Turning Down Work For Your Beliefs

- - Working

Guest post by Ryan Smith

I have had many, many times when jobs fall through for reasons that are outside of my control. There haven’t been many times though when I’ve actively said no to a job and until last week, there had never been a time where I turned down a good paying job from a respectable agency because of ethical concerns.

That’s right. I left money on the table because I didn’t feel comfortable using my skill set to promote this particular client’s product. It was an extremely difficult decision. August is traditionally a slow month for me so when work comes along, and it’s paying reasonable rates, it’s really hard to say no. In this case however, I just couldn’t bring myself to work for this client. Without naming names (and please don’t try to guess), I will say that this client promotes a particular product that I just don’t fully support. I don’t think it’s good for people, the environment, our country or our future.

The reason I don’t want to identify this client is because the people who work for their agency of record are good people whom I like and want to continue to work with. I don’t want my ethical dilemma to reflect negatively on the agency’s business. This is an important point because I greatly value relationships and as a freelancer and small business owner it’s paramount that I maintain good working relationships.

The agency understood my position and even respected my decision. Which is pretty amazing when you think about it. There they were, offering me good money to shoot a job that countless other photographers would probably jump at. And here I am saying no to a job that didn’t even require any negotiation. Here’s the budget, here’s the shot list, it’s yours if you want it.

And, here’s the kicker. The actual assignment sounded interesting to me. I think it would have been a lot of fun to shoot, but I just couldn’t reconcile my feelings about how the images would be used. I thought long and hard about this assignment, but ultimately I had to turn it down. I like to think that I’m sticking to my ethical code and that I’m above selling out, but I wonder how the decision would have been different if the fee for the job could have been “life changing” for me and my family. Where do you draw the line and how do you balance supporting your family and maintaining a good conscience? There is a lot of gray area and only you can make the decision.

For now though, I feel good about not taking the job. Do I wish I was making money right now? Yes, but there are other jobs out there. Just to prove my point, literally within one hour of deciding to turn down this job I received an email from another agency asking me to bid on a much better job for a client that I can really pour all my energy into. Now just keep your fingers crossed that I win the bid.

This post originally appeared here: http://www.playingworkblog.com/2013/08/i-could-be-shooting-right-now-instead-im-writing-this/

A follow up post can be read here: http://www.playingworkblog.com/2013/09/the-opportunity-to-choose

There Are 27 Comments On This Article.

  1. AnonPhotog

    Not only was I also in a similar situation last month, but I’ve probably turned down work for ethical reasons at least half a dozen times. It sucks for all concerned: I could use the gig, and they were nice enough to approach me after seeing my work and could really use some nice imagery. But I just couldn’t stomach promoting their product or cause.

    Here’s one situation from a few years ago that concerned me. Maybe a legal expert can weigh in: a potential client I turned down was a religious private school that states on their website that they are against homosexuality for religious reasons. When I turned down the job, I explained my opposition to their viewpoint and my fear that I may be seen as endorsing this viewpoint by association, and they were surprisingly nice and understanding about it. But my question is whether or not its legal to turn down a client solely because of their religion-based discrimination.

    New Mexico’s supreme court this summer upheld that a wedding photographer cannot deny service to gay couples, or they are in violation of that state’s anti-discrimination law (see http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/court-holds-that-wedding-photographer-cannot-refuse-service-to-gay-couples/ for more).

    But what about the other way around? Can I deny service to a company that promotes discrimination against gay people?

    • That’s a really interesting question and definitely one that I’m not equipped to answer. If there are any legal experts reading this it would be great to hear your thoughts. Thanks for sharing your story!

  2. I’m not a legal expert, but the New Mexico decision specifically stated that commercial photographers that are not advertising directly to the public could pick and choose their clients for whatever reason they want. It mentioned Annie Lebovitz and Bruce Webber as examples…

  3. Tim Howley

    Hey Ryan,

    Great post! I must say that in the 15 years of owning my printing business, we had to deal with this line many times. The real conflict came from within our ranks, with some staff wanting to take the work and others drawing a line. The main question I always asked was, “Who do we want to be?” Now, after having kids, it’s, “will my kids be proud of me?” The clients like yours, understand and move on. The clients that get angry, show their true colors and solidify your choice not to take their work.

  4. @AnonPhotog you bring up some good points for discussion. I’d be interested in debating the points below.

    “… But my question is whether or not its legal to turn down a client solely because of their religion-based discrimination.

    New Mexico’s supreme court this summer upheld that a wedding photographer cannot deny service to gay couples, or they are in violation of that state’s anti-discrimination law (see http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/court-holds-that-wedding-photographer-cannot-refuse-service-to-gay-couples/ for more).

    But what about the other way around? Can I deny service to a company that promotes discrimination against gay people?”

    • I’m no legal expert and don’t know anything about anti-discrimination laws in the US but surely there must be a distinction between individuals and companies. I would assume that it’s ok to turn down a job for cigarette company if you’re against smoking but it’s probably not ok to turn down a job for an individual who works at a cigarette company. But like I said, this is just a guess.

