Should you ever work for free or give your work away? This insoluble and always dicey question has come up again recently, when a photographer who has worked with the indie band Garbage was asked to contribute his work for free to a book being put out by the band (which, ironically, has championed musicians' rights to be paid for their work).
Photographer Pat Pope wrote an open letter to the band, which he posted on Facebook, and it was written up in The Guardian.
It seems to me photographers' responses to this thorny question will differ depending on whether they're looking to optimize how much money they can make, or they don't care how much money they make. (There are many photographers of which the latter is true.) The two positions might lead to the same decision sometimes, but for different reasons.
The dilemma if you want to earn money for your work is neatly summed up by Pat Pope: "Your two choices are to give them the permission, valuing your work at zero, or to refuse permission, in which case they will quietly remove you from the list of freelancers they work with so you won’t get any future work."
I've had very poor luck giving my work away for nothing. The story I usually tell is of a time I was giving away portraits for free in order to get portrait subjects. I did a portrait of a friend's son—a full two and a half hour session, which I scheduled and of course prepared for. I got some results I was very pleased with, but my friend decided her son's hair was a little too long, and asked if I'd do it again after he got a haircut. I was a bit incredulous—my feeling was that she should have asked him to get a haircut before the session. Her response was, "What's the problem? It's free, isn't it?"
Our dilemma came from our differing conceptions of what was going on: I thought I was doing valuable work but giving it to her for no charge, whereas she thought the work itself was valueless because it cost nothing.
More than two decades ago, I used to charge $675 for a sitting fee. Sometimes I'd waive the sitting fee for a person I wanted to make a portrait of, and include one free print, but ask them to pay my usual rate for extra prints ($80 for an 8x10, and up). This was because I made the B&W fiber-base prints by hand, and making them cost me time, effort, and money. Under that arrangement, though, they would just have their one free print copied, usually badly. That also was not really a good result for me, as it resulted in substandard work getting out into the world with my name on it.
I've never come up with an answer to the basic problem, which is that people want you to give them your work for nothing, and you'd rather that they value it enough to pay for it.
What would you do in Pat Pope's place? I've got no solutions I'm afraid.
(Thanks to Michael G, John Hogg, Mike Plews, and several other readers)
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Roger Bradbury: "Do I do photography for free? I did on Sunday, for the local Buddhist temple. I also made tea for the mayor and carried sandwiches in. I’m a volunteer there. This afternoon I shall be there again, fixing their workshop roof. But I do not work there for 'exposure,' but because the jobs need doing.
"I spend a lot of time working out how to do things there for as little as possible and usually with great success, but if we have to pay for professional services, we pay for them and that’s that.
"There’s a difference between doing unpaid work for something we care about, and doing unpaid work for something we don’t. It doesn’t matter if it’s photography or building maintenance. It is a learned skill.
"Unfortunately as Harlan Ellison says, 'you’re undercut by all the amateurs' and while lots of people dream of being in a creative job, not many dream of being in a building maintenance job. There’s the magic word: Job. It is only a job if you get paid for it and you don’t need to get paid in dreams."
Gary: "I'm a physician in Canada. Patients, government, employers, lawyers, insurance officials all expect me to work for free. I don't. Some of my colleagues do work for free and that's where these expectations arise and propagate. I'm afraid photographers have it worse."
John Boeckeler: "Don't do it. I've been burned in small ways every time I've done these jobs for nothing. The fact is that most people are very casual about photography and assign little value to it. I've had my photos copied in the Wall Street Journal as graphic engraved-type images without credit and my photos published in a couple of other magazines without permission and credit, as well. When I called one of the magazines on it, I got a profuse, rope-a-dope apology and a free subscription. I suppose that if I were a professional photographer and my livelihood depended on it, I would be more vigilant in protecting my pocketbook and my rights. But I'm not. I just don't work for free and give photographs away anymore."
G Dan Mitchell (partial comment): "My rule is simple. If the group asking for a donation is one that I would otherwise give cash to because I believe in their work I will consider donating photographic work. Otherwise no."
Kenneth Wajda (partial comment): "[People thinking they are going] to get exposure is a joke. 'People die of exposure' is what I say. There is never another paid job down the line. Just more freebie requests."
Glenn Brown: "I have a standard reply to this problem, I say I do not work for free but will do barter. This way we each put a value on our work/time and usually it goes no further."
Mike replies: I thought about this in Pat's case. I thought perhaps he might have asked for an endorsement quote from the band that he could use in his publicity—something they wrote or videotaped just for him, talking about his work. That way they're out some effort and time as well, and he gets something of real actual value as well, which would only be fitting.
