You Just Found Out Your Subject Is a Bully. Do You Shoot? Or Cancel?

Last week, photographer Jennifer McKendrick of Indiana County, Pennsylvania discovered that four high school seniors that she was scheduled to shoot for their yearbook had been bullying a fellow student on Facebook. So McKendrick sent e-mails to the students canceling the shoots. She explained why, attached screen shots of the bullying comments they had made–and cc’d the students’ parents.

The next day, she uploaded a post to her blog titled “i won’t photograph ugly people” explaining what she had done, and why. She summed it up by quoting from her earlier Facebook post (which is viewable only by her FB friends): “I do not want them to represent my business and I am beside myself at how MEAN and CRUEL they were on that page.”

In her blog post, she added, “I mean how I could spend 2 hours with someone during our session trying to take beautiful photos of them knowing they could do such UGLY things.”

McKendrick obviously struck a nerve. Her blog was inundated with comments, mostly praising her for standing up to bullies, and news media all over the world have picked up the story. Not all of the reaction has been favorable, though. Today McKendrick felt compelled to post a follow-up defending herself against criticism for calling the teenagers “ugly,” and denying accusations that she was stalking clients, and that she had canceled the shoots (and announced it) as a publicity stunt.

The incident certainly raises provocative questions. Photographers often don’t know (and can’t know) what lurks in the hearts and minds of their subjects and clients.  But if you happen to learn something about the actions of a subject that strikes you as morally objectionable, what is the best way to handle it? Should you stand on principle and cancel the shoot? Put on a professional face and go through with it no matter what?  Or are there other ways to reconcile an internal conflict about an objectionable subject?

10 Responses to “You Just Found Out Your Subject Is a Bully. Do You Shoot? Or Cancel?”

  1. You Just Found Out Your Subject Is a Bully. Do You Shoot? Or Cancel? | Global Community of Photography Says:

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  2. JM Ferreira Says:

    Yes, you can photography “ugly” people. Arnold Newman did it quite well… From Nazi criminals (or supporters) to tyrants and dictators all over the world. JMF

  3. Craig M Says:

    Yeah but Arnold Newman was not trying to make happy High School Senior photographs.

  4. Ron K Says:

    I was bullied in school. I HATE IT. Thing is – it’s a fact of life. It’s not our place as photographers to police it. If we’re to judge all our clients before working with them. WELL – we’d have no clients.

    Do we then not photograph seniors because they smoke? drink? party? I don’t condone that either, but who are we to judge.

    If the senior was ugly to us – then fine. I actually sent one home in my 34 years of shooting seniors. BAD attitude and I went to fix her hair for the first shot and she said “no one, touches my hair”. My reply… then we’re done here. It was my last session of the day, I took the day off… the mother apoligiesed for her left and right. I said I don’t photography people who don’t want to be photographed by me.

    Would I judge someone by previous actions to others? It’s not my place to judge. That’s between them, their parent and their creator.

    Open your mind and shoot the job. (your a professional).

  5. tapm Says:

    I have a friend named Abel Harris Jr. In high school, he was my boyfriend for a time. He is black. I am white.

    On Aug 1 1987, he was shot in the head by a crazed ex-felon in the act of saving lives. The assailant was a white man, angry because he’d been asked to leave a place of business for harassing patrons. This business was a nightclub, owned and operated by friends, including Abel.

    Immediately after the incident, Abel clung to life and hospitalized in a coma. Phone calls came to the club; horrible, hateful, unimaginable calls, saying Abel deserved to be shot and hoped he would die because he was black and ‘that’s what you get for having a (insert racist hate) working there’. He passed away Aug 10 1987.

    Abel died as he had lived; in the face of hate …. love … when you think you don’t have anything left to give and doubt sets in …. love some more ♥ In the 23 yrs he was here, Abel gave so much, esp to kids. In the 24 yrs since he left for Heaven, he’s still giving to children, the gift of higher education.

    Abel Harris went above and beyond the call of duty in the course of his job to confront that which he did not believe in and save lives … and lost his own … a true hero who stood up, face-to-face, to the ultimate bully.

    Jennifer McKendrick, the photographer, is not a hero. In fact, she’s not even interested in the anti-bullying movement! She is the small business owner flexing her alpha muscles to discriminate thru a computer screen. This is how she said it herself:

    ‘I’m not going to give a big speech that says how wrong or uncool it is…because let’s face it, you are seniors you should know better. I’m not trying to save the world of bullies or trying to start a movement. I simply don’t want to photograph ugly people!’

    It’s not OK to characterize children as ‘ugly people’ b/c of bad behavior and not provide services to them based on that premise. Children are not ugly. Segregation is ugly. Discrimination is ugly.

    To learn more about a true hero, Abel Harris, this link is a beautiful tribute … peace ♥ http://kmaru.blogspot.com/2006/01/peacemaking-and-peacemakers.html

  6. Elliot T. Says:

    Ugly is as ugly does. She could have called them arrogant a$$es, or immature brats, but ugly is just as good a term. Ugly does not have to refer to one’s surface looks but one’s actions and temperament.

    It’s her right to choose her clients, and it’s her choice as to whether she wants to alienate people by going public (or hopes for some benefit to result — could cut either way, as we see).

    I don’t understand the person who said it’s wrong to characterize these kids based on ugly behavior AND it’s wrong to deny them services. Only protected classes of people cannot be denied services, and these kids don’t fall into that category. In other words, she has the freedom to discriminate against immature bullies and she chose to do so. I personally question her decision to go public about it, but again, that’s her right. don’t try to limit someone’s rights.

