It may seem the most unnatural thing to be saying no to work as a freelancer, since surely we’re desperate for everything and anything that comes our way. In fact it can be an extremely liberating matter for 2 main reasons. The first of these is the most common and involves turning work down as you feel it is unsuitable for you, the second is because you feel a moral or ethical objection to the work or people involved with the work. I have turned down jobs for both these reasons, and perhaps before describing the advantages of turning work down it would be fair to detail the drawbacks
Obviously when you turn down work you won’t be getting the fee for the job in question – sounds obvious but I have heard people demand a “kill fee” for work they’ve refused. Whilst these are occasionally paid out when a shoot is cancelled at short notice or the work handed in is unsuitable for publication due to circumstances beyond the photographers control, they never crop up if a photographer themselves declines the work. If the client in question is new to you it’s also possible that you may have shot yourself in the foot for future work as well, and only you can have an idea of how much money that may potentially involve. Given the incestuous nature of the industry this problem is compounded by the fact that you’ve also just restricted your potential for gathering new clients through the one in question. You could also gain a reputation for yourself for being “difficult”, though I’ve usually found that clients who are sensible and considerate will understand and sympathise if you explain yourself clearly and state your case without resorting to lots of hyperbole.
On the plus side saying no can be vital on both a personal and professional level. On a personal level it’s important to remember that as a freelance your personal freedom and ability to act independently is one of the main things that separates you from the employed masses who have little or no freedom of action. Very few people opt for self-employment as a means of earning more money, most choosing it for (amongst other reasons) the freedom that it represents and the fulfillment offered by making your own decisions and living with the consequences of them.
Part of this could be loosely termed “being able to sleep at night”, and while this often refers to work that you opt out of for moral/ethical reasons, it can just as easily be applied to taking on work whose aesthetic aspects are very far removed from where you see yourself as an artist. In my case one of my most prominent examples has been turning down shoots with a couple of well-known politicians a few years back due to my objections to the Iraq war and their fervent support of it. Whilst the shoots in question actually had little or nothing to do with politics I personally feel that working with such people is an endorsement by default, since giving them greater publicity in any form helps to legitimize their position and strengthen their standing. I also have my own personal “black list” of companies whom I refuse to work for, and this can be for a whole host of reasons, often they are notoriously late payers, or maybe their corporate policy is pretty far from what I would deem to be acceptable. Purely for the fact that I want to be able to answer my conscience with a straight face I turn down work like this, as it matters more to me to be able to be honest about what I do and stick to my own principles than it does to earn a couple of hundred pounds more.
On an aesthetic level it becomes more important the further your career develops to avoid work which is not in keeping with the “look” or “feel” you have in mind for your own book or portfolio. It may seem grandiose to compare jobbing photographers to Hollywood movie stars, but there is a similar principle at work in the sense of being remembered for your last job or performance. After a couple of “turkeys” the kudos of a movie star drops dramatically, and this is no different to photographers. If you are trying to get work on high-profile catalogue shoots for example, you may well be let down by some of the shots in your portfolio that were done for a “lad’s mag” as an art director or client will tar you with the brush of being a “glamour” photographer. Of course, the simple solution to this problem is keep such images out of your portfolio and ensure that potential clients never see them (not always possible – you can never be entirely sure how much exposure an image will receive). The drawback to doing this is that you’re limiting the options available to you in the portfolio.
So in short – remember that as a freelance and a self employed person you’re the master of your own destiny, and don’t be afraid to turn down work that just isn’t you. Mind you, it’s easy to say this sitting here with a healthy bank balance , owning my own flat and with a cold beer in hand. I’ll look the other way if you’re young and struggling, lord knows I’ve shot enough awards do’s (shudder) in my time!