On Working for Exposure: A Truth of Creative Currencies

Try and make money through a creative endeavor, be it photography, music, design, or art as a whole, and you’ll go through a transitional lesson wherein you discover that some people will present you an opportunity to spread your fledgling creative wings, but financial gain isn’t part of the reward.

“Never work for free.” If there were 10 commandments for surviving and thriving within the world of art, those words would surely be etched in to stone. But is it as black and white and as simple as that? I don’t think so, and I defy any creative to tell me they didn’t take on “work for exposure” before hearing those words and also didn’t take on free jobs after hearing them.

One of the aspects that bothered me about being told to not take on free work when I was in my initial years of turning pro in photography was that the people telling me this crucial and apparently obvious lesson were also people substantially more comfortable within their professional lives than I was.

Art is an insecure profession to flourish within, so trust is an element that rarely comes easy to those who are trying to climb the ladder within it. Just because a 60 year old, established, married, home-owner, kids at college, published photographer says that on his path not accepting free work didn’t hinder his succession within this industry doesn’t make the future of my life any less grayer when I weigh up the positives and negatives of doing so.

You’re effectively asking, with such broad words as “never work for free,” for someone in a cut-throat industry to deny themselves a chance to make new contacts, to gain new experience, to open new doors.

Understandably, this is what makes this lesson such a personable experience for each artist; it is not enough to understand the principles of these words, because you must know what it means to be victim of them to truly understand their gravity. You don’t know what “the value of your time” means until you’ve spent 4 days editing a wedding’s worth of photos on a budget that you now realize only really covered the shooting aspect.

There’s a reason I wanted to tackle this subject: it’s for a desire to challenge an established social taboo within the creative industry, particularly tuned towards photography. Or at least, I want to create a discussion on the matter. I’m not looking to re-etch the words on our holiest of tablets, but consider that there is depth to the contrary of what they say. This is not an advice article — we each walk our own paths within this industry, and must accept the responsibility for the direction we walk, but experiences should be shared for the benefit of others.

The idea for this came to me recently, though it has been building since 2015.

A couple of years ago I did a photo shoot with UK actress, comedian and national treasure, Dawn French. She was being inaugurated as Chancellor of Falmouth University, the University I was studying at, and it was a big deal. There was a formal ceremony where all of the lecturers adorned their vintage formal gowns. There were crowds of locals and tourists lining the sides of the highstreet as the formal procession made their way towards a church hosting the swearing-in service.

The day presented an opportunity to shoot various lecturers and heads of department looking like they’d just stepped out of an oil painting

It was a big event for the university: we had a lot of eyes on us for that week, and as such they made sure to get the students involved as much as possible.

A day or so before the actual event, Dawn French visited the photography school at Falmouth University to have her picture taken in her student-created ceremonial gown. I was the photographer given the opportunity to take Dawn’s portrait. The image I shot that day now sits proudly as the first image you’ll see when you go to my website.

It’s not my most creative shot, nor is it my most enticing portrait, but as far as name value goes within my portfolio, it is by a margin the most substantial. So what does this have to do with working for free? Well, the reality is that I never got paid for that photo shoot. This article isn’t about why that is, and though I’m sure it’s a question you’d like an answer to, you’ll have to just be content with me saying it’s an internal affairs issue between myself, several other photographers and the university’s ‘budget’ that elected to include paid catering staff for the event, but not photographers. Regardless, don’t allow yourself to hold onto that because I want to focus on a more important aspect of this story.

It shouldn’t have been the case, but in the end that portrait of Dawn became an image I had shot for free. But was working for free, with the most famous subject of my young career no less, a dramatic hindrance to my career? Can I say that two years hence my inability to collect a paycheck from that shoot has left me troubled and sleepless at night? The truth is it has been anything but, which is what muddies the waters of our steadfast believe that “work for exposure” isn’t a credible excuse or benefit for any artist.

That weekend in 2015, many photographers, both student and professional, shot images of Dawn, but I believe none where as significant as mine. Shot within a studio, posed simplistically but clinically clear, I believe I got the golden shot from that day that will last longer where others will become dated. There is an intrinsic worth to having an image that creates conversation.

I ask you to believe me when I tell you that literally every meeting I’ve had with a client, editor or agency since that image has been at the top of my homepage has involved a short discussion about how I ended up with that portrait.

