A flower I photographed. FOR FREE.

Photography Pandora’s Box – working for free

Ah Pandora, you curious minx. The first woman on earth, clothed by Athena (a busy Goddess by all accounts) and with her beauty sculpted through the eyes of Aphrodite, had but one chore: not to open a container. Alas she did, spreading evil all over the world. Unforunately for Pandora Greek mythology doesn’t come with Ctrl+Z.
As much as we protest, photographers were not crafted by the Gods (on the order of big Daddy God) and our curious actions won’t always flood the world with evil – despite what the Leveson Enquiry and bad wedding photographers may have you think. But there is a Pandora’s Box in photography that’s been cracking open, spewing forth the thorny issue of working for free…

Here is a typical response from a slightly overweight, middle aged photographer* who, before digital and ‘weekend warriors’, used to make £100k a year – “It’s people like you that have ruined the photography industry for professionals”. This will be typed with some fury and venom across forums up and down this fair land when somebody casually blurts out the statement “they don’t have a budget and won’t pay me but it’ll be good exposure/experience/fun…”

Poor sod, I bet they were quite happy until the forum dwelling equivalent of Harold from Neighbours shaking his jowls pounced. I read these conversations with interest as it bounces back and forth because I’ve been there from both sides, shooting for no financial payment and also questioning those who do so.

Let’s make this quite clear, payment is not money in your pocket all of the time. Payment, and more importantly the value you place in a set of images, can take different forms. This morning I was out shooting something for which there is no initial reward. There maybe stock sales down the line but, in the longer and wider picture, it’s a small part of a bigger pie (more accurately quiche, which I prepared earlier). This summer I’ll be flying to Israel to photograph a friend’s wedding for ‘free’. It’s not completely free of course, it costs to fly me and my kit, house me, drive me, feed me… Even so, some would ask, you should still get a fee. Well perhaps but, in my eyes, I’ll be reimbursed with some unique wedding photos, a short stay in a beautiful country and, hopefully, a kick ass tan (bonjour Speedos).

To me there is intrinsic value in some jobs that cannot be paid for by crossing my palm with silver. In fact, many jobs hold much more value than you first think. I’ve shot a large number of commissions that have led on to further work with the subject themselves, bolstering the initial commission fee. Accepting unpaid ‘work’ on the basis that it might lead to further, paid work is still a very slippery and dangerous slope however. Once you’ve been tarred and feathered by the ‘works for free’ bully it can be hard to convince them otherwise. The bully likes to take your lunch money and isn’t in the habit of giving it back with interest.

So how do you judge working for non-payment? Well, in a number of ways. Will it benefit you from a marketing perspective? Working for a small local charity with no budget will never look bad and, more importantly, repays morally many times over. That quick favour for a shop? Well, now you need the favour and they’ll be there for you. Been waiting to shoot a portfolio shot and now a ‘free’ job allows you do this? That’s that portfolio shot in the bag.

I’ll be quite clear, working for free is not free. Wear and tear, travel and editing is all costing you. Likewise, working for free on something that offers no benefit in terms of marketing or portfolio makes you a silly billy.

Take a step away from photography. It’s worth considering that most businesses, big and small, will allocate time and money each year for charitable causes. Firstly, it’s to help people, which as a decent democracy – despite what Leveson tells you – is what we do. The rich are rich thanks to the poor. I’m not going to get into a moral debate here, but there are plenty of wealthy businesses and individuals who donate out of the goodness of their heart. Second is marketing. It’s a brave person who will attack someone who has just donated a multi-figure sum to charity. Third is tax. Donations are tax deductable. Sorry to be so harsh but it’s a fact.

So what about the humble photographer? Us mortals fashioned by the hands and eyes of Gods, imbued with a powerful vision to touch and reach all. Well, look at the above. Your donation can be in terms of time and ability. Just don’t try to pay all your bills with a glowing soul…

To conclude, which is always a good way to end, there’s no rule for what constitutes a non-paid job that is worth doing. It’s a personal interpretation and will differ greatly from each person. You might need to prioritise, after all paid work still pays those bills, but conversely a quiet spell can be made worthwhile with a noble project. As long as you justify it and, deep down, you know it’ll benefit you, then go for it.

* this description is based on my views in my head and not an accurate reflection of all middle-aged photographers who use internet forums.

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