Do I need to do background checks on contractors hired for photo shoots?

Dec 17, 2018

Topic: Business
Time Investment: 8 Minutes
Suggested Product: Independent Contractor Bundle


Whether it is getting a photo with the Easter bunny, a character from a national holiday, a special magical photo with a favorite princess, or sitting up on Santa’s knee, photos with characters are something many photographers report their clients asking for all year round.

Sometimes we have questions in our group of photographers that get us all thinking, like this one about hiring a character for an event for clients:

I would like to host a client party as a thank you to my clients. We will have characters present and I want to offer one family photo with their character of choice.  What kind of protection should I have? Just release of liability? Do I even need that? Any thoughts on what could go wrong that I am forgetting?

What a great way to reconnect with your clients by hosting a gathering where they can meet a favorite character and have a special photo taken! No matter the type of photo shoot, there are some good practices to follow! These practices are not dependent on whether you are being paid or whether this is a “thank-you” party.  We’ll also cover whether you need to complete a background check on anyone you hire to participate in photo shoots (in their capacity as a character), and how you actually go about doing that!


A Waiver Or Indemnity Release Is Essential!

Waivers and Indemnity releases are an essential tool to protect you and your business. In the case of an event hosted by your business, an Indemnity release or waiver could be included on the tickets or a condition of accepting the invitations you send. It could also be something adults sign (for themselves and their minor children) as they enter the party which limits your liability should an illness or injury occur. We have an example here. Your venue may also ask you to request a certificate of coverage from your insurer – this is so that they can be sure that you have sufficient liability coverage. If you have questions about general or professional liability insurance, your broker can assist with determining how much coverage you might need.



Contract with the Character

Yes, Santa and your favorite Princess need to sign a contract! The contract should detail the obligations and rights of both parties in relation to the event. It should indicate how much they will be paid and when. Your contract with the character actor should also indemnify you for any acts of negligence on their part which result in illness or injury to participants. You should note that you can add an additional policy specifically for working with vulnerable populations where there might be a risk for sexual or physical abuse – you may consider requesting a certificate of third-party coverage from the character you hire! It is a standard practice within the professional Santa schools (yes, this is a thing) to ensure that they are adequately insured.

Refer to our Ultimate Guide to Photography Contracts for so much more on the essential elements of contracts!


A Model Release

In order to use the images you take at these magical events in your advertising and marketing, owning the copyright isn’t sufficient; you also need a model release signed by an adult (guardian on behalf of a minor subject). The release is the document that provides for your use of the likeness of the subject in a commercial manner to advertise and market your photography business. Read more about why you might want a model release as a separate document. You may be able to incorporate the indemnity release and the model release into one document (but chat with your attorney about this).


Does the law require background checks on individuals working with children?

You are not required by law to conduct a criminal background check on any individual who appears at your event in the United States! However, it is considered a human resources best practice to conduct background checks on prospective employees, especially where those employees or contractors are in close contact with children and other vulnerable populations.

Both the United Kingdom and Australia (state based) have specific “working with children” background clearances that are, in some situations, required by law.


So tell me, do I need to do a Background Check?

Let’s take a step back and ask a fundamental question: Should I conduct background checks for anyone working with my business and interacting with vulnerable populations, including children?

It depends. Ordering a background check may decrease your risk of liability – but background checks are not foolproof. They are just one tool you can and may employ.

Many employers conduct background checks on all of their employees and contractors as standard practice. In this case, it would be standard practice to conduct a background check on a Santa or the Easter Bunny or School Mascot you hire (or who may want to volunteer with you).  We can make a strong case for why you should ensure that the character you use for your event has had, or you secure, a background check.

Note: Before screening, you may need to obtain the consent of the contractor – as some states require consent even for employment-related (volunteer or paid) screenings.

A background check for a contractor working with your business is relatively simple and inexpensive. Whether your Princess P or Santa is paid or a volunteer, your background check should consist of the same elements. Typical public records reviewed are:

  • Social Security Number Check: The SSN check provides verification of key information provided on an employment application, as well as verifying recent residences by county
  • Motor Vehicle Records: A valuable report if the character is traveling by car while working as an employee.
  • Employment Verification: Confirmation of previous employment is essential
  • Sex Offender Registry: Both State and Federal. Most states allow for employers with employees working with children to examine both the sex offender registry and the child abuse and neglect register. The latter can be particularly important for child-related and family-related photographers.
  • State & Federal Criminal Records: The national criminal background check and most statewide searches will generate instant search results (with the exception of Wyoming and South Dakota which take a number of days). You should note that criminal records check typically only return felony and misdemeanor criminal records and not all states return the same information.
  • County Criminal Records: Often the most current and accurate source of criminal records information, a county criminal records check provides data on recent convictions. These can take the longest to complete, so double check you have the right information.

If you do engage a Santa who in any way injures or causes harm to your guests or clients, you could be held liable – and should your insurance company consider that you were negligent in your actions – including a failure to complete a background check – you may not be covered by your insurance.


How much is this going to cost me?

It is always a good question to ask about your cost of doing business. In this case, you are likely looking at a cost of between $100-$200 to complete a full background check.

If you don’t want to do a background yourself but still want to do your due diligence, you could hire a Santa or a character actor from an agency who has already completed these background checks for you.


Let’s get this event on the road…

Holding a themed gathering complete with a vetted and background checked character (like Santa, the Easter Bunny, or some Halloween favorites) can be a great investment for your business! Just make sure you’re not opening yourself up to potential legal issues, or worse, injury or harm to a minor child!


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