don’t work for free. period.

Your toilet is clogged, and you’ve called a plumber. “Is this Bob the Plumber?  Yes, I have a clogged toilet. I want you to come and fix it. In exchange, I will put a sign out on my lawn for the whole time you’re here that says you are upstairs fixing my toilet. The sign will have your phone number on it. When you’re finished, the sign will stay around, but it’ll probably go behind the tree-trimmer’s sign.”

The plumber is delighted. He needs the 30 minutes of free publicity on your low-traffic street.


Can’t imagine that scenario?  Substitute photographer (or writer or artist) and link to your website for plumber and sign.  Not so far-fetched anymore, is it?  


In fact, you can substitute just about any kind of artistic endeavor for any kind of service or product; the analogy is perfect.


I am not the only one to say elegantly that you shouldn’t work for free.  But until you commit to the mantra that should be of every artist—regardless of medium, regardless of patron—your work will continue to be devalued by society.  Is cheapening an entire industry worth not being worth a dime a dozen to have your name on some blog somewhere, with a usually misspelled attribution and a broken link to a website you sporadically maintain? 

Artists are not rich. Our art is relegated to hobby status because we can’t afford to pay our children’s school tuition and our car payments with all the generous links to our websites.

A few years ago, I was asked to donate a large mosaic sculpture for an auction benefitting cancer patients. The woman who solicited the request was being paid to organize the event. The winning bidder was getting my art. And I? I would not be getting paid. The entire charity event was on the backs of the artists, the people who could least afford to donate to charity.

What about artists requesting art from each other? A friend once asked me to do some design work. If this project took off, he told me, then he’d have a lot of money to hire me for the big design jobs later.  And when that time came, he said he went with a professional designer, one who would never give away her work. Since that day 25 years ago, my policy is this:

I will trade something of value to you for something of value (usually money) to me.

 I bring this up because I received a request for a photo. I get maybe a dozen each year, but each is irksome. I want to share this exchange with you. 

Hello. My name is [Name] and I work for [Website.com]. First of all, your work is incredible. I was wondering if we could use this photo (see link below) for one of our blog posts. We will give you credit for the image and link back to your page. Please email me with your answer. 

Thanks, 

[Name]

Here’s my reply:

First of all, thank you for the compliment on my work.  I have been taking photographs since I was a little girl.  I developed my own film and printed photos in high school, and I grew up to take professional portraits and other artistic shots. 

My first self-portrait, ca 1977,
shot, developed, and printed by me.

Here’s my thought: I want ten bucks for the photo, and it’s not the money; it’s the principle.  I know you can get a free photograph from the next person—someone who wants to self-promote or add publishing credits to his or her résumé.  But I don’t need either of those. 

Art takes time and costs the artist money. (My camera and one lens were more than three grand.)  So why shouldn’t it cost the patron money?   

Look: you will pay someone to fix the toilet, massage your feet, and shampoo your hair. Would you ever expect someone—a stranger, no less!—to do those services for free?  Would the plumber unclog your sink for a sign on your lawn that says he’s working on your bathroom?  What about shopping: could you walk into a grocery store and get free bananas? Or get a free shirt from Macy*s?  

If I got a link back to my website, would the next person ask me for a free photo, too? 

So ten bucks, my name (Leslie F. Miller), and a link to my photo site (www.lesliefmiller.com).  If you think that’s a fair deal, you can send me some PayPal cash, and I’ll send you a high-res image. 

😀 

Leslie 

I don’t recommend asking for $10. In fact, I usually ask for $50 from non-profits and $100 from for-profit companies (though it’s hard to tell the difference), but this would’ve been for one blog post, its life cut short by a flurry of new posts in short time. (Just in case you think non-profits are somehow more worthy, remember that the Directors and CEOs of large nonprofits make hundreds of thousands a year. The small ones don’t, but they do pay their employees and buy office supplies!  They can afford $50. They can afford $10 for a blog photo.

