On working for free

Be open to opportunities that come your way but don't be afraid to tell those who deserve it to jog on.

Note: This one may have gone into your inboxes twice. Sorry for the double email!
Mum working in the garden. From my lockdown diary.

The question I think we all ask ourselves when we’re starting out. The reality is that it seems almost impossible to say no these days. I’ve seen many who say it is and always will be an absolute “no”, but is it really that simple?

For me, there are different levels to it and we can only do what’s best for ourselves. Thinking about the industry is all well and good but when it comes to what you can afford to do, or cannot afford to do, it’s not wrong to put yourself first. It’s not the job of new, green photographers to put to rights the complex issues of the industry, things that have long been in decline and need a hell of a lot more than a few unseasoned photographers telling a brand trying to get free work to jog on (though it does help).

It’s difficult when you’re just not sure of yourself or how good you really are, and I know how it can seem like a great idea to take on work for free; my first few years with camera in hand at the tender (very sullen and drowning in black eyeliner) ages of fourteen to sixteen, I photographed live bands at a bi-weekly local concert for free. I was young and didn’t know any better, and at the time it was something I did for fun - “photographer” wasn’t even in my vocabulary yet.

A quick but hilarious detour - I’ve just gone to see if I could find the old Myspace (yeah, they’re still around!) page with all my old photographs and fell into a black-hole of digital nostalgia. Instead of spending the last hour writing, I have found old articles on my local Guardian that I’m not sure I knew about at the time, all with my photographs - and no credit of course. I also, incredibly, managed to find myself - spot the little gremlin bottom right. So strange to look back, these were over a decade ago now.

(A moment of silence for that realisation…)

Off the back of those first years, though, where I went in knowing absolutely nothing about photography and came out the other end knowing how to photograph the most mad scenes on stage and in the pit with a compact camera, I gained a lot in knowledge, experience and understanding. And even though I did the work for free, I did get something out of it: I never had to pay to attend, I got friends in for free, and I had free reign backstage and could call myself VIP (v important as a teen).

If I had been older and cleverer I would have also been able to take advantage of the opportunities to network and connect with the super people I met, and create some wonderful projects about this amazing scene I had access to for years. I regret missing out on this so much, and wish I’d realised sooner or had someone to tell me what an incredible community I was involved in - if only I could reach through time, slap myself in the face and say “you absolute cretin, bun the bands and photograph the community!”.

Nowadays, I know better. There are so many brands, companies, organisations and people out there who will try to take advantage of you and disrespect you, whether consciously or not, and they’ll be confident about offering you absolute garbage for your work - hell, they’ll even be polite about it and ask about your weekend and sign off with a smiley face.

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Unless it’s clear disrespect, I take it case by case. And this is really important here - though I’m not being paid in £££, I always get something in return that’s either equal to or better - and never anything less. This could either be because it was already offered by the client, or it’s something I’ve negotiated myself if I felt that the potential

For example, I was recently flown out to Berlin for a twenty-four hour press event - all accommodation, expenses and travel paid for and I got to connect with a wonderfully friendly agency team. Another time, I offered still-life photography to a local one-woman woodwork business to help build my still-life portfolio, and she gave me some of her beautiful creations in return. Another example is a simple swap with a creative friend - portraits in return for branding and design work.

However, anyone comes to you bleating the word “exposure”, you run far far away. Even if they’re a bit popular on the gram, the way social media works, it will not help you. You won’t get work from it, if they promise repeat work, especially if they promise paid work in the future, it won’t happen. If they don’t pay the first time, they won’t pay the next time. Why would they when they know you’re willing to do it for nothing?

Exposure 👏🏽 is 👏🏽a 👏🏽 myth.

Even if they’re a huge brand - especially if it’s a big name brand, in fact, since they’re the ones who absolutely definitely 100% have the money, but they choose to disrespect the exact creative service they need to sell their creations.

Never take shit from those who obv have money. If you’re not sure, you can easily check by doing a little sleuthing. Take a look at how much they’re selling their products/services/etc for, or who they work with - see if they’re sponsored by anyone or have investors. In the UK, you can see how much they’re making on Companies House. This won’t be a complete picture of course, but you can usually get a pretty good idea whether “we don’t have budget for this but” is complete bollocks or not.

Once you’re in the game for a little bit, you start to be able to spot these exploitative clients from a mile away - you recognise the language used, the tone and the way they approach you. If you’re in a position to, do not hesitate to say no and tell them why - politely, firmly, clearly. I have made a point of saying no to jobs I didn’t feel good about doing from day one, though I have made mistakes and taken on some jobs I wish I hadn’t - it’s always difficult in the beginning though, and only gets easier with time and experience.

It’s a hustle out here but never sell yourself short - be confident with what you do and what you charge, even if you have to fake the confidence for a while. Don’t be afraid to say “no” when you can, and remember that it’s okay to make mistakes - whether you’re green or a veteran in the game. We’re all just winging it out here anyway.

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Hey! I’m a freelance portraiture, documentary and adventure photographer working in London. Community and culture are the cornerstones of my work, and I also run of the land & us, an online journal for photographers exploring our relationship with the natural world.

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