Is Working For Free Helping You Or Hurting The Industry?
This is a topic that many paid video and photo shooters tend to feel very strongly about, and I’ve tried to analyze my experiences for some rational thoughts on the matter. If you want your voice heard, leave your opinion in the comments, but first read about how one particular band actually offered pro and hobby photographers press access to shoot images of their performance. For a fee of $150.
As this story was originally reported on Popular Photography, the band Hawthorne Heights posted saying the following:
“Are you an aspiring photographer? Come take pictures of us all day at Warped Tour! We will provide you with the access, and experience you need. We will also take your pictures and put them on our Instagram page, and give you full credit for it. This is a great package for anyone who loves taking pictures, whether its for a hobby or professionally.”
Some deeper digging revealed that this “opportunity” would come at a cost of $150 to receive backstage access.
The band has since pulled this posting down, as there was a significant negative reaction as seen on the band’s facebook page. Hawthorne Heights have gone on to respond, and ultimately apologize for the misunderstanding, as they don’t want to offend or exploit any photographers.
This interesting news aside, all of this discussion got me thinking about the industry, and what it’s like to be a newbie. Specifically, where the line gets drawn between doing something to gain experience (and potentially paying for it) and when you should be getting paid for your work. Here are a few points that I came up with, and I’d really love to hear some of your thoughts on this too.
Experience vs. Being Paid (image above is me shooting footage for a no-pay project 9 years ago)
In developing this post, I thought about my own career with shooting video projects, and I noticed an obvious trend where there was an inverse relationship between the amount of experience I had and how much work I would take on as a pro-bono(unpaid) gig. In addition, as my experience increased, so did my costs. But there were (and still are) times when it paid in one way or another to work for “free.” I’ll use myself as the example:
As a Student: In school I had next to no gear, and very limited experience. At best I might get $50 for a simple slideshow edit or the chance to “meet people” and “get connected.” While now I know better than to work for the chance to simply meet someone else to hire me to do more free work, at the time I had to take what I could get. I personally don’t see this as hurting the industry, because as such a beginner level, the client is going to get what they pay for, and the artist (myself in this case) is going to get another notch for the portfolio or resume. I thought of it as paying my dues, and as much as it sucked sometimes, I’m a wiser businessman today for having done it.
When I was no longer a student, had a fair demo reel, and a couple of clients to speak well of me, I wasn’t interested in doing work for free anymore. At the least, I was charging to cover the cost of the expensive video gear that I had purchased. I also found that subject matter influenced my asking price. For example, I despised shooting weddings, but did it for several years. It was great money, and I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. Conversely, when I got the chance to do some editing for a independent movie, I eagerly jumped at the chance to work on it for peanuts. I guess it came back to not having any practical experience in this realm, and it wasn’t on my own computer, so I didn’t have to charge for gear. I was driving pretty far to get to the work location, so in a sense, I was paying for that experience.
Back to the Hawthorne Heights “Offer”
Whether or not it’s OK to pay to get experience, it really depends on the details in my opinion. In my case, I was paying (gas money, time, skills that I paid to develop) to work on someone else’s project. I would NEVER had done this to shoot a wedding or edit a corporate video, but to get some experience in the film industry was huge for me at that time. And you know what? Over the next two years, I made thousands of dollars editing 2 independent movies. And I sincerely doubt that I would have been hired for those gigs without direct prior experience, that I paid to get.
So does that make paying $150 for backstage access an OK thing to do? For some, I say yes. If they are struggling to get gigs where they are getting paid to shoot performances, it might be worth it to beef up their portfolio. For anyone who went to school, besides the educational aspect, we were essentially paying a bunch of money to get better at our craft and eventually get paying jobs. Before I move away from the HH discussion, I want to be clear that I truly think it’s a slap in the face for performers to ask professional photogs to pay to shoot their event, IF THAT IS HOW THE BAND IS GETTING COVERAGE AND THE BAND WANTS TO OWN THE RIGHTS TO THE IMAGES. If the band has other press there, that are being paid as the working professionals they are, then I don’t see an issue. It’s a unique opportunity to give for someone who needs the experience only. Honestly, the only people who would do this are struggling novices and die-hard fans, so I don’t think it’s a huge issue. The band suggested that it was an opportunity for hobbyists as well as professionals, and I think that the professionals part was a slip of the tongue. It’s not for working professionals concert photographers. Period.
As the Joker said in the Dark Knight, “If you’re good at something, you should never do it for free.” This is true, but with some exceptions because there are some harsh realities at play. I’m lucky in that I have enough work so that I can pick and choose what projects I work on in my spare time. Besides personal projects to feed my soul, I occasionally will do work on a project that I truly feel is worth my time, from not only a creative standpoint, but from a portfolio standpoint as well. Here’s my proof– last year I agreed to shoot some video segments for a pilot TV show all about Michigan based food and producers. This included a vodka distillery, a cheese farm, local sourcing restaurants, and more. The guy producing the show is someone I’ve known for years, and besides owing him for some of my industry success, I know for a fact that he does great work. I worked for free for a number of shoots, and with only my travel and lodging being reimbursed. I enjoyed working with the crews, I really cared about the content of the TV show, and therefore had no problem working pro-bono. And wouldn’t you know it, the show just got nominated for 3 Michigan Emmy Awards.
Some might say that what I did hurts the industry, but in reality, there are 10 people waiting in line behind me who would throw themselves at the chance to work on that show for free.
What I think hurts the industry is when mid level or professional level artists do work with little personal benefit for compensation that is substandard or non-existent. This field is very competitive, and as long as it stays that way, up and coming artists will be lowering their costs to simply get the job. Clients know this, and some will try and exploit it for their budgets. The key I feel is the old saying “You get what you pay for.” If you are an artist and are producing high-level work, then your prices should reflect it, and vice-versa. And as an artist it becomes very important to keep working to set yourself apart from the competition, so that the client understands the value of you and your work.
Agree or disagree? Have some profound knowledge to drop or want to tell me how wrong I am? Leave me a note below, I feel that this is an important discussion, and there is much knowledge to be shared from a larger community on this topic. So please, let’s keep it constructive and thoughtful. Thanks for reading.