More often than not it’s not even us talking about the photography but the notion of celebrity: “You met Dawn French? What’s she like? Is she lovely??” (Side note: She is, genuinely lovely.) The point being, that image creates at best, a conversation about my photographical merits relating to a VIP photo shoot, and at worst a lighthearted chat about working with a celebrated figure. That image has opened up a lot of doors for me, despite it not making any money, it has a strong professional value.

A client seeing someone they recognise on a your website always creates a reaction. Any reaction is a gateway to conversation.

A point of conflict to this story would be, I wasn’t asked to work for free when I shot this image, it just transpired that I never got financial reward after the fact. But if it had been presented to me that the university hadn’t budgeted for photographers, so this would be a shoot purely for the benefits I made of it, would I still have taken it?

Morally and ethically I would love to say I would have made a big deal about the notion of this and demanded the university find the money to pay their workers. But at the same time, harking back to my initial comments about how challenging this industry is to work within and how there is very little security for the future, I was given a golden opportunity to work one-on-one with the woman of the hour and I knew her beaming face on my website would undeniably have a positive effect.

I may not have liked the side of myself that would’ve let down the global struggle of all artists validating their work by not working for free, but I would’ve been equally letting myself down by letting a unique opportunity slip through my fingers. Nice guys finish last, and in an industry as tenacious as this, you say “no” to an opportunity at your own demise. To the professionals I find myself in conversation with, the story of me altruistically not working for free isn’t anywhere near as captivating as me actually doing the shoot.

I think there’s relativity to all instances of those of us who have worked for free and mine is as such, for not getting paid maybe £50 for the shoot (working as part of the university’s photo agency and getting an hourly rate) I gained an image that has granted me closer access to so many people who have the ability to get me more work — work that actually pays. My bank balance may move backwards, but my career does still move forward.

I hate that I did a job and didn’t get paid for it. It shouldn’t even be presented as “in a perfect world I would’ve been paid also,” because fundamentally I should’ve been paid as I normally would, yet still it persists that a shoot I did for free, and would’ve definitely still taken on if offered for zero monetary gain, has become the most important image within my portfolio. How then, can you suggest that “work for exposure” doesn’t exist?

This outpouring comes from two factors; a recent consideration that my most spoken about image is one I shot for free, and that today I saw a post from a musician friend about not doing a charity gig gratis. I side myself 100% with the idea that an artist has a worth that deserves financial compensation for performance, but also that, maybe specifically to this professional climate, the notion of saying no to work is more difficult than it has ever been for developing artists.

Am I advocating that if you are one such artist, you go against sensible advice and take on jobs for “exposure”? Not at all, but I am presenting to you evidence that shows that a job without financial gain isn’t void of positive attributes. Each job is unique and presents opportunities specific to your individual professional development.

I worked for free with a local boxing club because I saw an excellent opportunity to travel around to neighboring towns with them and shot events I’d otherwise be inaccessible to.
I didn’t make any money, but I’ve got a strong portfolio of sport documentary images, good contacts in that community and a body of work and experience that helped get me to New York to shoot a photobook.

The truth is that even the most agreeable of ideologies within the creative industries have their counter-points. It is on each of us to view the landscape of our careers and decide whether or not to take the gamble of working for free; because often the opportunity to work can afford us further opportunities we simply wouldn’t have access to if we stayed at home that night.

Look, if you’re someone with consistent jobs coming in and you’re making a decent amount of money then fair play, you can likely ignore the notion of working for free. However, I speak from experience and for many other photographers I’m in the trenches with, that the battle to gain new clients, new opportunities, new paychecks and a sense of stability comes from our willingness to suffer in the short-term to benefit in the long-term.

To my brothers and sisters in no man’s land, never disregard an opportunity to work, even if it doesn’t offer some notes and coins in your pocket at the end of the day. Most of these jobs aren’t worth your time or effort, of course; unappreciative clients should learn the value of photography and you should learn to spot those warning signs of when a job is bad news, but there are undoubtedly going to be times when shooting for free one night will allow you access to something else down the road.

Take time and consider your options. Sometimes it’s not as simple as the financial worth of your time when saying yes or no to a job, but the scope of your desires and whether you can justify the value of an image you may take, the possibility of a person you’ll meet or the opening of a hypothetical door over the value of money you won’t earn.

About the author: John Liot is an award-winning Channel Islands-based photographer who mainly shoots portraits. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. To see more of John’s work, head over to his website or give him a follow on Facebook and Instagram.