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Should I work for free? The freelancer's quandary

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

(NB this is written from the point of view of a photographer, but really applies to anyone starting out in the creative arts. Filmmakers, actors, artists, musicians will all, at some point, have someone offer to pay them with "exposure")

When starting out in photography, there seem to be two schools of thought:

1) You have to work for free to begin with, because you need to build a portfolio before anyone chooses you over more established competitors

2) You categorically should NOT work for free: not only are you undercutting other photographers; you're also likely to gain a reputation as someone who'll work for "exposure"and ultimately that's the only sort of job you'll end up getting. Know how many Wham bars you can buy with exposure? NONE.

So which camp is right? In my opinion both. Or neither, depending on how you look at it.

Unless you're very lucky, or have a businessperson for a friend who is willing to take a shot on you, I'd say you really will need to do some jobs for free, if only to prove what you can do. But I think you can choose your unpaid gigs in a way that doesn't get you an unwanted reputation as a pushover. For example:

- Do a job for a charity or a not-for-profit organisation. You get to grow your portfolio and hone your skills, and future clients can't expect you to work for free just because you did that for a charity.

- Do a job for a local business that will not necessarily see any financial gain from your work. For example, back when I was doing videography as well as photography I made a film for a greengrocer on my high street (see below).

Their shop is beautiful, so I knew I'd get a nice- looking video out of it. They posted that video on their Facebook page, but it's highly unlikely they sold any more cabbages because of it. At the end of the day it was me who approached them, and they were doing me as much (if not more) of a favour as I was them. I had the beginnings of a portfolio.

So when should you no to providing your services for free? I'd say in the following instances:

1) When the prospective client approaches you, rather than the other way round

2) When said client has money, and is just trying to get away with not spending it.

So let's say a local car dealership approaches you and says "Can you do us some photos for our Facebook page? We can't pay you but we have 10,000 followers, so think of the exposure you'll get".

For a photographer in the early stages of their career, this may sound tempting, but maybe it's worth putting to that client that the sheer number of Facebook followers will benefit them more than you when you provide them with photos that are so good that they end up getting shared hundreds or thousands of times. And the people who see those photos are way for likely to be in the market to buy a car than they are to hire a photographer. So the main way that you stand to benefit from this deal is by said car dealer telling their friends that they've found a decent photographer. Who'll work for free. And right there you establish your reputation as a pushover.

This advice is, of course, speculative. Perhaps there are photographers that have gone on to big things after donating free images to local car dealerships. Ultimately only you can decide how to value your work, but bear in mind that by doing free work for people and organisations who could never afford to pay you, you can build a portfolio strong enough that you've no further need to prove yourself to those who could.

Where do you stand on this issue? Have you ever worked for free? Would you?

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