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What Sexual Harassment Looks Like for Freelance Photographers, and What You Can Do

Sexual harassment is headlining news stories across the country in industries where harassers can be held responsible for their actions. Whether by human resources departments or by the court of public opinion, harassers in these circumstances have consequences to deal with. But what do creative freelance professionals, like photographers, do about sexual harassment on the job when they have no HR department to turn to?

What does sexual harassment look like in an industry where there is no human resources department to set clear guidelines and hold perpetrators accountable? HoneyBook, a software company that provides online hosting for creative professionals, ran a survey of their clients to find out, and the numbers are depressing.

Of the over 1,000 creative entrepreneurs — which included photographers, graphic designers, and event planners — who responded to the survey, more than 50 percent had been sexually harassed at least once, and an equal number witnessed the sexual harassment of a colleague, vendor, or event guest.

With harassment so prevalent, what exactly are these creative professionals dealing with?

  • 77 percent of creatives have experienced unprofessional comments on appearance.
  • 73 percent have been called demeaning nicknames.
  • 56 percent have been the victims of physical intimidation.
Image by Lum3n.com used under Creative Commons

Imagine photographing a wedding, only to be sexually harassed by a guest of the bride and groom. It can be incredibly difficult to decide how to handle such a situation when the photographer relies on the goodwill and good opinion of their clients to put food on the table and pay their bills. Since there is no human resources department to alert, and no one wants to stain their client's wedding day by reporting a beloved guest for harassment, creatives are faced with the decision to either keep their mouths shut and keep working, or report the harasser and deal with the consequences. When faced with situations like this, it becomes clear why 72 percent of creative entrepreneurs who responded experienced sexual harassment on the job did not report it. For the brave few who did report their experience to someone other than the police, 34 percent had their complaints ignored. 

Despite experiencing sexual harassment, 80 percent of victims continued working, choosing to finish the job rather than take the potential long-term repercussions of walking off. Thirty-four percent of respondents said that they avoided working with the client again, which means that they not only suffered harassment but lost out on potential income. 

Perhaps worst of all, 18 percent said that they experienced harassment from the same individual more than four times.

Photograph by Kat Smith used under Creative Commons

With no direct safeguards and an income that depends heavily on working on multiple projects where word of mouth means feeding yourself, how are photographers and other creative professionals supposed to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace? 

  1. According to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, the first thing a victim should do is tell the harasser to stop if they feel comfortable doing so. 
  2. The next step would be to follow sexual harassment protocol and speak to a supervisor. This won't always possible for freelancers who may be working for private clients. 
  3. Check to see if your state has laws that protect independent contractors from discrimination. California is a notable example.
  4. Keep a record. Should any claims be made, the burden of proof is on the shoulders of the victim.
  5. Add a sexual harassment clause to your contracts. HoneyBook has taken this step to provide its members with a sexual harassment clause to add to their contracts.

As a community, photographers have a voice. If the #metoo movement proved anything, it's that people have more power when everyone speaks out together. With an eye toward the future, photographers can also lobby with other freelancers at the state and local level for laws to be added or altered that would provide the protections that are now lacking. Harassment flourishes in the dark, so the best thing creative entrepreneurs can do is continue to make their voices heard, provide supportive environments for victims to speak out, and call out harassment when it happens.

Lead image by Wokandapix via Pixabay.

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48 Comments

Elan Govan's picture

Part of the issue here is, this is an international forum. The idea that all photographers, both male or female, can have equal access to the legal advice, HR support and social protection is still a pipe dream.

From my perspective, both women and men have a role to play in consciously promoting this agenda. I remember two female colleagues confronting and advising a co-worker to button up her blouse at work for showing too much.

If well-informed countries like the United States of America are having difficulties with sexual harassment cases, odds are other countries will have similar or unknown level harassment cases to unearth.

Nicole York's picture

That's part of the issue, isn't it?

Elan Govan's picture

Might be an excellent idea to send a copy of this article to Oprah and to every UN ambassadors.

Elan Govan's picture

Here is an interesting twist on this story. French actress Catherine Deneuve has said that men should be "free to hit on" women.

The letter by French women writers, performers and academics were published in France's Le Monde newspaper on Tuesday.

"Men have been punished summarily, forced out of their jobs when all they did was touch someone's knee or try to steal a kiss," it said.

"Rape is a crime, but trying to seduce someone, even persistently or clumsily, is not - and nor is men being gentlemanly a chauvinist attack."

Konrad Sarnowski's picture

The rules and definitions of harrasment are very different throught the world, age groups, work groups, etc. It all goes down to an individual. Recently I read a long rant about "watching" someone on the street as a sexual harrasment...

