I spent some time Friday night yelling. First, I went outside, with my bullhorn, and facing east, started yelling at the top of my lungs. Then, I turned Northwest, and I continued to yell. You don't want to know what I was yelling, but I was yelling at London, and I was yelling at Seattle, because that was where David Hobby and Chase Jarvis were at the time, and I was yelling at them for their posts about working for free. (Strobist - Four Reasons to Consider Working for Free; Chase Jarvis - Will Work for Free?).
After these posts gained traction and the genie was out of the bottle, Chase posted a comment on David's blog that is worth echoing - "Some readers get it too (although a good chunk of the discussion online today misses the point)."
Yes, friends, 99% of the people that read David's blog will miss the point. that same 99% will use this blog postings' approach and theory to bolster the "work for free" concept. The problem is, my yelling was in vain, yet their message came across to the tens of thousands of people reading their blogs. And the message that came across was 'it's ok to work for free to build up your portfolio!' That's what people took away from what they wrote. By midnight, David had 211 comments - and that's moderated. Who knows how many he opted not to publish, and how many were in the cue for consideration, since it was 5am in the UK and he was likely fast asleep.
Let me make myself – and the intent of this series PERFECTLY CLEAR – this is not about discouraging you from trying to “break-in” to the business. I am not a bitter pro-photographer fearing the encroachment on "my domain". To the contrary, I have, since shortly after I started, been committed to helping people become successful photographers with a sustainable business. I have traveled the country giving seminars for little or no money trying to help people do it right. I wrote a book and donated the advance from it to photo foundations to help people and to avoid any suggestion that when I say “buy my book” I was just trying to sell books to make me money. There is a right way to “break in”, and a wrong way. There is a responsible way, and an irresponsible way. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people mis-read what David was trying to say, and are now on the verge of not only doing it the wrong way, but in a very irresponsible way too. You can do it responsibly. You can succeed as a professional photographer even if you are not one now and have a “day” job. That is what this blog is all about, and, as you'll see as you read through this series, I include links to numerous other blog posts I have done on the subject.
So, here’s my feelings about ‘working for free’. I should start with putting forth examples of work I have done for free, and pro-bono, just so we're clear here.
- I photographed my sisters wedding for free, about 15 years ago.
- About 13 years ago, I was doing an assignment for the DNC, photographing a fundraiser with the Vice President, and the lab ruined the film (I have a letter to proove it!), and only 1/2 of the film shot was usable. I ended up doing that one for free (in the end.)
- I am Native-American, and when my tribal council came to Washington for the grand opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, while the Smithsonian hired me to be an official photographer for the event (resulting in my image being their Christmas card that year), I shot images of my tribal leaders participating, and shipped them a CD for use in our tribal newspaper, gratis.
- I got corralled into donating a family portrait session to my daughter's school for the charity auction. Despite my gut feelings, I agreed to it, and I should have listened to my gut. That won't happen again, it was a bad idea.
- I made a portrait of my office manager's family last year.
- About 10 years ago, two people I didn't know took their savings and rainy day money and started a magazine. It was a great idea. We sat down and I put together a schedule of what the assignment fees should be, once advertising started coming in, since it was a free magazine distributed around town, and they were comfortable with those rates. To begin with, they couldn't pay. I agreed to contribute to the cause, and I shot assignments for them, pro-bono. Despite a valiant effort, they folded after about 18 months, but I was paid for all the expenses associated with the shoots, which averaged $200+ at a bare minimum.
- I volunteered several years back, with one of my best corporate clients - to become a sort of a partner. Since I was billing upwards of $20k a year for them for various clients, I committed "if you have a client you've deemed worthy of doing pro bono work for yourself, I would be happy to discuss how I might be able to partner with you to do pro bono work for a worthy cause of yours...".
And, that's about it.
