Some people say that you shouldn't work for free because it devalues your work, while others say that you have to do some in order prove your worth in a world saturated with photographers. I know, I know: doing free work has been talked about ad-nauseam on every site and forum across the web. But I know better than everyone else, so prepare to get more nauseous. Grab a bucket and strap yourself in, folks.
I'm coming up on my first-year anniversary as a professional photographer. I have not "made it" yet (does one ever?), but I've learned a lot about myself in the past few months. I've learned that I'm more resourceful than I thought I was, I've learned that I'm willing to persevere when times are tough, and I've also learned that when it comes to business matters I'm a bit of a soft touch and a tad too generous. To be fair, it's not that I'm wholly naive, it's just that I'm so unsure of myself sometimes. Because I had no previous experience in the field of professional photography, I had no reference point for various scenarios. You can read all you can and ask as many questions as you can think of, but nothing teaches you like real-world experience. That's why, before I turned pro, I pondered about it for about a year, got sick of questioning every little detail, and then decided to just dive in.
Many of you will say that I should have just done a few gigs on the side while I built up enough experience and added more clients to my list before turning pro. Let's just say that circumstances didn't allow for this. Now, moving on.
I had one client when I started and I struggled to find more in the first few months, so I did what I was advised not to do: I did some free work. Some of you might say that one has to take on free work at the start of their careers, but I didn't stop there. Oh, no. I continued to donate sessions to prospective clients who were offering gigs that I had no experience in. It was all down to self-belief. I didn't trust enough in my own abilities even though these people wouldn't have asked me unless they liked my work. It was madness looking back at it. Even now I have a free session lined up for the coming month. But, in my defense, I agreed to it a few months ago so I can't renege on my offer.
Here's the thing: if all goes well with this shoot, I'll get referrals. The majority of my work comes from referrals so I won't berate myself too much for giving away freebies. Could I have charged? Yeah, sure. Should I cogitate on it by writing about it at length in a public forum? Tell me in the comments section.
There are other kinds of free work. There are personal projects to be done that help you hone your skills, as well as kinds of work that won't make you feel dirty after accepting them. No, on the contrary, this work will make you feel all warm and fuzzy (unless you're dead inside). I'm talking about using your powers for good.
For example, you can give talks or workshops to people with disabilities. I know a woman who helped a group down-syndrome kids learn how to use a camera, and found it to be an incredibly enjoyable and positive experience. From the way she described it, I think that she got more out of it than the kids. Many people talk about offering their services to the local animal shelter to help animals get adopted or to help the shelter get funding. The opportunities for helping out with charities are innumerable.
One that I've come across recently, with a focus that is close to my heart, is an artistic campaign co-founded by activist Whitny Sobala and an artist who goes by the name of Uncle Riley, in collaboration with Pantone, that aims to raise awareness of depression by promoting optimism and positivity through the color "INT-O Yellow." If you're interested in getting involved, head on over to their website for more details.
Have you guys got any stories about doing work for free? Are you thinking of going pro? Do you use your skills to help out local charities? I'd love to hear your experiences in the comments below.
Art by Uncle Riley.