Elan Govan's picture

This discussion should have taken place about 3/4 hundred years ago. But here we are, playing catch up to an age-old issue.

Nicole York's picture

Like Konrad said, the cultural rules of harassment differ, and that's something that needs to be discussed where the laws get made. That being said, humans evolved to have an incredible ability to read expression, tone of voice, inflection, and body language. I think that most people can understand the difference between a compliment, an attempt at flirting, and harassment. Those who can't will always be outliers, and we definitely have to be careful not to let their voices drown out the rest of us.

Elan Govan's picture

Not sure why these comments are directed at me. I think directing these comments to the White House will be better served, don't you think.? Let's see how evolved the situation really is.

Let's be honest here, the reason we are having these articles and discussion points is that not everyone is evolved as much as we would like them to be.

Andrea Dottesi's picture

Ok maybe you can think that someone want to flirt with you, and you don't like it.
"thanks but no." or similar it's a good way to stop him... He just trying to "hit" you and I think it isn't harassment..!

Obviusly if him go on or become rude you can call it harassment.

And yes, if he at the first time say "go on your knee to have a promotion" or other things bad like this, like an Anonymous write below, is a harassment.

LA M's picture

Well done Nicole.

Nicole York's picture

I appreciate that, Leigh.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Love this girl, thank you for sharing it!!

Evan Kane's picture

Great article Nicole. This is something that more people need to be talking about.

Nicole York's picture

Absolutely agree! Hopefully having some statistics to back it up helps make the picture clearer for people.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

“unprofessional comments on appearance” - means “you look great”?

Nicole York's picture

Does it? Interesting that you infer it refers to the least innocuous of comments. In my personal experience, it usually has to do comments that are clearly objectifying, crass or vulgar. "You look great" is a far cry from "your ass looks hot in those pants."

Alexander Petrenko's picture

I don’t know, I’m asking. Never been harrased or may be never felt harrased, so try to understand where may be a limit for others.

Nicole York's picture

There was an embargo on the information and the article was accidentally published too soon.

Anonymous's picture

"By definition harassment is "more than" once." No, it's not:

"Harassment: to create an unpleasant or hostile situation for especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct."

Employee: "My boss slapped my ass and told me to get on my knees for that promotion."
HR Rep: "Well, next time he does that it'll be harassment."

Corey Rive's picture

I've had comments on my looks and had my butt grabbed quite a few times while photographing weddings or events. Thanks for not making this a "poor women, men are bad" only kind of sexual harrasment article.

Lee Morris's picture

So have I. Do you consider this a big deal? I’ve always enjoyed getting hit on by drunk guests. It always made a boring wedding a little more exciting.

Corey Rive's picture

I guess it depends on what it is and how it's said.
Being hit on and having a joke with them can be quite funny, and if you play along a bit it can make guests, not just those doing it but anyone who sees you having fun, a bit more relaxed and open to you taking their photos.
Now, saying that, it can get too much and I don't think you should ever put your hands on someone without either their permission, or an established bond (putting your arm around someone you know sort of thing). No one should have to put up with something they aren't comfortable with, especially in a professional setting.
Being grabbed for me hasn't been that big of a deal, but that may be because I've never felt intimidated by the people doing it and I'm more than happy to tell someone where to go if I've had enough of them.

Nicole York's picture

I think you make a really good point, Corey. So much of how one deals with sexual harassment will depend upon both the harassment itself but also how secure the victim is, and what their history is as well as how they've been socialized.
Margaret Atwood said, "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them."
While it's not always that severe, the sentiment is true. Men are generally strong enough to physically defend themselves (or feel confident that they can) and women don't always have that luxury.
At the same time, being able to physically defend oneself doesn't remove the discomfort and sense of violation that one feels--man or woman--when someone imposes themselves on you sexually.

Nicole York's picture

This isn't the first time you've mentioned that, Bob, which I find interesting. What/who are women protecting themselves from?
What are the statistics out there for male vs female violent crimes? Have a look at the numbers, here. Women are not wrong for naturally fearing for their safety. The numbers are overwhelmingly against us.

The entire point of articles like this one is to help bring down the numbers of men and women who deal with sexual harassment. Wouldn't it be nice if less women needed to own guns for their safety? As a competent marksman myself, I can also tell you that adrenaline, surprise, and a number of other factors can severely mitigate the effectiveness of a concealed weapon--particularly for less trained shooters (which most, unfortunately, are) which may easily turn into a weapon in the hand of the attacker.

Maybe a better answer is for fewer people to harass others?

https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2012/crime-in-the-u.s.-2012/tables/...

https://ncadv.org/statistics

Nicole York's picture

Come on, Bob. You're reaching now and you're also avoiding my point. Whether or not women are capable has nothing to do with who is more inclined to violence, as the statistics illustrate.

