I have a no hug rule, for all my assignment photography, filmmaking and consulting work. It’s not something that I would have thought I needed, a few years ago, but as I work with more and more organizations supporting vulnerable children I have realized that it is incredibly important.

To be clear, what I describe below is not a stand alone event. It happens often when I am working with organizations that work with vulnerable children. The no hug rule is something that I have always tried to enforce, but I haven’t realized the need to make it a published policy until recently.

A few weeks ago while I was out photographing an assignment, I had an experience that prompted me to think about how I work with and interact with people I meet when I am working with organizations. I was photographing a school that works with disadvantaged children to collect photos for their new website project. As I was leaving, for lunch a few of the children ran toward me to give me a hug. I had photographed them earlier in the morning as they were listening to their teacher read a story to them.

I was in their class room for maybe 5-10 minutes, they had just met me but had somehow decided that since I was now part of the school, I was part of the family. Five to ten minutes of interaction is not a lot, and it was not even direct interaction at that. I was just in their class room as they interacted with their teacher. Unfortunately it shows their need for attention and love that they are not getting at home.

As compassionate human beings, on the surface it seems like we should be willing to give attention and love to people who need it the most. But the reality is that it does more harm than good in these situations, especially in the case of children who are vulnerable. It normalizes physical contact with strangers, and creates attachment problems that will cause problems in their relationships later in life. These are just two examples from a long list of issues created by seemingly meaningful, temporary interactions between vulnerable children and people of influence (adults) outside their relational and community sphere.

The reality is that I don’t need to build a relationship to tell stories empathetically. My goal is to give people a platform to speak from, to show the world that they are valuable and deserving of respect and opportunity. I can do that professionally without becoming a part of a child’s story.

By becoming a part of a child’s story temporarily, even in the simplest form of accepting a hug as I am walking out the gate for lunch, I am altering the way they think and act. I am building patterns, normalizing physical contact with strangers at an early age. I am breaking down barriers that potentially could keep child predators at bay. I am implying that there is a relationship to their young mind, when in reality I will be there interacting with them for a few minutes, a few hours or a few days at most.

In my ideal situation as a photographer and filmmaker, there are two alternatives:

  1. The best option is that the organization has secured permission from the child and parents ahead of time to be photographed and I am able to be the fly on the wall, slip in capture the photos or footage I need and leave with minimal interaction with the children.
  2. For more intentional staged, or posed portraits, again permission has been obtained prior to the shoot and the children’s only interaction  with me is on a professional level, where I am directing them to get the photo I want and they then continue on with their day and their life. Their interaction with me becomes a fast fading memory. 

Ideally the children will forget that I exist and was ever there by the end of the day or the week that I was working in that space. They don’t need to have any fond memories of our interaction. I want to be viewed on the same level as the guy who comes to read the electric meter, or fix the plumbing, a necessary professional there to do a job and leave.

I realize this all sounds harsh and impersonal. We all travel to these places to help people and if people need love and attention we want to be able to give that to them. But the reality is that accepting love and attention from vulnerable children or providing it too them actually does more to help us personally validate that our time and money was well spent and that we are good people than it does to help the child.

Children need to be cared for, absolutely, but that care, love and attention need to come from people with in their culture who are committed to care for them long term.

If you are a photographer, filmmaker, consultant or even just a short-term volunteer I would encourage you to carefully think through:

  • First why you are traveling to these places, do you have a professional reason to be there?
  • Second, think about how you are going to handle these situations before you travel to your assignment or your destination. Have your own policy in place.

If you are a volunteer, only work with and interact with vulnerable children if you have essential, professional skills that cannot be found locally. (If they can be found locally, consider donating the cost of your trip to help the organization pay the fees of the local professional to allow for better ongoing care.) If you are providing professional skills be prepared to do the best thing for the child in the long term, and encourage those traveling with you to do the same.

Interact at a professional level only.

Make sure the organization you are working with understands your boundaries ahead of time and is prepared to help you interact with the children in professional ways. Allow the local staff to provide the relational support the children need. When you do interact with kids who want to greet you or say goodbye with a hug, find other ways to communicate that you value them, a fist bump, a hand shake, a wave, a smile, all of these are safer, healthier and less relational alternatives than hugs or other forms of physical contact.