  7. tapm Says:

    Read the lady’s words again, Eliot T, if you don’t understand. ‘ugly people’ is not the same phrase as ‘ugly behavior’. It’s not an interpretation to suit your (or her) needs; it’s literal and it is as it says, nothing more, nothing less, and it’s not taken out of context. That phrase is exactly as it’s posted on the internet. And discrimination is ok as long as your status is not within a protected class of people? So we have to get children classified as a ‘protected class of people’ before they’re considered equal under the law in the USA for services – you’ve got to be kidding! Talk about limiting someone’s rights!

    Independent photographers like Paolo Pellegrin or the late Tim Hetherington are famous and revered in their work for immersing themselves within situations truly ‘ugly’. They do their jobs in a professional, objective manner and can’t imagine they always like what they see and hear while performing their duties. I think it’s safe to say they don’t always agree with their subjects or their behavior but the photographers aren’t there to judge them. They are there to take pictures. Tim Hetherington lost his life in the course of his work just like Abel Harris. These are the kind of people who should be hailed as heroes.

  8. Herve Says:

    I agree with JM Ferreira about Arnold Newman… I think ugly people can and MUST be photographed; the power of images goes far beyond making people look nice… Ugly people vs ugly behaviour? We do what we are and in turns what we do makes us so we are what we do. Sometimes we change; most of the time due to others. I think Jennifer McKendrick has sent a message to these seniors. And hopefully, this will help them to change. But as a photographer, I also think that the message would have been even stronger – although more discrete – if she had photographed them. In an uncompromising way.

  9. Honestly... Says:

    … if you’re familiar with figurative speech in English literature, and you’re also aware of human tendencies when speaking and/or writing, then it’s no question that she meant “ugly people” figuratively.

    As for Arnold Newman, you’re comparing two completely different photographers with two completely different beliefs and two completely different views of the world. He found it interesting to photograph people that society found distasteful. Obviously not every single one of his contemporaries felt the same, and we’re not criticizing them, now are we?

    Every photographer has the freedom to choose what kind of subject they want to photograph. Some chose landscapes only. Landscapes that have no people at all. Some photographers chose to take pictures of people in complete discretion, without the subjects’ knowledge. Before photography, there were paintings. In many of them you find only physically beautiful people (as defined by their time). From then until now, would you criticize their decisions on what subjects attract them?

    I wouldn’t.

    So it isn’t right to say that she’s being “wrong” about not wanting to photograph “ugly people”. People that she *happened* (keyword “happened”, not “actively searched out”) to find out about the way they treated a peer. (Social networking sites have “sharing” functions, and if you put some thought into it, you’d be shocked how far things can be “shared”. Thus the phrase “the Internet is forever”.) I’m fairly sure if she had never stumbled across the PUBLIC PAGE by way of another friend of her’s who was warning against it, then she would have probably gone through with the shoot.

    Jen has admitted that it’s not possible for her to “know”, nor will she be screening her clients in such a manner in the future, but I’m sure if a similar situation rises again in the future of her business, she’ll probably handle it the same and refuse to photograph the person. It’s fueled by a personal belief, her adopted morals. Her conscience wouldn’t let her. Just as a Jew’s conscience will not permit them to work on Sabbath (unless it’s a hospital, never was clear on that) and just as there are shops that are closed on Sundays for religious or other purposes. It’s their personal beliefs. It’s not a vital, life-saving business, so it reserves that right, much like Jen reserves the right to deny service to people that she feels treat other people appallingly. That’s what she means by “ugly”. It doesn’t compare to people being discriminated against due to more serious purposes.

    And to tapm. I applaud your determination to be against racial discrimination, I really do. But that is not applicable here. And I find it disrespectful to the memory of Abel, who died under much more severe pressures. The way this would apply to you is only in the following situation:

    Suppose one of those people that called you afterwards in the hospital with such horrible and unmentionable things to say then turned around and called Jen to schedule a photograph shoot for a wedding they were invited to attend. Suppose that by some miracle of chance and fortune she *happened* to find out about what happened to Abel and then she discovered that these people she just scheduled a shoot with were the ones that called you while your beloved laid in a hospital, dying. Would she be wrong for denying service to them after finding out?

    They’re not the kind of people she’s interested in photographing, just as Paolo Pellegrin wouldn’t have been interested in photographing perfectly normal people. He seems as though he would have been interested in photographing the man that killed Abel, however (forgive me if that strikes a sensitive chord in any way, but for the sake of example and so you can understand my point of view).

    The individual photographer reserves the right to select her subjects. She’s not running a public school. She’s not in charge of a hospital. She’s not employed by a media group. She’s not in charge of a food counter or another similar establishment. She’s not obligated to render services to anyone and everyone. If I marched my Hispanic behind over there and scheduled a photography session, she’d probably agree unless she discovers by yet another form of serendipity that I’m terrible to other people around me. In that case, I’m not a subject of interest to her and she can deny me service. From my point of view, she’s not the only photographer out there. Problem solved. No one is going to die or go hungry or be denied an education.

    That’s where I stand on it, and hopefully something similar to where others stand on it.

  10. Honestly... Says:

    Oh dear… I said “discretion” and used it completely wrong. I mean “candid”, though I have trouble working it into the sentence.