Photographer Sues City for Calling Her Work ‘Gothic’


We can think of a lot of worse things to call a photograph than “gothic,” but that label was enough to really tick off the owner of a Kansas photo studio.

Debra Bates-Lamborn of First City Photo & Frames in Leavenworth filed a claim for damages with the city of Lansing after her bid to take new portraits of elected city officials was rejected. “We are going to go with a different person, so we won’t have the gothic look this time,” Mayor Billy Blackwell explained at a March City Council meeting.

Bates-Lamborn finds the term misleading and defamatory. “That’s scary to most people,” she said. “Gothic, to me, means dark and moody. That’s branding a photographer.”

She wants at least $75,000 and punitive damages from the city.

And now it’s time for You Be the Judge. Here’s a representative image — a school photo shoot at Leavenworth High — from First City Photo’s Facebook page:


Here’s a current image — of Councilman Kerry Brungardt — from the City of Lansing site:


And here’s the first Creative Commons image that comes up when I do a Flickr search on “gothic.” (Warning: Replicate said search at your own risk.)


(via Kansas City Star)

Image credits: Photographs by Rama, First City Photo, City of Lansing, Duccio Bartolozzi

  • BigEnso

    “A smart photographer should know the law, and I do.”

    Maybe you you should spend more time on learning and working on your photography than the law. Your images could use it.

  • Antonio Carrasco

    All the photos look like Olan Mills to me!

  • Enrico

    It’s people like this that give photographers a bad name. If they sue over something so senseless, imagine what they would sue for in an actual contract? Nobody wants to hire sue-happy people. The more people find out about this, the better. Nobody will want to hire her knowing this.

    A real pro is open to criticism, and will embrace or reject it. If someone sees your work as a certain style, then – it is to them. They are being honest. You should be demanding people to be honest, not suing them for it. Grow up.

  • Enrico


  • Enrico

    They didn’t fire her – they just didn’t select her … for obvious reasons. She wasn’t an employee. Perhaps everyone they didn’t select should sue the city? You can’t sue someone for having an opinion, or even stating their opinion.

    Sadly, many people NOT selected will never know why. They were doing her a favour, but instead of seeing it for a growth opportunity, she is destroying her own reputation. A good lesson here for other photographers. The customer is always right. And if your work is good – your business will prosper, and you won’t care what anyone thinks.

  • BigEnso

    Nah, not that good.

  • Enrico

    Thus it is not too bright to throw away your reputation suing someone for something that cannot be proven (as you state).

    If the term Gothic is so insulting, so defaming, then she should be sued by everyone even remotely involved in anything Gothic. She is the one defaming a group of people. All they said was they didn’t like her work. Boo Hoo.

  • Enrico

    Those who can, do.
    Those who can’t, sue.

  • Enrico

    Don’t you hate it when lawyers pretend to be photographers?
    Now THAT is insulting!

  • Enrico

    The word Gothic can have many meanings. It in no way implies a negative connotation unless you don’t understand the English language. Kind of important when you are suing over the use of words.

  • Enrico

    The person who said it might have understood the word Gothic to mean ‘work that is dated to a time when all photography was lousy”. But everyone understood that the work was not good enough to be selected.

    They should counter-sue for a frivolous lawsuit. They would win – hands down, and get enough money to cover their legal fees, photo shoot, and a good dinner out for the staff.

  • Enrico

    Not much chance of getting customers now … unless they don’t hear about this. If she apologized and withdrew her suit, she might have a chance … but still customers will be gun-shy. There are so many good pros out there … who would risk a nuisance suit with this person? Imagine getting her to do your wedding, and then complain about some of the shots … yikes! Lawsuit!

    It’s a small world, and Google will find it …

  • Enrico

    At least he gave a reason … it would be worse to not let her know why … at least now she knows where to improve on her craft. Instead of appreciating the comment, she sues them for their honesty. Where is that self-destruct button?

  • Enrico

    Your dress represents your appearance at an event you are hired for. It represents how professional you will be at the event. All that should be ironed out in the contract and all good pros will have that detailed. You dress to the event not what your drinking buddies wear to the pub. If I saw someone with face piercings or plugs in their ears, I would not even think about hiring them. There is a real cost for how you present yourself. You don’t want to pay someone and then have people getting nauseous at the event at their self-mutilation. They are free to do it – but don’t expect to get work.

    I was at a wedding where the “pro” had her camera “beeping” every single photo. Even during the ceremony … very rude and distracting and on the video to be re-annoyed every time it is viewed. Being professional is more than just the final product. You are a part of the event. You need to be almost invisible, not the jerk with the noisy camera or blue hair spikes.

  • Enrico

    Is there video of the quote? Did he mention you by name? The quote in the story doesn’t specifically mention anyone or any company. If you had not made a big deal out of this nobody would even know it was you he was trying to help. But now, they know not to hire you. He didn’t say anything even close to defamatory. You must prove intent to injure, which everyone here seems to agree is not the case.

    Do you prefer to be rejected and wonder why the rest of your life, or do you want meaningful information to apply to your craft so that you can learn and grow? You have done a great job identifying yourself as someone who people will never want to hire. If you overreact to a simple comment on your work, how will you react when something important takes place?

