Shooting Advertising With A Conscience

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This guest post was written by Christopher LaMarca author of Forest Defenders: The Confrontational American Landscape

Within the world of professional photography, ones ability to work on personal projects must be balanced with the jobs that bring in the capital required to do so. In finding this balance, occasionally we are asked to compromise our personal principals for the paycheck which sustains us in this highly competitive field. With the current state of the world, perhaps its high time to take a difficult but necessary look at our industries relationship with perpetuating an extraction based economy responsible for the widespread environmental and social degradation we see all around us today.

A couple of months ago I was approached by the advertising agency representing Chevron to place a bid for shooting a campaign aimed at increasing the effectiveness of their global corporate recruitment. Before submitting an offer, I was faced with an ethical and intensely personal moral dilemma that stemmed from the possibility of using my craft to advance a corporate agenda I do not support. Most recently Chevron has admitted during the long-running trial in both US and Ecuadorian courts that it created a system of oil extraction that led to the deliberate discharge of billions of gallons of chemical-laden “water of formation” into the Amazonian River basin of Ecuador, affecting thousands of people with cancer and other illness. These facts represented a counter weight to the realization that the type of financial benefit this job opportunity offered was enough to finish and fully fund a documentary film that I have been working on for the past two years. This film represents the most intimate and visceral body of work in my professional career.

Having worked on energy issues for the past five years I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited into the homes of countless families and company employees who’s lives have been affected by the extraction of natural gas, coal, and oil. Ironically, it was the natural dignity and heroism I captured in the images of these individuals that the client hoped I would bring to their campaign of workforce recruitment. How could I justify my professional contribution of working with a company that has proven countless times over that the desire for increased profits is far more important than the human and environmental disasters they leave in their wake. Through this process I had an opportunity to re-examine the direction of my own ethical compass. I’d like to say there was never any question about my decision, but in this case, that was not true. I have no doubt that I made the right choice for me, which clearly isn’t the right choice for everybody.

I believe the questions posed while I was flirting with Chevron’s money are questions that often get lost in our industry. Can we justify the prostitution of the work we love to corporate interests so that we may continue to chase down our individual dreams of self expression? Do the ends justify the means? When we convince ourselves that that they do, what gets lost or destroyed along the way? Whether we’re using our craft to create corporate “cool”, or ‘greenwashing’ the public with an eco-friendly image that hides the true nature of that which is being peddled, we are covering up the truth which hides right in front of our eyes. And in doing so we act in direct opposition to the truth of our own work we desire to share with the rest of the world.

There Are 29 Comments On This Article.

  1. Christopher,
    Kudos to you for being so in tune with the balance of ethics required to be “human” and for sharing the turmoil you were confronted with. The post was so well written and insightful. I hope it hits home with others as I am sure it must.

  2. Respect. It is always encouraging to hear about someone in our industry who ‘walks the walk’ and sticks to their principals and conscience even when big money is on the table.

    A few years back I was approached by an advertising company wanting to source lifestyle images for a tobacco company with a big budget. I had to think about it, the pros and cons, but I then responded that, though no offence was intended, I did not feel comfortable providing images for this use. I have no regrets.

  3. I once assisted a photographer who was faced with the same moral dilemma. His number one stylist refused to work on the shoot. He chose to do it and donated a huge chunk of money (at least half of the profit I believe) to progressive charities.

  4. Well written, well thought. One’s ethical compass should be consulted more often before accepting such jobs.

    One pet peeve though. The post is very ambiguous on what your final decision was. Did you turn down the job and with it, the money? Or did you accept it, justifying that the bad karma would be repaired by the good that your documentary will bring?

    • christopher

      I never submitted my bid for the job, pulled out the night before it was due. I didn’t sleep for a week, 2 people I knew have since died that I have photographed while working on energy issues (rare forms or cancer). Those were the faces that kept me awake at night..

      • I think you made the right decision. However, I’m not sure if you were as sure as you wrote in the story. There was no reason to lose sleep over it, since it was what you really wanted to do, deep down, what you were compelled to do by your ethics code.

        Kudos for keeping in touch with former subjects, that’s something I’m trying to do more these days.

  5. Nice article, good choice. Loved your book. You not only need to make choices based on your own personal integrity and moral compass but also based on the integrity of your body of work.

  6. Ricky Bobby

    GET PAID!!! Take all the money you can from these corporations. Job are hard to come by these days!

  7. In this world today it’s gratifying to find an individual who stands up for their principles and does not roll over for every financial opportunity. Money comes and money goes, but the end of the day the only person we must answer to is ourselves.

  8. Lightwelder

    So in the spirit of ‘walking the walk’, I’m assuming you never fly, drive an electric car and generally strive for a 0 carbon footprint.