As far as guns go, you've already proved two of my points. Yes, a man does not need a gun because he is--in general--bigger and stronger than she is. And the fact that you believe a woman needs a gun in the first place only serves to illustrate the point that sexual harassment and assault are real issues for women. You don't get to have it both ways: should women be concerned with their safety, or not? I consider myself both sane and reasonably intelligent, as well as someone trained to use firearms both privately and in the military. This isn't a subject I approach from an armchair.

Because we don't live in heaven on earth, does that mean we should stop trying to make things better? That's illogical, and I think you know it. I said women are afraid, you said they shouldn't be because women are also capable of killing men (even though it's statistically unlikely and we both agree that men are physically more capable of mayhem) but then supported my argument by suggesting all women conceal carry because they will always be harassed, raped and killed.

What confuses me is: why do you still argue?

Nicole York's picture

I was in the Army

Nicole York's picture

Thank you for your service.

Mark Holtze's picture

This is a good read! Thanks for tackling it.

Ken B's picture

Harassment happens frequently and we as society must do our part to call it out and stop it in its tracks. That said, we're in serious danger of going too far.

"77 percent of creatives have experienced unprofessional comments on appearance.
73 percent have been called demeaning nicknames"

This survey appears to very biased and flawed in design. The issue is the concept of "unwanted" behaviors. How is one to know what is wanted or unwanted without testing the barrier? Is a simple compliment (e.g. you're attractive) now considered harassment because it was offered by a drunk wedding guest and therefore unwanted? What if the same compliment was offered by a charming, attractive, and sober guest. Still harassment?

Walking up to a person and flirting is how many relationships begin. It's how I met my spouse. I had no idea if my attention would be wanted or unwanted. Does this mean I was a potential perpetrator of sexual harassment? If so, what's the remedy?

I've also been in circumstances where my attempts to flirt were rejected. Was I guilty of harassment? The only difference between the the first example and the second example was interest level. How can you get to interest (wanted v unwanted) without effort?

If we're telling people that a single verbal action rises to the level of harassment then we just made every interaction between people a mine field.

We need to separate words from actions. We need to allow for flirting, even when done clumsily, as a necessary part of human interaction. We must not allow this movement to gain so much momentum as to ruin people based on a single unwanted comment.

Nicole York's picture

Ken, that's exactly why we have to have this conversation. We need to come to a place where the definitions are clear and agreed upon, which can never happen if we don't tackle the issue.

William Nicholson's picture

Ken, I couldn't have said it better and whole heartily agree.Words are not physical attacks, more so freedom of speech and for most part harmless. Racist verbiage is not cool and that should not be tolerated by anyone. Flirting is just a emotion and for most people a harmless way to break the ice with others. I am not a professional photographer like everyone here is, I just happen to be in construction and photography is a hobby. If you come to a construction site and ask the male workers about the #me too and all the so called verbal sexual harassment, most will tell you they are deadly afraid to even look at a female that may come on site or even the women in the office for fear of being accused of sexual harassment. It is effecting workers as well as the companies. I just read in a trade magazine the negative effects companies and workers are experiencing, men are afraid to even have a private meeting with female co works unless there are others present, or be on a site when women are present for they fear anything they say will be consider sexual harassment Has it all gone to far? Maybe, maybe not. Nicole makes a valid point that independent contractors are on their own and yes you take the risk of the actions of others with out some sort of support to assist you. I can't speak for women but all I can say is stand tall and and voice your concerns loud and proud to that fella who is two sheets to the wind grabbing your ass, embarrasses him in front of his buddies and family members so they know he is drunk and you are not here to be his or anyone's touching toy to be played with.If you stand tall and fear of being fired from that job, I think you will be surprised that others will stand with you and and support you. Maybe I am old school and still believe men and women can get along and have fun together without the worries of getting arrested for flirting or telling someone the look beautiful or a innocent hand on shoulder touch. Come on, women wear clothing and makeup to be seen and look sexy, is that not provoking men in a sexual harassment way. Alcohol makes people do stupid shit.

Adam Peariso's picture

Was wondering why this post was pulled?

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Hm... Old comments under 1-hour-old post.

Nicole York's picture

There was an embargo on the information and the article was accidentally posted early.

Emily Teague's picture

So grateful this is being talked about. Excellent work, Nicole!!

michael buehrle's picture

i think that there are two different types of "sexual harassment" out there today. the first being the "why don't we fuck" kind and the other "you are pretty, do you wanna grab dinner" type. the later has over taken the news lately and seems like every snowflake is claiming to be harassed so that they can get on tv or grab a few bucks. that is taking away from the "real" harassment that goes on. peoples view on it can differ too. what i think is no big deal might be the crime of the century to the next guy. i think that who is being accused matters too. if you are a women being accused then it is looked upon different than a man. there have been more than a few peoples careers ruined from false stories. everyone is guilty until proven innocent these days. it only takes one pissed off boyfriend/ girlfriend to take someone down.