  5. I have an easy line defined… war machines and weapons.

    What is the point of working for these guys… they will eventually kill you…

  6. Perhaps homosexuality throws a curve ball into it because of its protected status like race, religion, etc. Opposition to say, cigarette advertising, doesn’t carry that.

  7. Very good post Ryan. I have actually had this question in my mind lately. I am fairly new and I haven’t had to deal with a situation like this yet. Personally I don’t think I would be able to draw the line until I actually face it, or maybe the line would get more clear with more experience and so on.

  8. Great comments everyone! I’m happy to see a conversation forming on this topic, from personal to legal.

    One thing that I feel is important to note is that the so called “line” in which we draw in the sand is different for everyone. This “line” probably moves for each of us over the course of our careers. I think Mike Penney has clearly defined his line and that is great. We should all ask ourselves what is out of bounds.

    Tim Howley’s comment about “will my kids understand?” is another important question to ask ourselves when drawing the line. I know full well that when turning down this job, my son was an important factor in my decision making process.

    Jens, you are absolutely right about not being able to fully draw that “line” until you are faced with an ethical decision. My line is becoming more clear, but it’s still a moving target. There are some things that I simply can’t do, but others are less clear and until we are in the moment, it’s hard to know what the most appropriate decision is. If you’re like me then you will certainly look at issue from all angles and perspectives before making a decision.

    As for the legal conversation going on here, I have to agree with Craig when he says: “Perhaps homosexuality throws a curve ball into it because of its protected status like race, religion, etc. Opposition to say, cigarette advertising, doesn’t carry that.” I’m no lawyer, but that specific difference makes sense to me.

  9. Here’s a quote from section 35 of the judge’s decision…

    “Elane Photography has misunderstood this issue. It believes that because it is a photography business, it cannot be subject to public accommodation laws. The reality is that because it is a public accommodation, its provision of services can be regulated, even though those services include artistic and creative work. If Elane Photography took photographs on its own time and sold them at a gallery, or if it was hired by certain clients but did not offer its services to the general public, the law would not apply to Elane Photography’s choice of whom to photograph or not. The difference in the present case is that the photographs that are allegedly compelled by the NMHRA are photographs that Elane Photography produces for hire in the ordinary course of its business as a public accommodation. This determination has no relation to the artistic merit of photographs produced by Elane Photography. If Annie Leibovitz or Peter Lindbergh worked as public accommodations in New Mexico, they would be subject to the provisions of the NMHRA. Unlike the defendants in Hurley or the other cases in which the United States Supreme Court has found compelled-speech violations, Elane Photography sells its expressive services to the public. It may be that Elane Photography expresses its clients’ messages in its photographs, but only because it is hired to do so. The NMHRA requires that Elane Photography perform the same services for a same-sex couple as it would for an opposite-sex couple; the fact that these services require photography stems from the nature of Elane Photography’s chosen line of business.”

  10. Wow, I had never considered legal ramifications. I believe a private business should be able to choose their work for any reason. We may not share the same values or beliefs, but I would uphold that we should be able to accept or deny work without explanation as long as we are private business people.

    On a less serious note, in my line of work (architect) there are many cases where I either cannot do the work in any reasonable time or I am not interested in the project. On a rare occasion you know up front that you are not going to click with the client. So then why do the work? They won’t want to work with you either.

    • Scott Hargis

      “I believe a private business should be able to choose their work for any reason.”

      So if Jane Doe’s business is that she runs a lunch counter, and Jane happens to hate black people, she should be free to run it as a “whites-only” business….right?

      • No, Scott, if you put it like that I don’t agree with how my comment came across. I don’t advocate discrimination and I guess I’ve never had to face that issue. I would never advocate anything racial or along those lines. I suppose what I meant is being able to choose based on artistic reasons like someone wants me to design a colonial house and I don’t want to do it, so I can politely decline and refer them to someone who could do a colonial house better. Also, if I sense I wouldn’t have good chemistry with a client and know we would not work well together, shouldn’t I be able to decline? They would be able to decline from their end right?

        This is a great conversation, but amazed that it could get complicated quickly.

        • Scott Hargis

          I was being rhetorical, I assumed you weren’t a raging racist. :-)
          And the below is for general consumption, not directed specifically at you (Lee):

          Declining work based on legitimate and honorable things like artistic aesthetics, or budget, or working relationships, or location, etc. have NEVER been under question. The issue most commonly comes up with regard to whether or not it’s legal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation….which in most states, it isn’t. Just like religion, race, sex, and (in some cases) age – those are legally protected classes, and it’s illegal to discriminate against them.

          On the other hand, there are plenty of artists who won’t work for oil companies, tobacco companies, etc…which are not, to my knowledge, protected. As far as I know, you can discriminate against *industries* with impunity.

