Ethical dilemma

My daughter recently had her preschool pictures taken and this portrait company does things a little differently than I’ve seen before. Instead of having you order a specific set of pictures in advance, they take your kid’s picture, then they make the prints for you to look at. You can buy whichever ones you like, or none at all. The ones you don’t buy are destroyed.

Anyway I volunteer at the school and have been given the task of handling the school pics, collecting the money, etc. Originally, the portrait company told me to return all the photos that weren’t purchased…but yesterday I was talking to the agent on the phone and she told me to just destroy the photos that weren’t purchased so as not to waste fed-ex funds. Now here’s the dilemna:

I am aware of 3 families in the school who have fallen on hard financial times and none of them purchased their children’s school pictures. I am very tempted to give these families the pictures (or at least one or two) rather than destroy them. They are all very good pictures of the kids so I presume they are not buying them because of the cost, which ranges from $60-140 per kid ($140 buys you the whole set). However, I have to sign something that says I destroyed the photos.

On the one hand, I know it isn’t fair to the portrait company to give away their goods for free. On the other hand, these are going to be destroyed anyway…so why not give them to the families?

I feel pretty certain that I’d never get caught (unless one of the families turned me in) and I’m not an agent of the portrait company or the school since I’m a volunteer…but I still feel conflicted about it. What would you do?

I’d probably give the families a small number of pictures. I know it’s not the 100% most ethical thing to do. If you had told the families, “OK, listen, if you just decline to purchase the photos, I can get them for you free!”, that would be another story.

But that’s a personal choice. I could live with the choice - it seems like not a big deal. Maybe you can’t.


Give 'em the pictures.

I’ve never liked these business models re photography. The photos are there already. Just lower your prices, people will buy more, and you’d probably make more profit anyway. It seems to defy economic logic that you would destroy something rather than sell it even at a loss. It also seems somehow spiteful and mean.

So yeah, a little under the table stuff won’t hurt here.

I wouldn’t give them the photos. They don’t belong to me, and are not mine to give away. I would also be unable to sign a document that is a lie.

Can you contact the company, negotiate a reduced rate, and pay for them yourself?

Those pictures are not important. Giving the families the pictures won’t improve their circumstances in the least, while signing something that says you destroyed them when you didn’t makes you a dishonest person. I value my sense of right and wrong far more than I do a school photo, so this is a no-brainer - destroy the pictures.

As well as the ethics of stealing the pictures there’s also the possibility that the families might react negatively to you doing this. That’s worth considering. However, if I were you I’d give the pictures to the families and hope for the best.


If I were a family that was struggling, I wouldn’t want someone doing something wrong putatively for my benefit. I’d feel much worse about that than about choosing to not buy some pictures.

And even if the families were grateful, you’ve done something you have no right to do. If this duty is too onerous for you, then refuse it. Say that you cannot, in all good conscience, be a party to simply destroying pictures that people can’t afford but want. But don’t agree to do it and then cheat.

If you do give them the pictures be fully prepared that next time around, a much larger group of families won’t buy any pictures, and you’ll get many requests for a few prints that are “just going to be destroyed anyway.” And of course, 1 or 2 demanding you give them the whole package for free. I’d destroy them all just to avoid that situation.

Not that I think the families you’d give them to would mastermind some great plot to defraud the photographers. Just that word would get around as to what you did.

I’d give them the pictures, though I admit it’s not the ethically sound choice.

It’s not about improving their situation. The families have fallen on hard times, and aren’t doing anything to seek your participation in a dishonest activity. They’re not bribing you, they’re not turning down purchase just because they think you’ll take pity and give them to them for free, etc. Nor did you give them the heads up on a way to avoid paying.

I think it’s possible to both give them some photos and maintain your sense of right and wrong. The fact that the OP recognized this as a potentially ethically challenging situation is good, and I don’t consider this the kind of ethical deviation that would make someone a bad person. I remember how gleeful my mother was every year when I got school pictures–it’s just something that means a lot to a parent, and can go a long way to making them feel better in a poor situation.

The only thing I’d say, though, is that muldoonthief makes an excellent point. You kind of have to be wary when doing so; you have parents who can’t afford it, but wouldn’t value the photos even if they could. On the other hand, you have parents who can’t afford it, but would treasure them and probably still have them in 40 years.

I’d also be afraid of the slippery slope. Destroy the pictures; they’re not your property.

