When is it all right for a photographer to work Pro Bono? This is the age old question, and has become more prevalent during the massive paradigm shift in photography, i.e., digital photography bridging the gap between beginner, novice, hobbyist and professionals.
There is a YouTube video making its rounds on the internet posted yesterday by Ted Forbes, a photographer that broadcasts “The Art of Photography,” who answers: should photographers work for free?
Here’s the video, ‘Should I Work for Free?’
Ted examines this question from his photographer friend who asks him his thoughts about working for free for a big company. Ted gives his opinion, and discusses his feelings on working pro bono for ‘exposure.’ He equates doing free works to be the same as asking an accountant to do your taxes for free, and I think that’s a wonderful example.
Forbes’ video reminded me of an outspoken writer named Harlan Ellison, who discusses a time when he was asked by a big movie production company to use an interview he had done for free to get “exposure.” **Warning: Ellison uses very strong language**
I agree with Ted and Harlan. I believe photographers should be paid for their work. They’ve shot the photos, edited them down, and have put elbow grease into prepping for a shoot, and to offer them “exposure” makes the photographic arts seem like nothing more than a junk bond.
In the past few years with the proliferation of smartphones, citizen journalists, and millions of novices with a DSLRs, digital has impacted the photographic profession deeply, and has made it seem like the professional photographer is a dying breed.
We have lost many things in Western countries when it comes to technology, and it will continue to make the artisan, or even a laborer, lose their jobs and money to automation, or someone undercutting your price.
It’s a smack in the face to a professional photographer when a major company that pays themselves nicely, as well as their employees, asks you to do something for free. It’s as though they believe they are doing you a favor, and that your work can be easily replaced by someone willing and eager that will work for free.
This same idea of working for free is happening in the writing world too, where content mills, and companies ask people to write content for free to give the writer this elusive ‘exposure,’ or slave wages that equal far below minimum wage.
So what can we do? You can only do something individually to change the boundaries you are willing to set in place for yourself, but collectively, it seems near impossible to have lines drawn in the sand where every artist agrees to stop giving away their work. There is always that one undercutting person that jumps at the opportunity to work for free, and later finds out that the work has given them zero mileage toward other paying photo jobs.
Is it fair to ask someone to work for free when they are using your work commercially to make money, and everyone get paid besides you? It’s not. But until a community of photographers starts saying no to working for free, the industry will remain exploited as it is. (Also, I’d like to clarify working pro bono for a non-profit or charity work for something you believe in. If you are doing to support a cause, then I believe that is up to you whether you want paid or not.)
I don’t want photography to become just a hobby in the future. If you work to create something, I believe you have earned the right to be paid.
I will be publishing an article on image theft this week, where I will examine companies that steal images from photographers, and how one fought back to get paid.