Business Insight - Should I Work For Free?

photograph of coins It would seem that, for some odd reason, creative people in business are continually asked to provide their services for free. As a commercial photographer and photographer every now and again I get a request to provide my services or my images at no cost. I know from reading a ton of posts about this on the Internet that it's a common problem and there's a lot of frustration from the working people on the wrong end of these requests.

That frustration is very understandable as we're being asked to give away our time, use of our equipment, our knowledge and experience for nothing to benefit someone who has the nerve to ask us. Do they ask their plumber to fix a leak for nothing? Do they approach their supermarket and demand that their basket of shopping is handed over at no cost? Of course not, so why are creative people expected to do just that?

When one of these requests lands I often wonder what it must be like to have to contact someone and ask them to work for nothing. I also wonder why are they asking? Most of the time they are looking to save money by keeping their costs down which I can understand but then, are they being asked to work for free too? I expect that in almost all cases the answer to that is no. Which makes the whole thing even worse. Why then do they expect you to? Are you angry yet? In many cases the reward to the creative is not payment but a 'credit' for their work and the chance that paid work in the future will be offered. The people doing the asking are very often looking for inexperienced people who are perhaps excited to be offered the opportunity to work albeit for no reward other than that 'credit' and the 'chance' of future paid work. The more experienced, worldly-wise professional is more likely to respond with 'will a credit pay my bills?'

But now we reach a point in this discussion where we have to take a step back and ask, what if I did do this for free? What if we do offer that image at no cost? Right now you are saying 'Is this guy nuts?' and I get that too but there are occasions, very rare though they are, where I would consider it. The offer has to come from somewhere that actually would offer me something useful, not money but something that's going to help me in the future. You ask 'ok, what then?' That 'thing' might be experience, where I get to work on a project which gives me an opportunity to learn something or perhaps work with someone new. What if that commission actually would look good on your CV? Would that unpaid job actually be something you can shout about in your promotional material to show other clients what you can do?

What if the person doing the asking is from a charity where money really is tight? What if your unpaid time will help them out and actually be a great job to have under your belt and one that you can use in your marketing?

If your work is online you may well be approached to request a use of an image for 'free'. Most photographers would say no, me included, but what if that published picture would help you with your marketing?

There are times when I will put together projects that mean I can explore new skills and techniques which might mean I do a shoot for someone who gets a set of free images. In reality that's a reward for helping the project. I have worked for free BUT I have done it for a very good reason and which will bring me benefits to my professional development and to my business.

The 'should I work for free?' question is a tough one, deciding if you should give away your time but I don't always assume the answer is no. I ask myself what can I get out of this if I do say yes. It's worth noting though that you do have to refuse many of these requests because there's nothing to be gained and plenty to be lost. Each case must be examined individually.

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