Should You Work for Free?

John Harrington has an interesting post on the Black Star Rising blog about excuse for shooting for free, and why they're bogus.  Most of the excuses are variations on a theme:

  • It's a great way to break into the market.
  • It was good experience.
  • It's a good way to promote my business.

For the most part, I agree with him.  I thought some of his comments were a bit smarmy, such as excuse #7:

I like my day job in IT, but at night I am passionate about photography. I don’t mind self-funding my work because it gives me more creative freedom.
Guess what, IT guy? When India’s night work takes over your day job, don’t call me crying about it. Also, don’t bother trying to make a living from your “passion,” because you’re already doing all you can to undermine your chances — as well as everyone else’s.

Clearly, John thinks everyone in IT is a desktop support jockey who is going to lose his call-center job to outsourcing.  That just shows ignorance of the IT industry in general.  That doesn't surprise me, but I am surprised that he thinks we're all responsible for everyone else's chances to do business. That's just a crock.  It sounds like he's blaming the enthusiast for the business problems of “professional” photographers.  I've read John's blog for a while and think he shares some excellent information, but I'm not completely on board with him this time.

In most cases, I agree with the notion that you should charge what the job is worth.  The problem is that there are some circumstances where you haven't proven your worth yet for someone to pay you.  So how do you get experience in a given field if you can't get hired to do the job?

You work for free.  You use the opportunity for your own benefit and stop worrying if someone else is using you.  John's first example is concert photography.  He phrased it in an unbelievable scenario, though, where a guy is saying it's hard to get into concert photography (it is), so when bands call him he does the job for free.

Dude, bands aren't calling you if you don't have any experience.  Maybe your cousin's garage band knows you have a camera and wants you to do a free shoot, but you're not going to get a call from someone who has money, but hasn't seen proof of your work.  If you want to get that proof, you may consider making an arrangement.

For example, I know a man who's been in the photography business for a few years now and is a great shooter.  He loves concert photography and he's building his experience and collection of images by working for a wire service.  The service gets him access, but there's no pay.  My friend is no dummy. This is not a long-term solution, but it gives him access to build his experience and a reputation based upon a body of work.  He's working out his own plan and using the wire service to get to the career he wants to develop.

Working for free because you hope it will lead to something better is foolish.  Working for free because you've considered how it fits into your overall strategy may be a very smart move.  As with most things in life, you can't make blanket statement of dismissal.  Evaluate the situation and determine for yourself if it presents an opportunity to advance your objectives or if it's just a cheap guy wanting to use you.  One may be a good idea; the other, not so much.

3 thoughts on “Should You Work for Free?”

  1. I think in most fields is smart to build a base and knowledge by offering free or reduced fee work.

    I know plenty of computer people that either have, or still do volunteer time to schools and non-profits to make their business known and to get experience on networking or software they might not normally see.

    Sometimes “free” is the cost for education.

Leave a Comment

You have to agree to the comment policy.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.