Every once in a while, I see something come across my Facebook news feed that, literally (and I am using this word properly here), makes me say “WTF??” I recently had one of these moments when I saw an article on Fstoppers titled “Why I think creatives should consider working for free more often.” Granted, this is an op-ed piece and, like they say, opinions are like assholes, but this one really struck a chord with me because of how misguided and plain wrong it is.
If you don’t want to read it, the basic premise is the writer was shocked at how many of his industry peers wouldn’t take on free work (His example was a free magazine photo shoot for a musician that just signed a record deal). I’ll address that specific instance a little later in this article but first I want to talk about just how wrong “working for free” is.
A little about me first: I am a professional photographer that makes my living solely from taking pictures. I’ve been shooting wedding, portrait and commercial work for over 10 years now and started my career as a magazine photographer where, yes, I worked for “free” to begin with (because I knew ZERO about photography and the Chief of Photography traded my work for him training me and gaining experience). During that time (and my first 6 years total) I had dual incomes from my “day job” and did photography on the side. My work has been published in regional and national magazines and I’ve shot for numerous publications and corporations – Better Homes & Gardens and Amazon being two of the more recognizable ones. In my 10 years doing this, I’ve learned one very, very important thing. You always have to be compensated – end of story. Compensation doesn’t have to be money though, there are numerous ways we can receive compensation and each creative will have to make up their own minds on what they need. I should go ahead and say this now: I’ve gotten zero paid jobs from being “published.”
There are 3 primary ways we can be compensated, and you must have two out of three of these to have a good outcome:
I will say it again, you need to have at least two of these if you expect a good outcome. Ask people who make a lot of money, but hate their jobs, if they are content (they aren’t). I can almost guarantee you its because they are missing the 2nd item. Each one of the above things is a form of compensation in its own right. Choosing the two that you want in your life is, of course, up to you but you must take these things into consideration if you want to actually have a career in a creative (or any other) field. As a creative, our mood and personal outlook on life is of paramount importance if you expect to create fresh content on a regular basis.
In the Fstoppers article, the author claims that doing a free shoot gives you total and complete artistic freedom. There is nothing further then the truth. If you were “asked’ to shoot for free, I can almost guarantee you there will NOT be given artistic freedom. Someone reached out to you because they like your style. If this is your personal photography project, then you will want to control all the aspects, right? So why would someone else give you complete control on their project? It just will not happen. Non-paying collaborative efforts can be fun but, in the example given, I can guarantee you the record label and magazine have a very, very specific look & feel they are going for to promote this musician and his “brand.” Collaboration (for experience and joy) only works when all parties involved get equal say in their fields and when all of the ideas mesh. Otherwise, compensation of another sort must come into play.
Notice that “exposure” is not on the list. Exposure is very, very rarely worth it. No one besides photographers ever, EVER read the bylines under photos (I have over 150 published articles & photos shoots and only one person, a photographer, said “OMG, you’re that guy!” Even then, he wasn’t a paying client so, in the end, exposure is not worth anything- except the occasional ego boost). You must identify what you want as your compensation which negates the whole “free” concept. Feeding ones ego is EXPENSIVE! It’s all consuming, is never full and you never, ever get anything back from it.
WORKING FOR EXPOSURE
One of my mentors said this to me a long time ago when I brought up the concept of working for exposure. “People die from exposure.” I laughed it off but the longer I’ve been in this industry, the more I realize it is true. Exposure is an empty promise that rarely, if ever, pans out. If I walked up to you on a street and asked to take a free portrait of you, how much “worth” would that have to you? Probably none. Or how about if you walk into a hardware store to buy a “widget,” they have widget’s for $5 and other widgets for free. Which do you think is better? If you have a critical need for that widget, would you risk picking up the free one or would you pay for it? People do not respect things they get for free – and if you don’t have that respect as a creative, how much input do you think you will really have in the process?
WORKING FOR THINGS OTHER THEN MONEY
Now if you have a potential project that involves no monetary compensation, that may not necesarily be a bad thing if you are getting the other things you need. Shooting a signed musician for a magazine is a paid gig, period. But if it’s a collaborative project with other creatives, then you need to look at the above list and ask yourself, “will the experience and fulfillment I get be worth the effort I put into it?” If yes, then it’s a viable thing and, hopefully, you get what you need out of it. Only you can answer that question but, at the risk of sounding trite, I implore you to make sure you are getting compensated in other ways. If you aren’t going to get money, experience or joy, then there’s one thing you can (and should) say: NO.
On a personal note, I see so many articles discussing this topic these days. And what makes me laugh is most places talk out of both sides of their collective asses – one piece stating “Working for free is great” then another piece which says “You should never work for free.” A great example is here (these were written one month apart):
Now these are two different people writing with two different opinions for Fstoppers, but I can assure you that in the world at large, everyone gets paid for their work. Even many “charities” or “non-profits” pay their people but ask many others to donate their time and effort because it’s “for charity.” I am all for donating my time for a worthy cause, but I ask the person who is hiring me “Do you get paid?” With one exception, everyone from charities who has asked me for free work was getting monetarily compensated. Why are we, as people who create, so quick to give that away?
Seriously, have you ever asked another professional to work for free? Didn’t work so well, did it? No. No it did not.