So, I recieved not one but three calls from David who was under the weather in the UK. We had a nice conversation, and he offered several good examples of working without pay. In an early call, I commented to him "yeah, you cite valid examples where it might work (more on that later), but almost all your readers will think that you've painted with a broad brush and won't comprehend the discretion and the distinctions you've drawn. They'll just hear 'we can't pay you to shoot that concert, but we can get you a credential and will give you a photo credit...' and they will think you encouraged that 'for portfolio purposes', when that's not what you meant." Then, in a later call, he noted "the comments run the gamut, and yeah, there are people who took off in that 'shoot the concert for free' direction", which supports Chases' point - "a good chunk of the discussion online today misses the point."
Let's take David's example in his blog of shooting for free for the food blog. David is right - that food blog will NEVER hire a photographer. First, if David was looking to do some awesome portraits, or get into food photography, he could contact the chefs and restaurants, and ask them if he could do their portraits. When they ask "for what?" and he says "oh, just because I want to", the chef isn't going to let some guy come in with lights and all and take up the chef’s time for no good reason other than because the photographer wants to. The chef might say "ok, but I want to use the photos myself", and, at first blush, that sounds ok, but what the chef is really saying is "ok, but in return, I want to use the photos on my website and in my brochures, menus, and advertising", and then that doesn't sound so good. Enter the food blogger. If David were to contact the blog author, and make the offer to shoot the subjects the blogger is writing about, for free, then the chef is getting something for free (publicity), the blog author is getting great images for free, and David is getting experience and portfolio content for free. Here's the downside - were that blogger to become an writer/blogger/editor at Food & Wine, their mindset is that now they're thinking photography is free - if they can just find the free-workers amidst the money-grubbers.
Sportsshooter had an interesting piece - Free is killing me, as did the Houston Chronicle - (Biochemist gave away work, others got Nobel Prize), where some sad sap gave away his knowledge for free to two others, who, in turn, won the Nobel Prize with it. The guy now drives a courtesy van for a car dealership in Alabama. Maybe he can become a photographer?
Let's take the supposedly altruistic "make a difference" mentality. Try this one on for size - kids with cancer. Of all the victims of cancer, none are more of a heart-crusher than kids who come down with cancer. If you got a call from, say, "Cure Kids' Cancer Now" to go up with the kids to the State Legislature to testify before the states' healthcare board, would you do it for free?
If you're curious about the contrary value of this type of situation - the New York Times wrote - "Claritin's Price Falls, but Drug Costs More" back in 2003, as drug companies forced Claritin to be removed from prescription drug status, to over-the-counter status. For a drug as simple as Claritin, switching it to become a drug that's no longer covered by a healthcare prescription plan, one healthcare company alone "Wellpoint itself has certainly benefited from the switch. It used to spend $90 million a year for its members' Claritin prescriptions and doctor visits." That's a $90 million dollar savings from one simple drug, for one company. How much money do you think those pharmaceutical companies would be making if the expensive kids cancer drugs were paid for by insurance? And, they're going to use your photos to help make that happen. They'll profit, you won't. You should get your $1k in photo and usage fees out of the millions they'll make when the drugs are covered. Thus, beware the client who comes across as altruistic and fully deserving of your free work.
I think it's of value now, to return to the New York Times. Early last month,they had a piece - "When to Work for Nothing", by the author of the book "My So-Called Freelance Life", and it has worthy insights. She closes with "When you agree to work free, you reinforce people’s misguided ideas that the self-employed are independently wealthy hobbyists. Don’t degrade your profession by letting a cheap client take advantage of you." I know that what David and Chase were talking about was NOT the concept of agreeing to do assignments for free. I KNOW THAT.
Here's a well-spent 3 minutes with Harlan Ellison to wrap this up. I am purposefully putting it at the bottom of ALL THREE pieces to improve the chances that you watch it at-least once:
From several perspectives, I've written extensively on this subject. Here are several links to those pieces:
A Triumph of Hope Over Experience
A Collection of Inconvenient Facts
Free Not Working for Thee?
Businessweak - Amateurs vs. Pros?
Just Say "No" Just So Oversimplified
Speculative Photography - An Introduction
We also wrote all about working for free for places like US Presswire - US Presswire - Introduction.
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