(Why) Do illustrators need to talk about ethics ?

Julien Posture
Jun 24 · 5 min read
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Image for post
Illustration : Julien Posture

I’ve recently been asked by the Québec association of illustrators (Illustration Québec) to coordinate an ethical committee that would come up with recommendations about a vast array of topics, from inclusive communication to the stance regarding free labor through the power of representations in our work as illustrators. Before even saying yes, I had to ask myself (and the internet), what does it mean and why is it important to care about ethics as an illustrator?

The internet has taught me two things:

- The most vocal actors of the creative industry when it comes to ethics are the designers. Often working with big clients, most of what they have written on the subject is related to the ethics of accepting or not to work for terrible companies.

- Meta discussion about what ethical choices have on the industry is either framed as something helping creatives to strengthen their sense of purpose or as a way to capitalize on values perceived as good for corporations.

These are important aspects of ethical concerns in the creative industry, but in this text, I do not want to focus directly on what is and is not ethical for illustrators. I’m more concerned about the ideological background of ethical work for illustrators and its impact on how we are perceived in the industry.

Is working ethically a privilege? How does it shape our relationship to our clients, to our audiences, and to our peers? How talking about ethics can empower us to claim a more authorial role as creatives? The following constitutes a non-exhaustive and very loosely ordered list of thoughts about these questions.

1. Ethics = Community.Living an ethical life is about acknowledging that we are part of a bigger picture, that we are connected to other people and that our actions have an impact on them. Thinking about ethics in my work has helped me grow a sense of community within the creative industry. When we say no to an underpaid job, it is not only about us, it is about every other illustrator that this client is going to contact afterwards.

2. Ethical labor in a freelance world. Historically, professional ethics is related to professional orders, meaning an organization comprising all members of a profession and regulating different aspects of their work. Illustrators and other creatives do not have a professional order, we have associations (many) that we may or may not decide to join. Working ethically is wonderful and of course we should all thrive to achieve such a goal, but in the absence of a common definition of what is an ethical creative work, it’s often up to the individual to do the ethical labor.

3. Beyond the DO’s and DON’Ts list. One of the issue with ethics is that it can be very prescriptive, without too much concern for the bigger picture. The bigger picture for us is that we’re part of a long chain of creative actors with whom we work, and we often are at the very end of this chain. It would be unfair to require from illustrators to always make ethical choices (meaning “good” choices for the whole world), since if we have to make such choices, it’s probably because someone higher up in the industry didn’t bother making them.

4. Survival > Ethics. I’m always outraged to read or hear illustrators feeling guilty about having accepted a low paying job — knowing that it’s devaluing everyone’s rates on the long term. For freelance workers, making an ethical choice is never just that, it’s also what could make the difference between getting or losing a contract, and ultimately paying rent or not. Encouraging freelancers to think ethically is one thing, forgetting that they are some of the most precarious and isolated workers in our industry is another. Sometimes ethics is not a choice, it’s a privilege.

5. Accountability should be distributed. One classic ethical issue in our profession is plagiarism. And most of the time we see the conversation being held between illustrators alone, as if our work and its value was not regimented by external actors. I once read a cordial message on Instagram by an illustrator addressing the art directors concerning hiring illustrators who were obviously copying their work. This is what needs to happen more often. Shifting the blame from individuals (who are not always ill-intentioned crooks) to the gate keepers who regulate the value of our work.

6. Ethics = Responsibility = Power. Engaging meaningfully with ethics as an illustrator is the key for valorizing our profession. Illustration have a tremendous power over viewers, and especially so because we live in societies where people are seldom being taught about how to understand images, making them even more dangerous. As professional image makers, we participate in shaping the reception of information by millions of people and as such, ethics and accountability should be at the heart of our work. While it is natural for journalists to think of their ethical responsibility, illustrators’ work has been under the radar of accountability for too long.

7. Illustrators are authors. Illustrating is not only about filling up space nor it is about creating “content”, it is about articulating language and visual. Illustrations are the product of a highly complex set of skills including visual problem solving, cultural sensitivity, decoding and encoding of signs, cross-semiotic translation and many more. Illustrators should be talking about ethics because they are authors. Because this is what talking about ethics does, it situates illustration as an authorial practice with power and responsibility. And at a period when we have to compete against image banks, when rates have never been so low in spite of inflation, being an author could help us claim a stronger position in our community.

All this being said, we should be proud and happy that more and more illustrators are engaging with ethics. Unfortunately, this is a conversation in which companies rarely participate. If anything, these past few years have seen the increase of predatory contracts terms, preying on illustrators’ rights in obscure legal lingo, hiring us on their own terms, with little to no transparency about their rates. No matter how much we as a profession talk about ethics, nothing will change until we get together to force the companies we work with to do the same and to include us in the conversation.

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