Agreeing with the majority here, they are not yours to give away.

I’d have no problem with giving the families the pictures and signing the statement. My concern would actually be about approaching them in the first place because the whole thing carries an air of presumption. Have they bought these pictures in past years? Maybe they think it’s just unnecessary or didn’t like the pictures last year, for example, and decided they don’t want them rather than feeling they can’t afford them.

Maybe I’d save one or two pictures for each family, find an extremely polite way to ask if they’d like them, and give them to them if they said yes while making it crystal clear that this is a one-time thing not to be discussed with anybody else. Then I’d sign the statement and destroy the pictures. It’s being mildly dishonest to do a small good deed and not what I’d call a serious ethical breach.

In the end, it is your choice, you must decide what path is “right” and what path “wrong” in your reality. In mine, destroying pictures is wrong, I would give them to the families. I would probably not sign the form, though, as I dislike dishonesty.

I disagree that the pictures are not yours to give away – the photography company gave them to you when they asked you to destroy them. Simply put, if they want them destroyed so badly, they can send you a call tag for them and destroy them for themselves.

I’ve seen this sentiment a couple times in this thread. I do see it as a serious ethical breach because you’ve given your word and to do something else is going back on it. It shows that you can’t be trusted.

“Let your word be your bond.” is a great principle that we seem to have gotten away from.

I’m with the “don’t give them the pictures” crowd. I kind of like the idea of getting them a reduced rate, or you could probably also point them to a less expensive photographer somewhere if it was important to them.

I’d probably end up saving a few out of each package for the families as well. It probably stems from my intense dislike for waste. Destroying those pictures is wasteful, if they had asked you to return them and they kept them on file to be ordered later that’s one thing, but printing all and destroying a percentage from every packet when you’re worried about fed ex costs is just stupid.

There’s a way everyone could be happy to the letter of the agreement. You could destroy the paper with the images on them and sign the paper, if you gave the parents a scan of the picture. But for some reason that seems even less honest.

I’m an honest person, but I’ve got a longstanding problem with this kind of moral absolutism. Does this idea involve breaking your word? Yes. But when the stakes are small, I don’t have a problem with considering who is harmed (nobody, because these pictures are either going to these families or into the trash, and the photographers get no money either way) and who could be helped (these families). The precedent for what this might due in future school picture sales is a valid concern. Implying that Enola Gay would be a shifty scoundrel for attempting a small favor for some down-on-their-luck families… not so much, in my view.

Yes, things have really gone downhill since lying was invented in 1997.

That’s an interesting look into how you think.

I didn’t say lying was a new thing, but it really seems that few people have any actual honesty lately.

I hate, hate, hate the school pictures each Hallkid has had taken over the years. Early on, I purchased the minimum number of pictures, at the smallest price because I was sure I’d regret not having a “school picture” when they got older. During that time, we were desperately poor and aside from the financial strain on the budget in purchasing the pictures, the fact remains that they were just horrible pictures of my kids. I’m sure someone looking in would have said, “Oh, it’s probably a great financial strain for her to buy the school pictures” and they would have been correct. Still, I scraped together the $20 or so to buy them.

Now, 20 years or so later, each time I come across a crappy school picture, I just get irritated that I felt pressured (internal, but still pressure) to purchase crappy, horribly done pictures. I don’t value them one bit. So, eventually I stopped buying them, and by the time Hallboy got into middle school, he refused to bring home the packages, telling the school that his mom doesn’t buy them (he’s right).

Don’t assume that the family doesn’t have the money to buy the pictures just because they didn’t buy them (even if the family is dirt poor). Could be they just hate the school pictures.

BTW, the Hallkids did get their pictures taken–semi-professionally–every year, since my mom wanted pictures of the kids, so she paid for it. Plus, there were casual Kodak moments throughout. Those pictures, I love.

In other words, don’t sacrifice your ethics over this.

Unless you elaborate I don’t know if I should be saying thanks or “thanks.” Should I say “I appreciate your vaguely insulting lack of specifics?”

I know. Here’s the point, though: anybody who tells you they’ve never told a lie or never would is a liar. So you look at whether or not someone has rules and under what circumstances they’d consider bending or breaking them. I don’t mind saying that not all those circumstances are equally bad.

After reading phall06’s post, though, I’m having more doubts about the idea. They may just not want the pictures and insulting the families by being presumptuous would be a bad thing.