  • Enrico

    Agreed. It is a small world and a big Google. This will do nothing but drive away potential clients.

  • Rob Elliott

    I don’t think anyone at the City thought that. They were referring to her work looking dark. Photography started in the mid 18th century. Gothic refers to either Goths (like Ostrogoths) Gothic style which ended in the 16th century or Goths the subculture that the public link to school shootings, Industrial and Goth Music.

    In a setting like Kansas it is likely a reference to the work being Dark, the photographers desire for heavy vignetting and Sepia tones.

    It is highly likely that the statement (without having heard it in full context) was meant to be negative. City officials often will speak without thinking and likely they will just apologize.

    More over I think the tone of the comments (as a whole not singling out anyone) is directly related to the initial image on this post.

  • Kevin Patrick Robbins

    Weird. I actually describe my style as “marshmallow farts.”

  • kennuf

    Aw fer gawsh sakes…..hizzoner the Mayor’s comment accurately describes the appearance (dress, make-up, hair styles, tattoos, piercings etc) of the subjects. Even if the Mayor’s description of the photo technique had been “technically sharp, properly exposed snapshot using cloudy-day diffused light”, he would have been absolutely correct. Most “Professional” photographers, when submitting samples of their work, do some research on what their prospective client might want…..did she visit a Lansing city council meeting and observe it’s members similarly dressed and coiffed? Next time…match your subject treatment to the image they want to portray.

  • Pitchfork

    I don’t get it. The photos do look American gothic. As in, the farm couple with the pitchfork standing in front of their house gothic. Why get upset at an accurate art description? The official might have made the decision based on complaints from his voters. That said, the old photos don’t look up to speed with modern government promotion images. They look gothic.

  • Tyler Magee

    I dont understand how she got clients in the first place….. I think the reason she is trying to sue for $75,000 is because she is in a hard situation financially as a freelance photographer. But thats the price you take on being independent…. there is just so many things about this story that makes me mad ( I could be wrong about her financially but most people who sue over very little things like this arent doing the best when it comes to money )

  • The Fashionable Wedding Tog

    I never said the photographer in question dressed off. Though you seemed to imply that. I just like my flip flops.

    It’s hard living up to society’s expectations.

  • religionandhistory

    Perhaps for clarity he should have said ” Some photographers interpretations and public representations of their work , many may conclude as wonderfully unique emotionless subdued and darkly creative ! To professionally meet our current expectations of confidence in an inspiring decidedly less artsy final composition we were seeking a photographer capable of incorporating fuller lighting .Even possibly vibrant rays of sunshine , including the promise of visually interesting angles and suprising colorful backgrounds were desired . We concluded our overall expectations were of projecting a friendlier atmosphere by this project . Our desire to thoughtfuly have captured bright candid moments and unrestrained smiles might work against the amazing dark yet very creative edgy underlit style some photographers deliberately gravitate to . Our time is valuable and cannot be retrieved if squandered . By composition of and creation of this project we wish to outshine our peers and sought a photographer who could assure us by past work ….desired to do the very same !

  • Dawn Younce

    I totally agree with you, John. I’m kinda shocked by all of the negative comments here. I looked through her images and IMO, they’re very good. And if people would pay attention, that first photo is not of her.They need to look at her profile pics on her FB page. I just hope she hasn’t hurt her business. I don’t think she has. Regular clients won’t care. The courts will work the rest out.

  • the judge

    Dressing poorly for a wedding won’t help you build your business or indpire confidence in your subjects. Dress well and improve it all. I wouldntwant anyone Iin flip flops and tank top at my wedding thank you. A photog shoukd dress for comfort but be elegant and well dressed at a wedding…..sales is judged by people. If you dont want to br judged dont sell yourself as a photographer. Everyone judges sales people. Every one. Sometimes fairly. Sometimes not

  • the judge

    Get smart and buy some nice shoes and a respectful elegant top. How can you call yourself fashionable and dress cheap?

  • goth liket

    No. I’m saying it’s ok not to hire people you don’t like and that doing that is completely understandable and normal. People do discriminate when they choose services and products. That’s what shopping is in effect. It is foolish to dress poorly and expect buyers to want you. Goth dress is a rejection of most others. I dont think she was insulted actually, just rejected. And her reaction proves that she is not ready as a professional.

  • Destiney Marsh Fischer


  • Destiney Marsh Fischer


  • Jim Macias

    Wild guess?

    “..but that label was enough to really tick off the owner of a Kansas photo studio.”

  • Amused Photographer

    Here’s a man who’s brave enough to say what everyone’s thinking.

  • Scott

    so she isnt suing because they called her work gothic at all, she is understably annoyed that her work is being degraded just because of how the people in the image dress which is prejudice and just small minded, you can get a person dress as a “goth” who will happily help you with your shopping or if your child is lost or hurt they will stop to help as with any culture of people, some good some bad, thats like saying all old people are grumpy or all professional sports men/women are stupid jock’s, learn to stop labeling everyone under one thing and be open minded then maybe the stupidity and hate would stop