Value Your Work
May 4, 2015
The other day, I read a post by The Phoblographer about payment for photography. It was a good read, and really addressed a common misconception that "exposure" is a substitute for cash. The problem is that most of the time, the promised exposure just doesn't happen. The solution, as the post points out, is that someone offering a job should also be offering money. Does this mean you should never work "for free?" Well, not exactly.
I titled this post "Value Your Work" because you absolutely should. That means you shouldn't work for free. You're the artist, so you are the one who determines whether you are gaining something of value from the work you produce. If a client says that doing a free job for them would be good exposure for you, and you disagree, don't take the job. Think about it: what "exposure" would you get? Is it something that will have an effect you can measure? If you shoot an event for free, and all you are getting is a photo credit in return, then that really isn't compensation.
This picture of Chester Bennington was from a show that I was not paid to shoot. However, there was value in the assignment for me. I got a photo that I can place in my portfolio and be proud of. I didn't have to give up any rights to my work, and it keeps my work current. If I didn't feel like I was getting something of value, I wouldn't take the work, even though I love concert photography.
If someone approached me and asked me to shoot an event for free, and they promised me "images for my portfolio", I'd likely say no. Why? Take a look at my portfolios. I have street photography, cityscapes, abstract photography, and concert photography. Would a group of company party photos add any value to my portfolio? No. That means that I would expect some kind of monetary compensation, or at the very least, some other compensation of equivalent value. A photo credit is of no value. You know why? I know I took the photos. If these are the same photos that I wouldn't want to be in my portfolio, then you posting them somewhere else with my name on them is of no value. Additionally, giving credit is something you should always do, so it shouldn't be treated like payment or compensation. When a client approaches you with this kind of logic, they are asking you to make a full commitment with your work, but they expect you to take a gamble on the return. That is far from fair.
This photo of Alan Cumming is one that I'm pretty fond of. I took it at a charity event for Rainforest Action Network. I volunteered my time for the charity, so there was no monetary compensation. I was able to write off the time as a charitable donation, and it was my first time shooting an event with a red carpet and celebrity guests. For me, there was value in the experience, and value in supporting a worthy cause. I was told that my site and logo would be included in the list of sponsors—and it was. I didn't receive any calls or emails after that event, but again, that is not where I placed value in the shoot. Don't let a client dictate what the value of your work is. You're the creator, after all.
You should step back and make sure that the person offering you exposure is credible and honest. Sometimes, people just toss around words like "experience" and "exposure" as a way to mask the fact that there's no pay. If you can, try to vet these claims for yourself. Do you know someone who has worked with the client? Can the client actually mention other clients that they'd be able to put you in touch with? Will they facilitate introductions on your behalf, or are you completely on your own? If you're on your own, then will the material that you get from the assignment be significant in finding you more work that you'd like to do? These are questions you have to ask yourself, and the answer may not always be clear. Sometimes, it will be a gamble, but again, it is always your decision. If you're the one being approached, it's your right to accept or decline an assignment. It's also your right to be careful in what assignments you pursue.
In 2014, I started shooting shows somewhat regularly. It's a pretty fair exchange: I shoot shows of my choosing, and I provide web-ready images from those shows for the venue's social media. It isn't monetary compensation, but it doesn't have to be. I value the experience that it's giving me, and it isn't something that I'd be able to get otherwise. Additionally, I don't have to shoot anything I don't want to. It's always my choice. About six months in, I started getting paid work from other places, based on the portfolio I had built from the aforementioned arrangement. I wouldn't have gotten those paid gigs without a lot of work, starting with the portfolio I built—from "free" work. It's not free if you are getting something out of it, but remember, you're the one who determines that. I've said it over and over in this post, but it's true. If someone offers you compensation that you don't think is fitting with your goals and your work, then don't take it. In my case, I looked at it in a similar way that one might look at an internship. They gain coverage for their shows, I gain valuable field experience and images I can use to get paid work—like the shows where I created the images below. Sounds great to me.