The Rhetoric Debate: “Internship” vs. “Free Labor”


Some members of the photography industry have been up in arms the past few days over an internship offered by the private studio of seasoned pro photographer James Nachtwey.

New York based Nachtwey is offering a three month position as his assistant, which seems like a great experience, since Nachtwey is an award-winning photojournalist who has been in the industry for nearly 40 years now.

However, the main gripe commentators on forums and in the blogosphere seem to be making is the fact that the position, which calls for experienced photography students or early-career photographers, seems to involve a lot of post-processing and lab work, and is unpaid. Outrage ensues.

Read the job description here, along with reactions.

But the bigger issue here is the idea of unpaid internships in general, and the situation many photographers face when trying to become professionals.

Ideally, internships offer valuable work experience, a learning environment, and networking connections. Unpaid internships usually come coupled with class credit as compensation. Paid internships offer a nominal stipend, sometimes enough to pay rent and cover some living expenses. The emphasis, in either case, is that the experience is the best reward.

Plenty of publications and non-profits offer unpaid photography internships, and there is always a cutthroat amount of competition for those positions. Having that name and experience on a resume might be worth time and energy.

However, there are a lot of publications, particularly newspapers, that can barely afford to keep their current staff employed, but who still pay interns around $500 a week for the duration of their internship.

Outraged commentators note that Nachtwey’s position is slightly different; he privately owns his studio, runs a for-profit business, and can’t offer class credit for photographers who are not in school. Additionally, many feel that the position likely will not improve or stretch their own photography skills, since it appears they will be functioning as post-processing specialists, rather than as photographers in the field, as for most newspaper internships.

And what’s more, many feel that the situation exemplifies the experience of emerging photographers, that they are being exploited because of their youth in the field, rather than being paid according to their ability.

Photographer Matt Brandon defends Nachtwey on his blog, The Digital Trekker, noting that paid photo internships are far and few, and often wishful thinking. Additionally, it would be an honor to work alongside Nachtwey, even if doing the equivalent of photography menial work. Nachtwey is a veteran of the industry and of the battlefield, as he has covered numerous wars internationally.

Others maintain that if Nachtwey offered the position as a unique workshop, people might actually pay out of their own pockets to work for him. Or if he called the position a volunteer position, rather than an unpaid internship, the issue would not exist.

This whole debate is pretty emotional.

On one hand, there’s a great deal of frustration coming from the ranks of early career photographers who are struggling to find jobs after graduating.

On the other hand, there are those who argue that photography is in general a tough industry to break into; those who weather the waves of competition (and an inglorious internship) may not make money initially, but require that sacrifice in order to rightfully enter the ranks of professionalism.

And there are also those who wonder if as a whole, the photography industry is defeating itself by offering free or cheap photography services for exposure instead of demanding a fair price commensurate with ability and quality.

Read more on the debate:

What do you think? Should photographers, regardless of experience, draw the line somewhere? Have you had a similar internship experience that you found either rewarding or otherwise?

Image Credit: March of the Cameras by The Suss-Man

  • billgray

    “Having that name and experience on a resume might be worth time and energy.” ???? 'Might' is one heck of a silly thing to say. Having a photographer like Nach pick an intern out of the mix is one hell of a resume enhancer. Might? Who ever said that missed a great internship in their life.
    The small details that come through osmosis being around an accomplished photographer can't be measured. OMG, printing for a photographer like that can teach cropping, lighting and color far beyond any school. The feedback with Photoshopping, burning and dodging, contact print image selection would only enhance a young photographer skill wise.
    I would venture to say skip photo college, get a cheap AA degree in accounting and business, take out an Ivy League school loan and sleep on Nach's stoop. You'll get a better education in photography than any photo school. You'll be able to watch/listen to more client face to face, but most important, you just might get a better understanding for whom and why you want to work. Plus you'll get to meet some of the art/photo buyers assistants and that is the contact pool you'll eventually work for in the future.
    The rules changed in photography when digital made exposing a well adjusted frame easy. Now everybody and his brother is a photographer. Making your work different from others is even more of a challenge. Getting a leg up with a great photographer showing you the ropes can't be beat. You get to see what to to deliver that will make people sit up and look. That's more than any non-freelancing photographer could give you. And we all paid for that type almost useful advice at some time in our college life…

    Bill Gray
    Balt/Washington DC

  • Paul Melo

    Don't work for free.. period. I've been a working professional in the film industry as well as a working freelancer for more than 10years and never 'interned' or worked for free.

    If you have the talent, stand behind it and charge accordingly.

    Shame on this photographer. No one should work for free to put new hubcaps on his Mercedes.

  • JessicaLum

    Bill, wise words. It's true–becoming a great photographer is more than having a nice camera and paying tuition. It's the Indian, not the arrow, and to extend that adage, it's the Indian's chief who makes the Indian.

    I wanted to avoid chiming in too much on this issue, but here's my 2 cents:

    For every internship opportunity, we'd have to weigh the cost vs benefits. For the average starving student, it's tough to live in NYC off of a $0 salary (though that's only for 3 days of work, the other 4 days of the week could be spent working a paid job). It seems a lot of people took issue with the demands of the job vs. the lack of apparent benefit.

    However, to be associated with and to work as an apprentice under an excellent photographer can certainly be priceless–which is the latent benefit that is less apparent at first. And perhaps that latent benefit is too easily overlooked, along with a potentially glowing recommendation, an excellent career contact, and all else that may prove a career-maker in the future.

    Also, sure, post-processing can be pretty darn menial, but every experience is what you make of it. I actually really enjoyed working as a photo editor — half the job was administration, the other half was post-processing, and whatever time was left, I'd try to shoot. Working in the office could be a drag at times, but what I really truly, deeply enjoy is looking at other peoples' work, whether it was my co-workers', the new interns', or AP photographers'.

    Photography as a skill can't be gained merely by working in a bubble. I think the most pivotal moments that have made me grow as a photographer occur when I see professional work that really inspires and makes an impression upon me.

    Nevertheless, I think this situation overall illustrates the position a lot of recent grads and current students are in — a lot of them still can't make money, in spite of their education or experience. And in this economy, that's a tough spot to be in.

  • jackmackenna

    Why are people debating this? If you don't want the job, you don't have to take it. Leave it for someone who actually does.

    I am a beginning photographer and graphic artist. I volunteer for unpaid jobs all the time, because I know if people want my work, they will eventually start paying for it. Careers are not handed to you on a silver platter.

  • Oleg Sklyanchuk

    “there are a lot of publications […] who still pay interns around $500 a week for the duration of their internship.”

    What? $500 a week for an intern? That's almost exactly my current salary! Do they still hire? :)

  • Oleg Sklyanchuk

    “If you have the talent, stand behind it and charge accordingly.”

    Paul, you must be extremely lucky to have the talent because in my most humble non-professional opinion 99% of photographers don't have it. They have skills and skills are to be learnt. Learnt throuh hardships and pain and unpaid work.

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  • JessicaLum

    Seattle Times offers $540/week according to an email I received from the editor, Society of Professional Journalists offers $400/week and the Sacramento Bee paid $575/week last summer

    Not too shabby, but of course, that's only limited to a 10 week position.

  • Mike Sussman

    Interesting article. Thank you for using my image, “March of the Cameras.”

  • Michael Zhang

    Hey Mike,

    You're very welcome. Thanks for the friendly CC license, and great shot! :-)

  • JessicaLum

    hmm, here's an interesting article that talks about the plight of the recent grad, and whether or not to take that internship after all:

  • JessicaLum

    hmm, here's an interesting article that talks about the plight of the recent grad, and whether or not to take that internship after all: