Thoughts On Working For Free

Creativity is what I do for a living. I have been hired as a photographer, filmmaker, poet, image consultant, journalist… you name it, I’ve been asked. And while these things in general seem more ‘fun’ to many people – I still need to pay rent, buy groceries and keep myself going. After a while, 50 hours a week of ‘fun’ activities is still work and still requires discipline and education, personal and financial investment. Though the (vague, and often false) promise of ‘exposure’ can be tempting, doing work for free takes time away from work that could be covering my basic living expenses and that has to be priority for professionals in every field.

So here’s a basic guide, as I see it, though it may be different for you.

Work can be divided into four main fields: commercial, service, non-for-profit and individual.

1. COMMERCIAL WORK

Commercial work is that where the client turns a profit. This is any scenario where the use of my labour assists the company in continuing to turn a profit. In my case, that usually means advertising, however sometimes it is work which helps the company run more efficiently or more profitably. The logic is this, companies should invest in their future. There is no sense in asking artists to invest in someone else’s profit, gratis.

The word exposure is thrown around a lot. My personal belief is that unless you’re exhibiting my work to over 500,000 people, the exposure won’t actually substantially increase my business. And in the case you ARE exhibiting to over 500,000 people, my work is providing the client exposure and this should be paid for. After all, the secretary, the project manager, the art director, the IT department, the higher management and even the courier is being paid. He who creates the content deserves his portion of the budget.

I will charge you a reasonable rate, and do the job at a quality you expect of me, and we will get along great! If I were to work for free, do you think you’d be getting the same value? If you hire a university graduate with no experience for no money, will you get the same value?

(Note: if you DO get the same value from a university graduate with no experience, you should pay him TOO, so that he can build the career he has a talent for.)

In short, if the person who gives the creative brief is paid, so should be the person who actually delivers to the brief.

2. PROVIDING A SERVICE.

Similar to commercial but without a profit aspect, this is very simple. You pay a plumber to do your pipes. You pay an electrician to wire your house. You pay a barista to make you coffee. You pay for every other thing in life.

Creative work is a service, even though it looks like fun. We love our jobs, but we also work hard and for hours. Many of us have studied hundreds of ours at graduate and post-graduate level, to understand the craft enough to be worth paying. Your project is your baby, and we will care and nurture it for you, but like a babysitter we need to be compensated.

3. NOT FOR PROFIT

This one can be tricky to navigate because it involves the heart strings, but it doesn’t need to be.

I, like many artists, take on some pro-bono work for not for profit organizations I feel strongly about. In the same way that people help out their church community, or volunteer for other organizations. The output is not always similar to other volunteers, but our work contributes to the success of the organization, and therefore helps achieve the cause.

However, I choose which organizations I volunteer for, as with any other volunteer. A lack of profit means you need a volunteer, NOT that you shouldn’t pay the creative you want. What this means is, you might have to look harder to find someone whose values line up with yours, but you’ll get someone whose heart will be in the project.

Personally, I believe that in a situation where a not-for-profit has a budget for six figure CEO salaries and such things, they should also have a budget for outsourcing creative work.

4. INDIVIDUAL PROJECTS

By individual, I mean projects which are MY projects or collaborations of my design. These projects often cost money, and no-one gets paid, but the participants agree upon mutual benefits. Portfolio work is a really good example. Those projects are OUR babies, and we expect to look after them ourselves.

I also use this category for favours for friends. My sense of community, family and friendship is important and there needs to be a space for that. But I also need to factor it into my life and schedule. Asking a creative friend for a favour and free work is fine, if you’re cool with them not having the time immediately. Expecting them to always work for free is like turning up to your dentist friend’s office and refusing to pay afterwards. I’m sure he likes you a lot, but time is money, as are resources, insurance, and equipment. Every job I do for friends has to fit in my schedule of paid work, or I don’t make rent.

I reserve the right to work for free, for whatever reason, but in doing so, I reserve the right to prioritise and stipulate what I can feasibly do without charging.

This sounds really harsh, or that I don’t like to look after my friends but the truth is I do this kind of work a lot. If I were not to have boundaries on it, I’d have a lot of friends and nothing in the fridge.

Again, you wouldn’t make friends with the manager of your local supermarket and start asking for free groceries. However, he might give you a special discount as a favour. In fact, the discount model is what I use more often than not, to stick to my hourly rates and maintain the value of my work, while being able to help people out when I want.

To conclude, I consider this a document I can forward to those who demand free work, and those who steal my work without my permission. I hope it’s clear enough and I apologise that by attempting to be clear, I may have lost some tact and diplomacy in doing so.

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