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The Consequences of Working for Free

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More than a few articles have been written on the detrimental effects of working for free in the photo industry. Unsurprisingly, the same issue has raged on for years in the writing community. But I didn’t expect to see the issue percolate in my Facebook feed in relation to the circus industry.

The circus industry? Yes.

My diverse group of online friends (some of whom I’ve actually met IRL) happen to include a few talented acrobats and aerialists. You know, the type of people who might work in a circus (or as Austin Powers says, “carnies”). And there it was, an article from circuscompetition.com entitled The Consequence of Working for Free in Circus.

Author Mary-Margaret Scrimger lays out arguments against working for free that are all too familiar:

  • “When someone works for free it decreases what services are considered to be worth and, therefore, decreases what professionals can charge.”
  • “North America has this silly belief that work is a negative word. If we are working, then we shouldn’t enjoy it. Work should be hard. We should only be paid if there isn’t enjoyment.”
  • “Artists are frequently promised exposure and future paid work for giving their creations for free…Promises are for tomorrow and tomorrow never comes.”

Author Tim Kreider astutely pointed out the following dynamic in a New York Times op/ed entitled “Slaves of the Internet Unite”:

I know there’s no point in demanding that businesspeople pay artists for their work, any more than there is in politely asking stink bugs or rhinoviruses to quit it already. It’s their job to be rapacious and shameless. But they can get away with paying nothing only for the same reason so many sleazy guys keep trying to pick up women by insulting them: because it keeps working on someone.

Scrimger isn’t the only one. Hula hoop performer Revolva turned down Oprah’s offer of free work for exposure.  Revolva penned an open letter to Oprah:

Oprah Winfrey’s event can’t afford to pay performers. I’d have to drive a rental car to the arena in exchange for exposure,” she added. “And the tour that wants free work is called “The Life You Want.” It’s like a sitcom, except it’s reality. I wrote this post because I guess I just felt exasperated enough to say, ‘Can people who can afford to pay artists please stop making super-saver coupons out of our lives?’

And recently an interview with writer Harlan Ellison has been making the rounds.

Ellison yells, “There’s no publicity value [in working for free]! The only value to me is if you put money in my hand!”

Industry expert John Harrington writes, “When you get the request from a prospective client to work for free, it’s not really free to you… remember that your expenses continue whether you’re getting paid or not. Because you still have to pay all the bills that keep you in business, each day has a net cost associated with your business existing.”

All of this seems blatantly obvious to nearly anyone in an artistic field, and yet people continue to work for free — as if these platitudes somehow don’t apply to them. Part of the issue is that it’s hard to negotiate for yourself.

In The New Yorker, writer Lizzie Widdicombe quotes an agent for computer programmers, who states, “’It turns out that negotiating is a lot easier when you’re doing it for someone else.’” Most people undervalue themselves. Most people don’t bother to calculate their cost of doing business.

How can we really change this dynamic?

Photographers are notoriously secretive about what they earn on specific jobs. I once moderated a panel, and asked one of the photographers what a certain type of job might generate in fees. He coyly dodged the question by saying “it depends,” which of course is true, but his response was indicative of an opacity of pricing that hurts photographers.

Repositories of information like Who Pays Photographers? are incredibly valuable, but more photographers need to open up about pricing and negotiation tactics by:

  • Participate in open pricing discussions on trade industry forums
  • Offer to help young/new photographers understand contracts
  • Blog about how to price jobs from large to small

Free will never go away when the cost of expendables is nothing. The average hobbyist doesn’t associate cost with taking a picture, whereas the pro who makes a living from it is very sensitive to the dynamics of free. So even if you’ve heard of the consequences of working for free, the next photographer hasn’t. Help spread the free advice.


About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and Co-founder of PhotoShelter. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article originally appeared here.


Image credits: Olympus Trip 35 by redspotted

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