This seems to be an eternal question for people starting out in a creative career. The whole issue of “Should I work for free to establish a portfolio?’ And if you’re just starting out getting a body of work that shows your style, ability and talent can be very hard thing to achieve.
As well as becoming know, you also need to pay the bills. And you know that deep down, while the gig is cool, you really should be getting paid. It’s a tough one.
NOTE – Before you read any further, let me assure you that not all would-be assignments and clients are like this. Read the article, but also remember, there are plenty of really good clients out there who will actually value your creative input. They are the ones to search out and develop relationships with, not the guys I am about to describe below, the ones that Ted is so angry about.
Don’t forget, these people were never a ‘real’ client anyway. It’s almost as if they don’t count, to be honest.
So again this week the ugly subject has reared it’s head online. Ted Gushue highlighted the issue on his Instagram story. A supercar owner’s organization was appealing for photographers to act as car spotters and photographers along their planned route as they needed images of the event. No mention of payment, or even of free passes into the event itself. You simply got to hang out by the road and bask in the fumes as the wealthy supercar owners blasted by. Then pass on the images to them.
Apart from the fact that it’s so obviously arrogant, with shades of Marie Antoinette about it, there are so many issues with this that set Ted off on a spectacular rant, quite rightly.
Me? I wasn’t surprised at all. It happens all the time.
In fact, 12 years ago, I wrote about that very subject. Back in 2008, I wrote a couple of articles considering the whole issue of photographers, film makers and other creatives all being asked to work for free. And I also wrote a follow up article discussing under what circumstances the idea actually has merit.
You can read the original articles right here, they still stand up, 12 years on. They cover my views on working for free, when to say no and when the idea can actually have merit and work for both parties. Because working for free can occasionally work. However you need to know more than “We have no budget”.
So I’m writing here – again – about the whole issue and why I believe it will never go away. The only thing that surprises me is that people are surprised.
So here’s my 2020 update on working for free. I’d be interested to hear your views, please comment at the end of the article.
- Why do companies do it? Because they know it works. For every photographer or film maker who flips them the bird and kicks off online, there are another 20 standing behind them that will do it. This is a very old rule of supply and demand.
- Why do creatives agree to it? Because creative people have a strange mixture of guilt that they are being paid to do what they love combined with a strong desire to do the gig. When you’re offered a really really cool job, you will have that compelling hope that the gig goes ahead. Thoughts of “Wow, if this comes off it’s going to be awesome!” So you have a strong desire to do the job anyway. And because it’s what we love doing, we are strangely driven to accept compromises. And I have to say, automotive shooters are particularly susceptible to it. Their inherent love of machinery is what attracted them to the idea of being a rock star car photographer. So the attraction and perception of the glamour of a ‘supercar’ shoot can prove irresistible.
- Why don’t creatives like talking money? It’s the elephant in the room and that’s what the people who want your work for free are counting on. They know that you’re uncomfortable talking about it. After all, you really want to do that gig, so you’re a little worried about rocking the boat and discussing money.
- Would you see a heating engineer agreeing to these terms? Of course not. Well, not in his day job as a heating engineer. However if he’s an avid photography enthusiast who’s developed a skill set and a decent social media following, you might see him. He’s the one who can afford that expensive gear.
- Would you see the people asking you to work for free actually working for free themselves? Nope. Most of the people in these organisations are fully aware of the attraction they have to enthusiastic creatives. They know which levers to pull, however were you to ask them to do the same, you know what the response will be.
- Would any of these organisations asking you to work for free ever actually have booked you for a paying gig? Probably not. And the story you hear about “We’d like to see if your work fits with us on this job, then if it’s OK we will book you again in future” never comes true. You’ve just educated them that the industry price point is potentially zero for what they need, so they’ll just move along and find another one.
- How do we stop the whole work for free culture? You can’t. Sorry, but this is market forces, simple as that. You think you’re incredibly talented as a photographer, film maker or other creative? You probably are. However, sorry to tell you, but there are at least a few hundred other people who are also equally as good. And so the issue of work for free isn’t ever going to go away. You say no, there will be plenty more people, with talent, right behind you.
- So what’s the solution? And how do you escape the work for free cycle? Chase Jarvis once said “Be undeniably good”. Thats a good start. Secondly, take a long, hard look at the industry you are in. We are living in times of incredible change. The changes are coming at us at an exponential rate. You’re not sure what I mean by exponential? Read Peter Diamandis. Then when you’ve read that, read my blog on ‘The world is changing, don’t blame Uber’. And see if this applies to the sector you are currently targeting. Does the sector you are trying to break into actually have a long term future? Or is it one of those that are in long, slow, terminal decline. Such as stock photography or newspapers.
- So is there a scenario when working for free does actually work? Yes there is. I’ll say again, read my twelve year old blog post on the subject. Work out if there genuinely is ‘no budget’ then work through the rest of the checklist I laid out. Working for free, or ‘pro bono’ can work just fine, as long as it’s equitable for both parties.
So where does this leave us? No further forward that we were when I wrote the original post twelve years ago. Things have changed a little, with Instagram and influencers coming along. However essentially, it comes down to supply and demand and the remnants of the digital disruption that occurred when the iPhone came along, when Getty Images bought the majority of the stock photo industry, Visual China Group bought the rest and digital cameras proliferated everywhere.
It’s how it is. Get over it. The world is constantly changing and we need to change with it.
For me, the fascination is in spotting the next trend that I will apply my skill set to, what I will pivot and adapt to and what new skills I will learn to add to my existing knowledge.
So stop spouting bile and anger at the people who say “Just think of the exposure, darling.” They aren’t going to go away any time soon and they were never going to book you anyway.
Instead, work out your skill set, work on the unique thing that makes you ‘You’ and find clients that value that. I promise, there are real clients out there who will value you and pay you what you are worth. The supercar lifestyle people we talked about at the top of this article were never really a client. Don’t feel so bad about it. I promise you, they were never going to book you for the gig.
Instead of smashing whatever screen you read it on, take a deep breath, acknowledge that they are out there and avoid them. Never pass the contact on to anyone else, as that doesn’t help. And above all, be undeniably good and find the clients that you really can work with.
I promise you, they are out there.