Someone in a well-read advice column recently recommended to a youngster, “Since you are young, you can choose to work for free…”. Reading that made me purple in my face.
Who “chooses” to work for free? No one, who can choose, chooses to work for free.
Those, who do work for free, are usually misguided by those, who are themselves known for not paying their vendors. People who think it is ok to give ill-thought, selfish advice to youngsters. Youngsters who are just starting out and will shape the industry as they grow. These youngsters are being told that their being young makes it ok for them to be treated unprofessionally.
That is what working for free essentially is. It is unprofessional. It is unprofessional for you to offer to work for free, and it is unprofessional for the person utilizing your services to accept your working for free.
People, who are forging their own path and doing their own thing as independent professionals, who are self-employed, and who have fires in their bellies, do not work for free.
After all, what is “free”? “Free” is when you are providing a valuable service to someone but are not being compensated for it, whether in the form of paper money or otherwise. The opposite of “free” is not “money”. This is where the choice lies.
You can choose to work for compensation other than money but you must choose to receive fair compensation in return for the value you are delivering.
As an example, let us assume you are young and would like to work for someone / some brand. How do you go about it?
You pitch a project idea to them, say, you want to photograph their upcoming event. You are new in the business and while you have a good personal portfolio, your professional portfolio is currently non-existent. You must quote your price regardless. (And if you don’t know how much to charge, refrain from pitching. Do some home work first, then take it from there.)
Pitch knowing that you will get what you negotiate, not what you deserve.
When negotiations come up, be prepared to lower your price but also be prepared to lower the number of deliverables. These could be number of hours of photography, number of images, image use license restrictions and other variables.
If you run into a situation, where the negotiation turns to, “You must work for free because I don’t trust your output since you are new and unproven.”, you must be prepared to offer a counter negotiation.
Every event has advertising boards that display sponsor names and brands. They have websites and social media accounts. Ask them to give you space on the advertising boards. Ask them to announce your name / brand as the official photographer for the event. Ask them to link back to your portfolio website. Be sure to estimate the value of these forms of compensation and equate them with the value you will be providing to the client. And then take a call on what you think is fair compensation.
This is just one example. If you are indeed young and new, you could get creative and suggest a hundred other ways for the client to compensate you. What is in it for you otherwise? The “It will provide exposure” and “It will build your portfolio”, are the usual comebacks. You have to decide, on an individual per-assignment basis whether the value of exposure and portfolio-building are equivalent to the value your work will provide to the client. Remember that exposure and portfolio-building-opportunities will not put food on the table or pay your rent.
You might be told that there is more work for you in the future but unless there is a signed contract to that effect, it means nothing. Imagine a scenario where you do choose to work for free. The client is happy with the work you produce and informs you they have referred you to an associate of theirs at another brand. Guess what? Not only have they passed on your work to them, they have also passed on the factual information that you work for free.
“But I am not good enough!”
Is this thought encouraging you to work for free?
Indeed I recommend that you banish it this minute. With the awareness that this is not as easy to do as it is to say. In which case, consider this extreme scenario instead : imagine that you are indeed not good enough. Pretend for a moment that your work is not as good as you would like it to be. Leaving aside the argument that this perception is subjective, even if you are providing mediocre work, you are still providing the client with your time and effort. Charge for these. Your time and hence effort are limited non-renewable resources. Precious.
Conversely you might be in the position where you may be hiring a professional to do some work for you. Do remember to offer to pay, when you are in that position.
One of the reasons why seniors in any industry fail to guide youngsters to not work for free is because these seniors have worked for free, and do not understand that there is a professional world possible where one is fairly compensated for their work.
In other words, someone who has worked for free has an ulterior motive in recommending the same to others. Why should they empower someone to make money when they themselves weren’t able to stand up for their work & provide it with the respect it deserves? How else will they make up all the money they think they lost out on when they worked for free?