    Otherwise, I don’t understand how taking money from the likes of Chevron (and by extension to an industry riddled with similar problems) is any worse that giving them money by purchasing their products.

    • Oh come on there’s a huge difference between buying a single product and helping advertise that product. Besides, even though I don’t know Christopher LaMarca I think it’s a safe bet that he does not own a Chevron product. Also, although he seems like an environmentally conscious chap he is not saying he wouldn’t work for any kind of car company. He’s being very specific about what Chevron did that he finds morally objectionable.

      If I had to make one comment about the whole thing it would be that, though it’s commendable that he stuck to his moral beliefs, he ‘only’ refused to bid on the job. So basically he only turned down the chance for a job. Things might’ve been different had they straight out offered him a lot of money to do it.

  9. You should have just quoted some high price and if they went for it you could have been happy that you over charged them like they over charge consumers. But instead you missed an opportunity and could have had the funds to finish your film.
    The moral objections you make are generally to events all before 1999 it will be under a new board of directors now it’s like holding the present government accountable for past government events.
    You really sound like a baby having a tanty trying to pretend that you took some moral high road.
    Looking at your work it seems to glamorize as much as object to the points your trying to get across. So no wonder Chevron looked at your work and approached you in the first place.
    Your a fool!

  10. Seriously Christopher?
    If you want to be an ‘art-eest’ then be an artist.
    If you want to be a commercial photographer, well then BE ONE.
    I for one, enjoy my craft and understand that it’s a business. Maybe they didn’t teach you economics and such in ‘art school’.
    Commercial photography is a BUSINESS, not some artsy fartsy BS. Although some will tell you that it is, it isn’t. We’re getting hired to make their product, servies or the like LOOK GOOD. Does that involve creativity? YES. Do you have to be all up in arms about whether you’re morally making the right decisions? NO!
    If you want to do something feel good…go smoke some pot with tree huggers – eat some organic cheetos to quell your munchies and grab a Holga camera and ‘MAKE ART’.
    I’m glad you turned it away, more for the photographers with a business sense! You likely don’t do a CODB analysis either, ’cause it’s my passion man’….keep it up…you won’t be here in 5 years.

  11. Rob? Really?
    You don’t think his post was, well a bit “dick-ish”?
    Is Commercial Photography NOT a business?
    Is what I said something a lot of photogs would rather not hear? Yes.
    Does it make me a dick? Really? Instead of a candid debate…you resort to name calling?

    • Wow, @Suck It Up this is the very attitude that got us into the Great recession. Of course Commercial Photography is a business but so is being an artist why are they any different? And why does being a business take away your ethics? If you want to not care about ethics why be in photography at all I’m sure you could go trade CDS somewhere and make more money. Photography is a very personal business no matter how you slice it and these are some fantastic questions raised in this article. There are some companies whom if they approached me I would tell them to take a hike and there are some that ride the line and I thing putting in a bid would keep me up at night.

  12. Attitude that got us into this Great Recession? Huh? What does one have to do with the other? How did you rope one to the other???
    And yes, ethics do matter. What I take exception to is that he took this and twisted it into (as @Roscoe said) “taking some moral high road”. You sound like Chase Jarvis when he put down Annie L for shooting the Kardashians. Get over it. Business.
    And by golly if shooting for them isn’t right for you…DON’T!!! Such a silly quandry. And oh yeah…HAVE THE BALLS TO STAND UP AND TELL THEM WHY.

  13. DolphinDeer

    Wow, Suck… You seem to be very upset about this.

    I think anyone with the kind of personal connection to an issue that Mr LaMarca has would have had the same dilemma as evidenced by other comments. I don’t know why one would find fault with that (although I do think calling it “prostitution” is harsh.)

    When we first started out we did a shoot for a weapons manufacturer. Someone had to do it, right? 25 years later it still feels bad. My two cents.

  14. Take the job and then use a portion of the income to make a difference. You will have far more influence doing that then letting someone else take the job and spending the income on a new car.

  15. Not upset, just sick and tired of people whining about silly stuff. This is a great blog and has quite a few posts that come up that really are thought provoking or interesting.
    This whining is not. “Ooo big moral dilemma.” Just say no. If you feel that strongly, tell them why. Case closed.
    Mostly, resorting to name calling instead of taking my comments ‘head on’ was the biggest thing that set me off.

    • Suck It Up, you may not care who you work for, and seem to take offence at someone both making a stand, and publicising the fact, but other people do care. And we are glad to give Christopher our support.

      For some people it is not just about the money.

  16. If you don’t have any standards as to what jobs you will take, except money, then why do you care when people do? Just say no to posting your rant and don’t (anonymously) shit all over someone else. Case closed. Go count your money.

  17. Station44025

    If money’s all that matters, I hear child pornography is a great “business.” You should look into it SuckItUp–great opportunity for a professional photographer who’s not worried about the moral complications.