OK, let’s get the U2 gag out the way first – Pro Bono doesn’t mean working for Bono, or being in favour of him, or making him a professional anything. Is that better now?
Pro Bono work is very common across a whole range of businesses (lots of legal firms do it, for example) and it simply means working for no charge. You are essentially donating your time to the organisation you’re working for. You are most likely to be asked to do this for groups like non-profits or charities. I’ve done stacks of it in my time, and I’d say that if you think something is worth working on, and that your contribution will genuinely help people, go for it.
A couple of provisos. From personal experience, charities are often staffed by very well meaning, but not necessarily the most organised of people. Beware. I’ve been sent to the wrong location, given totally the wrong info about a job, and had a whole host of other minor mishaps on charity shoots. For all your altruism, you may also find that many larger charities have quite decent budgets for things like photography. Don’t be afraid to charge accordingly if this is the case. In the past, staff at charities have told me that if they didn’t spend the money they had this year, they wouldn’t get it next year. If you feel that strongly about their cause, and working Pro Bono, you can always donate your fee back to them!
I’ve also done this sort of work outside the charity sector. I’m very happy to donate some of my time and expertise to help out people I like when they’re in trouble, or just getting started. As long as a shoot like this doesn’t suck up too much of my time, and I don’t end up too much out of pocket, I don’t see a problem. Just like any other type of work where you’re not being paid directly, I’d always recommend getting terms clearly agreed ahead of time.
For me, Pro Bono also includes every wedding I’ve ever done. Some of them were fantastic fun, and I was more than happy to provide my services for free for the couple in question. Other wedding are occasions I’d not care to repeat, and I stopped shooting them a couple of years ago. As always, many of the problems I encountered could have been solved by having terms and conditions clearly written out in advance, but this isn’t always at the front of your mind when you’re doing a favour for a friend.
Quick summary – do as much Pro Bono work as you feel right, for organisations and people where you can have impact, and always behave professionally throughout.
Giving work away
This category isn’t strictly “working” for free, as this happens after the event, but I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve given my work away to people involved on the shoot for free after the event. On one level this is quite common – if you work in fashion for example, it’s normal for other personnel on the shoot (such as the make-up artist, stylist, model) to request copies of the finished images for their respective portfolios. This is standard practice, and even for the most tight-fisted, strict photographers, makes a lot of sense. Working with good people is essential – it improves the quality of your work across the board – so keeping on good terms with those people is also very sensible.
What I do a lot of the time is share imagery with the subjects of my shoots, and allow them free use for self-promotional purposes. For instance, if you follow my career at all, you’ll know I spend a decent chunk of my time shooting fitness instruction and golf instruction. In both these cases, the person in front of the camera, be they personal trainer or Golf pro, often doesn’t have a huge library of good imagery to use in their social media channels or on their website. They’re often very keen to get their hands on images from the shoot, and more than happy to pass them on. I make sure they understand that the images are for personal promotional use only – no 3rd party use – and that they can’t make use of them until the client has used them.
To many, this looks like I’m killing off future revenue. If the person involved is so keen for good imagery for their site or social media, why don’t I pressure them into commissioning me? Most of the time, if someone actually has money to spend, they’ll say so up front. If they don’t, what happens is they get lots of great pictures, and then when they do have some cash to spare, you’re their first choice. The other reason, besides simple altruism, and wanting to help people out, is that it engenders good feeling, and there’s lots of value in people thinking of you in a positive light. Without being too cynical, you never know where people will end up, or who they’ll be in contact with. I couldn’t begin to list the number of times someone has got in touch to commission me for something, and they arrived at my door via a glowing recommendation from one of these people I’d given work away to.
Quick Summary – don’t be afraid to give your work away from time to time. As long as you’re clear about the terms under which it can be used you’ll be missing out on very little revenue, and could be generating lots of future work.
One way to view working for free is not in the sense of doing something for nothing, but a measure of “would you do this for free?”. You can use this question as a simple check to decide whether work is worth doing or not. The underlying reason may vary – helping someone out, creating new and interesting imagery, getting your work seen in the right places, or to trade time and skills with someone. What must always be there though, is that value to you – even if that value is something as vague a warm glow from helping someone out.
Often these categories blur together – Trading favours may well also create work for the portfolio, and might include some exposure too. For example, doing Pro Bono work might put your work in view of someone who later commissions you. The Street Football League, who I used to work for regularly pro-bono, had a design firm who were also doing pro-bono work for them. Over the course of a couple of years I dealt with this agency several times, and developed a good working relationship with them. As time passes, people move on, and one of the designers ended up at and advertising agency, from where he commissioned me a few times to shoot much bigger budget jobs. Now, I didn’t start working for the Street League with that end goal in mind, but the fact that I’d always treated them (and by extension the design agency) as full paying clients, stood me in very good stead.
Behaving professionally at all times will always serve you well. Even when things have gone wrong. To give but one example, I mentioned right at the start that last year I’d had a couple of jobs where things went wrong and the michael was very much taken. It would be very satisfying to include those jobs here, and use this forum as a way of slating the other parties involved. I’d feel great for about 5 minutes, but who knows what damage I might do to my career in the medium to long term? I’ve obviously resolved to never work with them again, and reinforced much of the stuff I’ve said in these posts about getting things agreed in writing. As long as all parties involved are clear ahead of time, and get the details agreed before the shoot starts, “free” work can be very beneficial for everyone.
So, in really simple terms:
Working for nothing – bad.
Working without payment, but for a tangible benefit – can be very good.
When you get asked to work for “free” in future, examine the scenario against these 2 simple criteria, and your decision will be much easier.
Part 1 – Working on Spec and trading favours is here
Part 2 – Working for Exposure, and shooting for the portfolio is here