I usually try to stay out of this industry nonsense for a few reasons, namely because I find it to be unprofessional and petty, but this particular time it has gone a bit too far and people are just blindly posting this information all over Facebook and their blogs and it is just this side of bullying, in my ever so humble opinion. That being said, it is very important that I preface this by saying this is my experience after contacting the USDA and PPA (the photographers trade association) and that I am sharing this information with you because it was very difficult to get anything but a vague answer from several people and I don’t want anyone operating under misinformation. If you have any questions regarding this for your own business or a session you have scheduled, please do contact the USDA or PPA yourself and ask them specifically about your situation.
Ok, so maybe you’ve seen this little gem of an article (titled “Bunnies and chiclets and children, oh my!”)? Over the past week or so, it has gone pretty viral in the photography industry. I saw it about a week ago and just sat quietly by and watched it get reposted time and time again; I wasn’t worried about it because I was confident that my upcoming bunny sessions are totally legit. And then I got a certified letter in the mail from the USDA yesterday, which obviously sent me into freakout mode trying to figure out what I did wrong (turns out nothing, just as I thought) and how to fix it so I didn’t have to cancel on my clients. This certified “letter” was really a certified package with about 20 pages of paperwork with various titles having to do with fees and licenses and items and classes and exhibitors along with a book on the Animal Welfare Act and Animal Welfare Regulations. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed and my head was spinning. I immediately called the USDA and was transferred to the Washington office. I was very up front and nice about why I was calling and told her my exact situation regarding the bunny mini sessions and my style and niche of photography. She told me that I have photos of animals on my website, which meant I was in direct violation of the law, because I did not have a license to do so. I told her I was confused since I had researched this after reading the aforementioned blog post and this was the first I was hearing of this law and asked her if she could please clarify a few questions for me; every question was eventually met with “I sent you the information, read it.” Well, now that isn’t very helpful, is it? I told her I was more than happy to read it and had in fact already looked through much of it, but I was overwhelmed and confused because I did not see A SINGLE THING regarding photography and photographers, let alone something as specific as my situation and could she pretty please just direct me where to look, which form, which chapter, ANYthing so I could begin to figure this out since she was certainly not going to help me in doing so. Again, no, figure it out yourself.
At this point I began asking specific questions, one of which was if the animals in the photo were clients’ pets, did the regulation still apply. I was told that yes, it absolutely still applied to any animal in the photo and any information I was reading from anywhere else was completely and totally wrong. This was utterly astonishing to me; what about photographing my child playing in the backyard with our dog, what about the family that brings their dogs to their session, what about the senior girl that wants to be photographed with her horse, what about the family that has urban chickens and goats, what about the pet photography industry?! Are you telling me that this is so closely regulated that I have to have a license to share a photo of a family with their beloved pet on my website? Or even my own children with an animal, be it our pet or not? This woman at the USDA would have you believe so. I found this to be so ludicrous that I contacted PPA and shared the conversation and the letter with them. The response from them was that the form letter I received was in line with the information on the PPA site about legally using animals in your photographs (sorry, you have to be a logged in member to read it) and to call the USDA back again and speak with someone that could answer my specific questions about my bunny sessions and that they had never heard of pets (or pet photography) being regulated like this.
Fast forward to a couple hours ago when I got a call from the Washington state USDA veterinary inspector. Again, I presented my situation to her and asked her about pets, animal handlers, and work already on my website (you may have seen ponies, rabbits, and chickens…). She assured me that I was 100% legal and doing it right but that the USDA has an obligation to follow through when complaints are filed against people. Wait. Whaaaaaa? Yes, you read that right. Someone filed a complaint against me (I thought this was all waaaay too coincidental for the USDA to have just found me and suddenly decided that I was someone they needed to pursue) but I will get to that in a minute.
I want to make it VERY clear that this is the information I received from the USDA inspector today, 3/19/2013 at about 1:40pm PST:
- You can use client pets, no matter how exotic they are, as long as the client is present.
- Rabbits are regulated, but this is an easy workaround as long as you hire a professional handler that is licensed (I am using Bunnies for Birthdays, she is licensed and she has her sweet little baby bunnies well socialized to be around children.) and will be on hand to take care of the animals during your shoot.
- Horses are not regulated (I think she may have even said that donkeys and goats are also fine, but do not quote me on that) for photos.
- Birds are not regulated for photos.
- Reptiles are not regulated for photos.
- Rodents are not regulated for photos.
I hope this information makes the laws and regulations a bit more clear for at least one other person, if for no other reason than avoiding the (literal) headache that I’ve been dealing with for the past few days.
Now, back to this reporting business. Pardon my internet speak, but WTF? How have we come to a place in this industry where we are so full of nastiness and envy that we resort to shaming and turning on each other? The blog post I mentioned before specifically says “Because a professional would rarely use animals with or without a license. In fact, VERY few professional photographers offer this option at all. If they do, it is in a VERY controlled environment and no one is allowed to touch the animals. In fact, generally the use of animals is considered highly NON-PROFESSIONAL by the majority of professional photographers. Since I am a fine art photographer, I also expect my works to be put on fine papers and canvas finishes to be hung and treasured forever in my client’s home. An image like this is not going to be a “forever” portrait.” So, that is one person’s opinion, we are all allowed to have our own opinions (however wrong they may be), but how DARE you shame the rest of us that choose to use animals in our own fine art work and call us non-professional?! Barb Uil of JinkyArt, a trusted friend of mine and one of the most well respected photographers in the industry is known for putting animals in her child portraits and, in fact, recently won an award for her work that was chosen by members all across the photography industry. Then further down in that blog post she says “To see if your photographer is licensed according to the Animal Welfare Act, you can go to the USDA – APHIS databank. I spoke with the USDA, as of March 8 2013 this data bank is current.” Or, you know, JUST ASK. Instead of jumping to conclusions thinking that the photographer in question is being unethical, just be honest with your concerns and ask them. If they are not happy to divulge the specifics, that would certainly throw up a red flag for me, at which point I would definitely inquire further, but until then, can we all just be a bit nicer? I just am so flabbergasted that a member of such a tight-knit industry would respond like this, especially since I have made it very clear all along that I have hired a legit business to bring their well-socialized bunnies to me. I can see no real reason, beyond just being mean-spirited, that someone would react in such a way. Truthfully, I really don’t care how much you hate me or dislike my work because I am confident in who I am as a person and as an artist; to take the time out of your day to go through the governmental hoops to report me to a governmental agency when you have no evidence that I am doing anything unethical or illegal speaks volumes to the type of person that is doing this… and I just can’t understand why.
So to all my fellow photographers out there, this is my plea to you: Can we all just get along? I’m not even asking you to love everyone’s work or falsely praise it or even to be bffs with your local competition. I just want us all to live in peace together, regardless of how unqualified you think someone else’s work is or how much you despise someone. We are all in this ever-changing game together and when one photographer lashes out at another it really causes a ripple effect, even when done anonymously. Focus on being the best you that you can be, get over the jealousy and the envy, and carry on with your life in peace. If you truly have a concern about the safety of a child, client, or animal, please just quietly ask the photographer about it before jumping to conclusions. Above all, respect your fellow humans and be the best person you can be.