Roy Andrew's picture

It has always been like that. Its called mob mentality.

Andrea Dottesi's picture

Now, I'm really near to the REAL victims of harrassment but... Are we sure that all of this cases are true? I see actors fired because someone has denounced him... It is good? I think that we have to wait the end of a case before to ruin a life and a career... (Leaving the fact that this things about 20 years ago and after that the lady has been part of a film...) When is harassment and when is a simply compliment like @michael buehrle said? When a compliment is accepted to gain from that and later let that become harassment?
Here an actress joking while telling that a friend to hug her has printed a document to sign as a release and be free from all risks but we are really going in this way...

I think the situation is becoming too hypocritical...

PS: sry for bad english!

Chris Ramirez's picture

I honestly don´t think this article should be here, this #metoo campaign is getting to a extreme., I come here to read about photography. I feel sorry for how things are getting in US. The example of working at a wedding seems to me more like someone flirting than harrassing. Now it seems everything is harrassment, this looks more like a campaign to produce fear to men to speak, flirt. I am not from US, but I can see how men are losing more rights by the minute and how the feminist imperative and agenda keeps shaming men. Soon I can see happening that men won´t be allow to speak cause it can be harrassment if the woman does not consider you attractive/alpha enough.

Nicole York's picture

Chris, it's interesting to me that you immediately assume that 1. this is only about women, and 2. that the people who responded to harassment must only be talking about flirting.
This article was very purposefully written to be ambiguous because both men and women suffer sexual harassment. Also, I've personally heard horror stories of women being cornered by male guests and weddings demanded to photograph their genitals. There is a difference between casual flirting and harassment.
The reason this article is important to have on Fstoppers is that many photographers work as freelance artists and this is an issue that is much harder to deal with when there is a lack of accountability in the workplace.

Chris Ramirez's picture

If you are working as a Freelancer, your are your own boss, you decide when it is too much, you express yourself when things make you uncomfortable or remove yourself from that situation. It is impossble not to take this article as other way to say "I am a victim, people should not talk to me, unless the ones I want", sorry the metoo movement is taking things too far , people are not mind readers nor people own respect to someone because they have a vagina or penis, people respect people that earn that respect. If someone does something that makes you uncomfortable you say NO.

Alex Cooke's picture

No offense, but try being a wedding photographer and walking out of a ceremony and leaving the couple without photos because a drunk groomsman won't stop hitting on you or listening when you say "no." You're vastly oversimplifying the no-win situations freelance photographers have to deal with.

Chris Ramirez's picture

Alex, I am not saying it does not happen nor it could not happen, but then again would not you remove from that situation if you feel your integrity is being compromised?( physical intimidation) Maybe the concept that I have what really is harrassing might be very different as unprofessional comments on appearance and demeaning nicknames certainly while it could be rude, it does not mean harrassment. Let's analize the first one, unprofessional comments on appearance, someone tells you " you are cute" is this professional?No... but is it a compliment if you find the person attractive but harrassment if you don't?..
While I understand that the photographer is the one working on the wedding, the rest of the people are in a social event, therefore normal social behavior where there is alcohol should be expected, unless you tell me that people are not allowed to show sexual interest in social places.
I doubt the metoo movement was created to shame people for unprofessional comments nor nicknames but to prevent sexual assault or to give voice to the people that suffered it. Being from a developing country its very hard to take this article seriously when it compares sexual assault to someone receiving a non professional comment on appereance or a nickname. I respect your opinion but I consider important to also express concerns when articles like this are published.

Nicole York's picture

I think what you're arguing against here are your own presumptions about what "unprofessional comments on appearance," and "demeaning nicknames" mean. Please understand that these blanket terms encompass everything from being called "sugar tits" to "your ass looks great in those jeans" and other things I'd rather not write.

You're bringing a lot of assumptions into the article that aren't written there.

michael buehrle's picture

and give it 5 years from now and you will hear women saying "why can't i get a date or have men talk to me". this will be why. men will be afraid to be labled if they say the wrong thing to the snowflake women who is always offended.

Dennis Murphy's picture

"demeaning nicknames" - this is just ridiculous... how is that sexual harassment?

Ben Kramer's picture

Excellent and important article!

Nikos Metaxas's picture

Getting sexual advances from a guest at a wedding.........i thing that's just fine. Something to do after the party :D