The question of whether or not to do free work is always pressing. The debate becomes a grey area of ambiguity with many people firmly on one side or the other, and the rest of us stuck somewhere in between questioning our self worth as artists. There are strong arguments on both sides of the arena. Over the course of my career I have wandered back and forth across the defining line only to lately land in the anti-free work position, and here is why.
Recently, Fstoppers Writer, Rob Mynard, wrote a 'pro free work' piece. He does a great job presenting an argument that supports free work as a way to grow your portfolio, meet potential clients and learn as a photographer. Mynard makes some valid points; I very much recommend reading his article, Photography For Free, All The Cool Kids Are Doing It. However; Mynard, I must respectfully disagree, the cool kids are not doing it. The "cool kids" are respecting the value of our craft and helping build a solid foundation for pricing clients and taking professionalism seriously.
By labeling yourself as free you are doing damage to the market as a whole. I get the argument, that doing free work is an opportunity to do inspiring work, and learn about the craft in a professional environment. However; the arena of professional photography is not "on the job training for the unexperienced." If you want to learn how to be a better photographer, don't throw your name in the hat with hard working professionals who have made the investments of education and equipment. By labeling yourself as "free" you have instantly undervalued the entire league of local photographers, you have given your client (if you can call them that) the ability to reach out to other photographers and price shop from the bottom line of $0. I know from a personal standpoint you're earnestly trying to learn as a photographer, I respect that, but keep in mind the damage you are doing to the market. If you want to learn, to be a better photographer, assist a professional. Since when did it become ok for potential clients to say Hey I need this, but I can't pay you. When you have to hire a plumber, do you say "Hey bud, my toilet is broke... Can you fix it? I can't pay you... but you'll learn more about different types of clogs and subsequently become better at learning how to unclog toilets" (OH! and while we're talking about it, just because you have a plunger, doesn't mean you're a professional plumber - a discussion for another day!)
About a month ago, I received an email from a publication about writing a travel segment. The print publication (to remain unnamed) is quickly gaining traction. They are in third issue of their first cycle, have a very consistent brand, strong visual esthetic, and a tactfully sharp product. When I was approached about being featured, I was immediately flattered by their request. However; holding true to my fore mentioned theory of not doing free work, I declined. My stance is clear in my response, I encourage you to read the initial email and my response below:
Their email (with names changed for you Chuck Dickens fans):
My name is Miss Havisham, and I'm a full-time photographer, and at the beginning of this year started a magazine called Pip's Poems & Photography. It's a printed magazine, with a focus on artists and creative entrepreneurs. I'm not making any profit off of it [and don't really care to, honestly], and will say up-front that I'm not able to provide any kind of compensation to contributors. But! I would love to work with you somehow, and have you collaborate. I imagine you must be a very busy guy, but I'd be happy to send you digital copies of the first two issues, if you'd like, so you can take a look at the general vibe of the publication. I took a look at your website, and think some of your travel photography and writing would be perfect; maybe a little travel piece?
Anyways - let me know your thoughts, and if you'd be interested in joining in. I'd love to work with you! :)
Thanks for the email and the thoughts. I am familiar with Pip's Poems & Photography, the design and content is beautiful! I really appreciate the compliments on my work and am very flattered by your offer to collaborate.
I have to say I’m a little disappointed. Regrettably, I cannot provide content with out some sort of compensation. I understand the financial responsibilities and distribution of profits for a print publication can stretch budgets very thin. I respect your drive to create something more than just a profit. I’m sure every magazine cycle becomes increasingly difficult with meeting deadlines, trying to grow your demographic, building ad sales, aggregating interesting content and producing an esthetically sound product that supports your brand. However; if your magazine is meant to focus on artists and creatives, shouldn't supporting them should be paramount?
I’ve been doing this a long time, I very much enjoy the work and it has never been about being wealthy; in fact I find myself doing more free work out of inspiration and admiration than anything else. But, I think it is important for publications to stand up for artists and the creative community to break the cycle. There is a common expression, content is king, it drives the masses, it is essential in developing the brand - it’s not just the fluffy filler between the covers, slapped with a price tag, and left to accumulate in doctor’s office waiting rooms. By offering your content creators zero compensation you are essentially saying that their work is worth nothing, and thus beginning the cycle of exploiting hard working creatives for their visions, inspirations and hard work. I hope that as you build your magazine you’ll see this distinction, I hope as a photographer you never have to face it.
I am just a dime a dozen, run of the mill, glorified blogger and button pusher, but I hope you’ll read my message less than pedantic and actually more as support for your endeavors. There is no animosity in this letter, a simple “no, thank you” probably would have been fine. I needed to address this opportunity to support creatives and artists as a point of pride for all the times our talents have been undervalued by those in a position to make a change. You’re in a position to make a change. Pip's Poems & Photography is in a position to make a change. I hope when the next chance arises to truly make a difference for creatives, you’ll recognize the opportunity.
I get that my response in this scenario was a bit more than asked for. As I stated, I could have just said "no" and moved on, but something about this email struck me. Something about the concept of being expected to do free work really bugged me. Since when did doing free work become expected!? So many of the articles on this blog alone discuss how to better yourself as a professional, but we still struggle with the simple premise of what a professional is. I remember being new to photography, I remember just being hungry to learn... I still am. I remember undervaluing myself so that I could just get work, and I did, and I got better. However; the time wasted, struggling with pricing and understanding my business could have been cut in half if I had just taken myself, and the craft, seriously from the start.
For a long time since, I rested on the fact that if you're good, pricing isn't that big of an issue. You name a fair price, you stick to it and work hard. But, strangely, lately it seems that I've been reading a lot about free work and facing situations I thought I had long outgrown. It seems this next generation of creatives is more apt for getting featured, and gaining social notoriety as justifiable payment. I understand there is more than one way to make a buck, and a "buck" isn't always universally defined as a dollar. I have done many jobs for trade and still do, but frankly, exposure is a cop-out.
I recently asked a young, very talented shooter, what her definition of success was and she plainly answered "being famous." Now, of course, this is the root to a greater issue of the millennial generation (to which I arguably belong). The recent motivation for being successful is having a ton of followers... to which I include this argument by photographer Scott Borrero, and a screenshot from his instagram feed:
Anyway, I digress, DON'T DO FREE WORK! Rather, do work that inspires you... be original, be creative. Let me rephrase, don't do jobs for free. If you care to spend your time shooting and not getting paid, spend that time working on a technique you enjoy. If you want to grow as a wedding photographer then reach out to assist a professional - many professionals will jump at the opportunity for free help. If you want to get better at shooting landscapes, get out there and shoot landscapes! I genuinely understand the stance that being active as a photographer is a great way to learn and grow, but doing someone else's bidding for free does nothing except tell the market that what we do has no value. Please understand when you are marking yourself as "free" you are subsequently devaluing the whole creative craft. Have pride for the craft, have pride for yourself and don't dig a whole that you'll spend the next few years trying to drag your business out of.