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Saying 'No' to work

Biting the Big Apple: Ila Couch in New York.
When you're a freelancer finding work is hard work but are there some projects that just aren't w


When you're a freelancer finding work is hard work but are there some projects that just aren't worth taking?  Should morals and ethics be considered when you take a job?

Ila Couch in New York asks her friends and colleagues what they think about turning down work for ethical reasons.

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At the beginning of the year I made a bold move and booked a flight to New Zealand for August. When you freelance, planning anything in advance is tricky since you don’t know what you’ll be doing one month to the next. The last time I went home on a whim my three week holiday in New Zealand extended into a three month unpaid vacation in the States. I learned the hard way that shows shot during the winter months tend to staff up by September making October a bad time to be looking for work. This time I thought it best to do some advance preparation.

Since job hunting is ultimately a job in itself, I was over the moon when I got an unsolicited call about work. After taking down all the details - travel, good rate of pay and the chance to work with a new company - something still didn’t sit right. Should I or rather, could I work on a show about child pageantry?
The only time I've turned down a job was one offered by a good friend who gave me my start in TV here.  I told him I didn’t want to be stuck on a cruise ship filming horny twenty year olds dating. “You’re too picky Kiwi” he replied. At a birthday dinner for a friend and fellow shooter/producer I asked the table of mostly industry folks if they had ever turned down work because of their ethical or moral beliefs. One woman practically snorted pizza out her nose as she responded with an emphatic no. “We’re there to document, not pass judgment,” she said. The birthday girl gave it a bit of thought, lent over and asked “Could you learn anything new?” 

Since we learn our craft on the job this is a valid question and one which is asked when exhausting all the reasons you don’t want to do a job. The first is can I afford not to do the job? I asked my friend who is editing his own TV pilot what he thought about turning down work for ethical reasons. He told me it’s a nice idea but doesn’t pay the electrical bill. His primary motivation for making his own television show – so he can avoid having to work on something he doesn’t want to.

Even if you end up choosing a job that doesn’t chafe your conscience you’re still not guaranteed safe moral passage. A Field Director I worked with posted on Facebook how she almost quit a show when the people in the office started pushing her to produce. She hung up after it was suggested she not feed her contributing talent so his blood sugar levels dropped making him vulnerable to an emotional break down. Another Director on a relatively tame wedding show was told, “if nothing interesting is happening, saw the leg off the cake table”. Advice that sounded literal enough he had to clarify it was meant in jest.  Then there’s my poor friend who was simply mislead from the get go. She turned up to shoot an interview only to find the subjects were porn stars.  After chatting to camera they got down to the business of sex at which point she became unavailable for future work with that company.

With three weeks passed since I got back from New Zealand I’ve been swimming, catching up with friends and worrying just a little about work. When I call the friend I initially raised this moral dilemma with she tells me she has an opportunity to work on a homicide detective show but doesn’t know if she’s ready to include dead bodies in her job description.

In the end I don’t think I will aggressively pursue the job I was called for. Some stories need to be told and in the case of child beauty pageants a documentary on the subject would do just fine. A season, which is typically 13 episodes here is overkill and in my opinion, perpetuates the uncomfortable sexualization of young girls amongst other things.  Instead I’ll cross my fingers tight and hope the show on parasites I interviewed for comes though. It’s a bit of a gamble waiting it out but after my last science show experience I know it will be worth it. 

Written by

Ila Couch

17 Sep 2009