  11. It’s not easy maintaining a personal code of ethics in today’s business environment, particularly when the terms ‘business’ and ‘ethics’ are diametrically opposed and any kind of decent paying job is harder and harder to come by.

    It sure doesn’t help pay the bills- but my hat’s off to those who do the right thing regardless of personal gain. Clients sometimes feed on desperation, apathy, greed; they damn well know they can always find someone to perpetrate the deed. The reward for turning down such offers are usually internal- if you don’t already feel it, you’ll simply dismiss it as fodder for suckers. And those who refrain will simply see themselves as free to live within their own conscience- and maybe, just maybe, allow someone else not to be violated by the fruit of their labor.


  12. Learning to say ‘no’ is a very powerful thing. It’s never an easy thing to turn down assignments, especially as you become established and turning down a job makes a significant financial impact.
    Personally, I have found that turning down jobs is one of the most important aspects of running a successful business. The day I turned down a job for the first time is the day I consider myself to have become a professional. I struggled for years shooting everything I could, but in the long run you are only hurting yourself. I have had several potential clients whom I have turned down work from, refer me elsewhere with high remarks, even though I never did any work for them.
    If you are not passionate about the work, it’s best to move on. If there is something hindering me from being passionate about a job, whether it be ethical, moral, financial, personal, or otherwise, I always address it.
    PS. ‘traditionally slow month’ is an easily overcome mental barrier, Ryan.
    Great post guys, thanks again.

  13. Great article and an interesting discussion.

    I’m wondering what this court decision tries to achieve: wedding photos are a different kind of service than selling petrol. No judge can force “good” photos, and without a good relationship between the photographer and the couple, the photos will be mediocre at best. What’s the point in forcing a creative to do something he/she doesn’t want?

    I strongly feel that every business owner should be free in his/her decision to work for somebody or not. Maybe working for a certain client may hurt your future business, or you just don’t feel comfortable about it. Customers aren’t forced to use your service, so why should that apply in the opposite way?

    Best regards (and sorry for my bad english, I hope you get my point)

  14. Personally, I will literally shoot anything for money (I have a day job and shoot 2-3 photo jobs per month), as long as the experience itself is positive and I’m confident I can do an effective job.

    What kind of work have I turned down? Portaits/headshots of people with awful skin (I hate retouching), engagement photos for boring douchebags, motorcycle product photos for a creepy guy, stuff like that.

    However, I am more than happy to shoot ads for sex workers. I personally find prostitution revolting (though I think it should be legal), but I will happily accept money from anyone that’s pleasant to work with and willing to pay a fair rate.

    Besides, if you look at corporate America, you see plenty of financial frauds, tax cheats, chronic polluters, crushers of small business, proponents of mindless consumption, etc. There are few angels out there. Pepsi may make some cool ads that they pay big money for, but their soda and food is still poisoning our children.

    So I say, take the money and do what good you can with it, whether it’s keeping food on the table or supporting socially-valuable art.

    Somebody’s going to get the money, why not you? In my mind, the only exception would be if there is negative notoriety to the job (like shooting for NAMBLA, or shooting a cigarette ad if you have health/lifestyle clients).

  15. Bravo, Ryan. Doing the “right” thing is subjective and not always easy. Especially if one’s livelihood is in the mix and it might not directly hurt anyone/anything. But as individuals we DO have power to speak out against things we feel strongly about each in our own way. Maybe it’s where we spend our money. And maybe it’s which clients we’ll work with.

  16. Great discussion. Graphic designer Mike Monteiro recently gave a talk on ethics for graphic designers that’s got a lot of ideas relevant to photographers, too. The talk’s description says “You are directly responsible for what you put into the world. Yet every day designers all over the world work on projects without giving any thought or consideration to the impact that work has on the world around them. This needs to change.” The talk is now available to watch or listen to online here:

  17. Being subject to public accommodation laws, can you not turn down a client because they are rude, bossy or just plain gross?

    Do public accommodation laws protect classes but not personalities?

    If you deem a client to be a bad match, meaning they want to control the shoot or your style, are they protected? I would imagine it depends on whether or not you offend them and they have the nerve to hire an attorney to make your life miserable.

    If a sex worker approached me to photograph them for advertising, I would not want the work. Their occupation is revolting. Am I to assume I cannot refuse the work? Its not the person, its what they choose to do that is gross to me.

    Brian makes a good point about the bad behavior of white collar America. The line can be hard to draw and soft drink companies are a good case in point.

    • None of those are protected classes and so don’t apply.

      In New Mexico (and possibly the whole US, with the strike down of DOMA- time will tell), sexual orientation has legal protections from discrimination by businesses, housing and employers. That’s why this went the way it did.

  18. Great post. I’ve turned down jobs before based on my values. Unfortunately, they have usually ended on a sour note, with the client or person who referred me being angry and making it known, either directly or passive aggressively. I am okay with that though. Who are we if we don’t have values and we don’t stand up for them?