Last month, Francisco* and I narrowly averted an argument. As is the case with most couples’ arguments, our near-miss fight was about money.
Francisco and I are not an argument-prone pair; though we’re both hard-headed and opinionated, we don’t like conflict and we’re very careful about protecting one another.
Which is why we were almost fighting.
While photographing an event on assignment, Francisco met a producer from a local radio station. They exchanged pleasantries and business cards, and the next day she contacted him about a gig. Would he be interested in photographing some VIP station supporters before and after a Broadway show? He said that he would and discussions began about the particulars of the gig.
He was flattered to have been asked and he was visibly excited about the assignment when he told me about it. He shared some of the details and it all sounded great. And then I asked, “So what are they paying you?”
“Well, um, the producer said they don’t have a budget for this because they’re a public radio station and they don’t have a lot of money, but, you know, it’s great exposure and they’ll definitely keep me in mind for future paying work, and they’ll credit me and I can use it in my publication history.”
“What a bunch of bullshit,” I said, before padding off to the kitchen for some seltzer. I returned, glass in hand. Imagine a full, bright balloon floating in a child’s hand and then being popped by a cynical older kid on the playground. Then imagine what the balloon-holding kid’s face looks like, and you’ll have a decent approximation of Francisco’s expression.
In short, he was defeated.
I knew I’d fouled, though that hadn’t been my intention at all. He felt that my “Bullshit!” declaration was a value judgment about his decision-making skills. “I feel like you think I’m an idiot for accepting a gig that doesn’t pay anything,” he said. And though I scrambled to explain that it was actually a statement of how much value I place on his photography, there weren’t any words–at least not at that moment–that were going to salve the wounded ego.
When the initial bruise of my words had faded, I raised the issue again. I wanted to explain what I had meant. I have more experience than he does with the dilemmas surrounding “work for exposure” schemes, and I felt like my own grapplings– some successful, most not, but all having led me to a clearer personal and professional stance on being asked to work for free– could shorten his own learning curve in what has turned from his hobby to a career.
“Look,” I started, “the radio station would never call a web developer and ask them to build a website for free. They’d never call ConEd and say, ‘You know, we’re a public radio station and we don’t have much cash, so we’re just not going to pay our light bill. But hey, we’ll give you a shout-out on the station– sound good?’ But for some reason, they’re completely okay with asking a photographer to provide his services for free in exchange for the promise of a 3-second mention on air. See what I mean?”
I’ve done enough of the “work for exposure” gigs to know that the “exposure” is usually nominal at best, meaningless at worst, and almost never leads to anything bigger, better, or paying.
Though our exchange was a sore spot and though his enthusiasm for the gig had vanished completely, Francisco had committed to doing the job, and he did it. When the photos were published, his name didn’t appear on them as promised… not until he contacted the station and requested that they make good on their deal. Francisco conceded (and no, I didn’t crow a triumphant “I told you so!”) that he probably could have spent the time he invested in the gig better– either by hustling up some paying work, processing the massive backlog of photos sitting on his hard drive, or moving some images over to a stock site.
“Live and learn,” I said. “It’s all good.”
I’m not against creative people sharing their gifts for free. My friend, Lola Akinmade Akerstrom, is a wonderful example of someone who makes a living as a professional photographer and offers a percentage of her time and talent to pro-bono causes that are important to her.
I now make decisions about how I apportion my own “will work for free” time according to two caveats:
1. Is the person or organization asking for my time and skills really in need or are they simply not prioritizing their desires in a way that includes those desires as a line-item in a budget? Having worked in non-profits, I know the realities of creative financing and the importance of streamlining the cost of contracted services.^ But as a provider of goods and services–writing and photography are products, after all–I’m not willing to participate in a financial system that operates any differently from the office supply store. The radio station producer doesn’t walk into Staples and say she needs office supplies but won’t pay for them because she doesn’t have the budget for them. Why should creative services be any different?
2. What percentage of my time and work am I willing and able to give away freely, without expectation of compensation AND credit? As a person who doesn’t have enough time to realize all of her own projects, that percentage is quite low.
But back to our near-fight.
As I’ve reflected on our exchange, I realized that my problem was this: I wanted Francisco to decline the gig based on my principles, not his. And though I truly do want him to value his own work and not give it away, I shouldn’t try to mandate whether he works for free or how he sets his fees.
Among the community of writers and photographers I know, I often hear us trying to influence one another about this issue. “You CAN’T work for free,” a writer friend once counseled me, “because then we’ll ALL be expected to work for free. Writing won’t have any value.”
Though I agree with her in theory, we each have to make our own decisions, and often, these are made on a case-by-case basis. Do we all have to stop working for free? When do you choose to give your work and skills away and what’s the line you absolutely won’t cross when it comes to establishing and defending the value of your work? When do you push an editor or a client who’s asking you to work below-market rate to adjust their fees?
Francisco and I would love to hear from you in the comments.
*If you’re new to the blog, Francisco is the most important member of CuadernoInedito’s cast of characters. He’s my husband and business partner, and most of his professional work involves photography.
^I also know how CEOs are compensated, and let’s just say that non-profits typically aren’t quite as cash-strapped as they appear; they just don’t allocate money as effectively as they could or should.