Ctein: "I don't find this an especially difficult question and never have. Put aside favors one does for friends, because that's not really the question. Nor are charity situations or other causes that you want to support for their own sake. Those always have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
"But the work stuff? It's really simple. If someone approaches me to use my work and they imply that they won't/can't pay for it, the very simple question I ask them is whether the other entities involved are also donating their services. The ones, that is, where such a negotiation is possible—I mean, you're going to have to pay the post office to mail your books, no matter how worthy your cause. But, for example, is the printer donating their time and services? Is the binder? Is the distributor? Is the graphic designer?
"On rare occasion, I am surprised to learn that the answer is YES. In which case I feel entirely free to decide if it's something I want to support. I don't feel I'm being taken advantage of.
"If the answer is all or in part NO, then my polite question back to them is, 'If X is being paid for their service, why shouldn't I be?' Sometimes, on rarer occasion, there's actually a good and acceptable answer to this. I've known group ventures where one person was getting paid and nobody else was, because that person was in such dire financial circumstances that they simply could not afford to be involved unless they were paid.
"Most commonly, though, the answer is some variation of 'Because, we think we can get away with not paying you.'
"And then the answer is very simple. No.
"Often my demands for compensation are quite modest. Something like $50 and a copy of the book the illustration appears in, for my brag shelf. It's not about getting rich off of this stuff. It's about getting paid for work one should get paid for.
"If there's a controversy here, I'm failing to see it.
"Oh, and if there are any newbies reading this, the whole 'but the exposure and publicity will be worth it to you' line? Put that in the same box with 'I assure you the check is in the mail' and 'of course I will respect you in the morning' Actually, it should be in a different box. Those latter two turn out to be true a minority of the time. The exposure/publicity thing? Somewhere between almost never and never. Go buy yourself lottery tickets. The odds are better."
Andrew Molitor: "I only work for free...in a sense. Selling stuff seems like too much work for me, so if anything I do makes it into another person's hands, it is as a gift. But I don't do bespoke work of any kind. Occasionally I take pictures with someone else in mind, I might take a picture because I think so-and-so might like it, and then I give them a print, or a book, or something. So I work for free, but I don't work for you."
Bernd Reinhardt: "I am a cinematographer by profession. Sometimes I get offers from director friends for a low-paying job and I have a clear opinion on this: when a job pays too little, but it is a great project I believe in, I would rather work for free as a one-time favor to a friend than work for a low rate. This way I preserve my integrity and let people know that I'm not doing a job for the money, but that I am not in the category of low-paid artists that lets producers take advantage of them. And I will phrase it like this: 'I don't work for this rate, but if this is the job that you need me to do as a personal favor, then I will do it for free.'"
JG: "At my last job, my office was located on a busy hallway and I decided to take advantage of this by hanging a new print on the wall outside of my office every Monday morning. I thought this was a great way to get some exposure for my work, as well as feedback, and it also motivated me to get out shooting regularly lest I end up with a bare wall.
"Because I was hanging 'work prints,' I usually tore them in half and pitched them at the end of the week, unless somebody expressed interest in one, in which case I would often gift it to them instead.
"Well, as is often the case with free things, once word got around that I would give away a print if I was asked nicely, it wasn't very long before I was giving away every print, every week!
"At first I was flattered—who wouldn't be?!—and I didn't mind giving prints to, say, the low-paid mailroom staff, who often did me favors, but when one attorney basically had a standing request for any prints not 'claimed' by someone else, I decided things had gone too far.
"So instead of giving away prints, I started charging $5 to cover the cost of the paper and ink. Most prints were on 17x22" sheets of paper, so this still seemed like a generous offer on my part, but to my surprise, the demand for them immediately fell to zero. Not almost zero, but zero...zip-slash-doodly-squat-slash-nada!
"But then something weird started happening. When I was out of my office, people would rummage through my trash can for recycling paper and take the torn pieces of the prints, reassemble them with tape, and hang them on a bulletin board in their office or tape them to the back of their doors! I also noticed several secretaries were making prints using an HP LaserJet printer of the JPEGs I occasionally emailed to a small group of coworkers—ugh!—and tacking them to the walls of their cubicles.
"I was flabbergasted. And embarrassed, because the LaserJet prints looked hideous to my eye, as I'm a pretty damned good printer and proud of how my B&W prints look.
"Needless to say, it had taken me a while, but I finally realized the average person (and the average above-average person, because this was a law firm and many people who worked there were very well paid indeed!) didn't place much value on photography generally and placed even less value on a physical print.
"And although I had started to achieve a modest amount of commercial recognition around this time (participated in two exhibitions and sold some prints, plus licensed one to client of the firm, etc.), it was clear to me that the writing was on the wall (at least so far as my work was concerned, anyway!) and I decided there and then that I would remain a happy amateur and stop my efforts at becoming what surely would prove to be a very frustrated semi-professional."