If you’ve never seen anything by the Oatmeal, then I highly recommend spending a couple of hours going through his work, and better yet, buying one of his books. He’s also produced one of the most succinct summaries of the condition of creative people working for free and being paid in “Exposure”, which I will link to right now.
Now, I agree with this cartoon almost completely, and I could wrap this section up immediately. However, under very specific circumstances, working for exposure alone can actually benefit you. If the person or entity you’re working with has a huge presence in the area you want to gain more exposure in, and they agree to credit you every time they use your imagery, then there’s a decent chance that having your work seen by those people could bring actual paying work your way. That is the only way “exposure” will benefit you though. Just being seen by lots of people doesn’t mean anything in it’s own right.
Let’s take the example of someone with 100 000 instagram followers who gets in touch, saying they like your work, would love to shoot with you, but can’t pay you, instead they’ll mention you every time they post your work. On the surface you think “Wow! 100 000 followers! That’s bound to get me at least a thousand or so more of my own!” Well, let me clear a few things up for you. First off, there’s a chance that a certain proportion of those followers are spam accounts/zombies, as is pretty much the case with any large account, so they’re no use to you. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, WHO are those followers? If they’re overwhelmingly teenage girls (for example) and you’re not marketing anything to teenage girls, then what’s the benefit in gaining 1000 teenage girl followers? Sure, in a decade or so, a tiny handful of those girls might have grown up to work as commissioners of photography in some form, but that’s playing a pretty long game.
You should also bear in mind the dynamic of most social media. Let’s say this person puts one of your pictures up, mentions you prominently in the comments, and the image gets over a thousand likes, what does that translate to for you? In my experience (apologies if I sound a bit bitter and cynical…) not a lot. The truth is, most people just hit “like”, and scroll on to the next image in their feed. Very, very few people look at an image and go “Oh wow, I wonder who took that, I’ll find out, and perhaps follow them”. It’s also worth mentioning that unless you have some obvious way of monetising your popularity on social media, gaining more followers isn’t beneficial in its own right. It just becomes an ego reinforcement, rather than something you can tangibly use. Refer back to the Oatmeal comic if this is causing you problems.
I’ve only described social media so far, but the same thing used to (and still sometimes does) happen with more conventional media such as magazines and newspapers. Several high profile and very well known fashion magazines were (are) notorious for not paying their contributors for work – simply being featured in their pages was payment enough. Now, whilst I personally think this is a bit shady, in truth it does fit perfectly with what I said earlier about being seen by the right people. Certain publications genuinely are influential, despite a low circulation, and being featured can get your work noticed by people who will go on to commission you to shoot work for real, actual, tangible money! Don’t always take this at face value though – the “stick” of no payment needs to be balanced by the “carrot” of worthwhile exposure, so do some research on clients before agreeing.
Quick summary – Only work for exposure if you can be certain that exposure will directly benefit you. Otherwise, refer the other party to the Oatmeal comic, and go about your day.
Working for free – Shooting for the Portfolio.
This is one of the big grey areas in the whole “working for free” canon. The concept of “getting some images for your portfolio” or “working for the experience”. Particularly if you’re just starting out a professional, this is one of the biggest traps around. The “experience” one can be dismissed pretty quickly. It’s pretty much that first definition I gave of working for free right back at the beginning – if the only thing you get out of the shoot is an experience, then say no. There’s almost no chance that the “experience” you just gained couldn’t have been gained whilst also giving you some other benefit too. This approach is famously often employed by very cynical clients with photographers who are new to the game. In a newbie’s shoes, it can be very tempting to take the work on, particularly if there’s a promise of more paid work around the corner. Tread carefully – this might be true (and if so, get it in writing) but there’s a decent chance it’s just a simple ploy to get your work for nothing.
The “portfolio” side is much more nuanced and complex though. I would argue that providing you get some imagery for the portfolio, which in itself goes on to get you more of the sort of work you want, then you’ve definitely come out of the shoot with something worthwhile. Creating new work for the portfolio is something that all photographers do, professional or otherwise. It’s how we keep our work looking fresh, how we move it in new directions, and how we demonstrate that we have got ideas beyond the day-to-day stuff we shoot.
I don’t want to go into enormous depth about portfolio/personal work, because it’s a entire post (or series of posts) in it’s own right. There are a few principles I think you should bear in mind though, with reference to “working for free”:
The imagery in your portfolio will need to be just right in order to benefit you. It needs to be identifiably yours, fit into your overall vision and body of work, and yet it also needs to push your boundaries out just a little bit. Imagery that’s 99% the same as what you’ve already got has very little value to you. Bear this in mind when someone approaches you for a shoot, and all they can offer you is some “shots for the portfolio”. If those shots are going to be the same as the rest of the portfolio, then ask yourself, “Do I really need to bother”? I’ll give you a clue – the answer is almost certainly no.
If you find yourself in a situation like this, you can agree to the shoot, but you can make an extra effort to shoot things that you think will end up in the portfolio. This might mean spending a bit more time or money on the shoot, but if it gives you a good chance of creating new and valuable work, do it.
As with so much else of this nature, getting things agreed and written down ahead of time is a must unless you already know and trust the people involved well. I’ve had shoots recently where the model and I had different aims, and she turned up with only one set of kit to shoot in, which scuppered any chances I had to create the imagery I wanted. If this happens to you, your call – you’d be quite within your rights to down tools and refuse to shoot if they haven’t fulfilled their side of the deal.
Imagery for the portfolio can often be a fringe benefit to many of the other types of working without payment. Always be on the lookout for opportunities to create it, but don’t let people promise you it in lieu of some other value. There’s a decent chance they have absolutely no idea what should be in your portfolio, and what they want to do will benefit them far more than you!
Quick Summary – creating imagery for the portfolio is essential, but make sure it’s imagery you’ll actually benefit from.
Coming on Friday – working Pro Bono, giving work away, and the conclusion.
Part 1 – Working for Free – On Spec and Trading Favours, is here.
Part 3 – Giving work away, and Pro Bono work is here.