauty of the human form itself and the message that the human form is art. I do not like nudity as a way to convey that we are sex objects…I think that’s a given that humans have the capablity to have sex and I tire of each generation acting like it discovered this new found activity. It’s tiring. So images for the purpose of illiciting a sexual response get rather boring to me. I’m interested in other responses.

    Also, I am not a hyper religious or anything but I won’t re-create Jesus being crucified. Weird! A satan worshipper contacted me back in 2007 and wanted me to do that. I was like…nah dawg…I cannot. Too odd to me. I don’t want to be involved.

    I agree with you…either do the job and shut up, or don’t take the job. No reason to take the job and bad mouth the people while it occurs or after. Just silly.

    Great post!

  6. Keep your integrity. It is important.

  7. I don’t shoot any models in Nazi uniforms or any shoot where I feel the model’s safety would be in jeopardy.

    However I would shoot all of the things you mentioned in your article.

  8. No firearms, sexually-oriented, or tobacco, related uses.

  9. Agreed on keeping one’s integrity. I try and follow my instincts on what I’ll feel comfortable shooting – nothing for me that could be seen as degrading or putting down a particular group. Also agree against the “heroine chic” look – I have daughters, a wife and a sister that I respect and love too much to represent in such a way. My stance and my opinion, yours may vary…

  10. I agree on this, it is up to each and every photographer to make his or her best judgement and to know their own boundaries. We are photogrpahers because we have a passion and an eye, if what we are trying to take a picture of is so repulsive to our mind and soul how will the image truely turn out?

    Very tough indeed, as a small business owner doing photography its hard to say no to money in these times. I do mostly weddings with my business “Impressions in Time Photography” ( so there is not many lines to worry about. However I just read a blog about some giants in photography from years gone by, “what if” some images that we have now may not have been because of a line. This is a question only the individual photographer can answer at the time of the shoot. To take the image or not too? Hopefully the correct decision will be made not only for integrities sake but also for historys. Sure we are mainly speaking of simple portraits and not some distant battle field but you never know what may come of that person or image or how it may be used.

  11. Excellent post Don. Years ago, right after I got out of photography school, I got a call from a large ad agency here in Atlanta about shooting a shooting a pro bono campaign for them that took a very strong political stance that I didn’t agree with. I politely declined and explained that I thought they would be better served by getting a photographer to shoot it that really believed in what they were shooting — and that if it was a paying job that I would see it as my job to do the best I could regardless. I thanked them for thinking of me — they thanked me for my honesty. They haven’t called me since.

    Your post has got me to thinking where I should draw the line on certain things though. I always tell people I will shoot anything — as long as it’s not porn. But I really gotta think what else I totally would not be comfortable shooting for one reason or another. I guess it’s better to have that all shorted out in your head prior to receiving that call and being put on the spot. Thanks for the good read man.

  12. Just ask: “What would Jesus do?”

  13. Very well written. I just came across your blog. I totally agree with you on your statement about do the work professionally or don’t take the job. It is not ethical not to do your best work – even for a company or politician that you think is in the wrong. You statement about being shunned by others for your belief is easy for me tomrelate to. I live in Wisconsin and I have had two fellow photographers I used to consider friend stop all communication with me because I do not believe as they do on the issues in our state. I guess they were never real friends to begin with!

    • “I guess they were never real friends to begin with!”

      The slow, insidious balkanization of America continues. And it is so sad.