Here is her reply:

Leslie,
As much as I understand (and agree) with your request, I’m only an intern working for a (non-profit) company/website who cannot afford to pay for the use of photos right now. For that reason, I’m going to have to pass on your kind and fair offer. However, I do encourage you to hold tight to your decision (as I am also a photographer — amateur, but even so — and understand completely what you mean). 

Thank you so much for your reply! I wish you all the best in your photographic endeavors.  

Sincerely, 

[Name]

While her outrageously delicious writing and good grammar and perfect punctuation have me oozing with delight, I’m still giving nothing away.  

Ask your excellent dentist if you can, instead of paying her, hand out her business cards every time someone compliments your teeth! Ask your ingenious accountant if, instead of paying for having your taxes prepared, you could put a magnetic sign advertising his services on your car during tax season. Hey, wait! Don’t tip the talented shampoo girl!  Wear her name on a barrette in your just-washed tresses.  


Have I ever been paid for a photograph? Yes! But no one who has ever written to request a handout has ever changed his mind. And that’s fine with me. Because the people who write to ask for photos with a check in their hands are the places where the publicity will matter. And the big corporations who ask for handouts can suck my—well, this has been a family-friendly post, so I’ll keep it that way.

Bottom line: hold fast to your principles. You retain so much more than those: you keep your integrity and your rights. Best of all, you do it for all artists—the photographer, the painter, the writer, the digital artist, the musician (!), the sound man, the composer, the actor. You do it for everyone, really.

If you want to give your artwork as a gift, your deserving friend will certainly appreciate that! (I do! We do!) Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, graduations—these are the perfect opportunities to share your art with them.  But remember that even the paintings and photos hanging on the walls of your friends’ homes and offices were, for the most part, paid for.  Let them pay you, too (a little less; they’re friends, after all).

Share this public service announcement with everyone you know. And don’t work for free. Period.

If you like what you read here, buy one of my books: BOYGIRLBOYGIRL; Let Me Eat Cake: A Celebration of Flour, Sugar, Butter, Eggs, Vanilla, Baking Powder, and a Pinch of Salt.


And if you’re still giving your work away, you’re responsible for this: Save the Sun-Times Photojournalists.


Edited to add the following note from a reader:

Is writing a blog working for free?

No.  It’s working for yourself. You’re trading something of value to you for something of value to you. Your name is on it. You’re not promoting the services or products of anyone but yourself. In other worlds (and words), it’s called “advertising.”

This entry was posted in Uncategorized.

24 Comments

  1. cybergabi June 5, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

    I love the exchange you had. And the principle. It's mine, too. I've already accepted beer, paintings, other photographs, or homemade dinners in exchange for my photographs – and, like you, mostly money. Stay strong!

  2. deathwriter June 5, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

    This is a great post and I totally agree, however, most literary mags pay in pats on the back and maybe a contributor's copy or two. I have definitely lowered my pay rate, as well as what counts as currency.

  3. Leslie F. Miller June 5, 2013 at 1:39 pm #

    @cybergabi, Beer and dinner are valuable.

    @deathwriter, Contributor's copies are valuable (depending, of course, on the lit mag. And remember: lit mags are artists, too.

  4. jo(e) June 5, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    I love this.

  5. jo(e) June 5, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

    Oh, and I'm pointing out the obvious but that first self-portrait of you? Looks exactly like your daughter. I thought it was her before I read the caption.

  6. Anonymous June 5, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

    I agree with everything posted.

    The only time it is worth it to work for free is, as you said, when you get something in return.

    This could mean freedom and creativity in terms of direction of the project or something in an area you haven't tried yet, but would like to.

    I do video work and would take on something for free if I really liked it and was getting some fulfillment out it artistically.

    But they can at least still give you gas money or something!

    Kevin

  7. Leslie F. Miller June 5, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

    @Anonymous That bugs me. It's the camel's nose under the tent. You start doing work for free because you love it, then you make other excuses, like this: I took that picture, and it's just sitting there. I have no space left on my walls, so here. Sure–I made that like 10 years ago, and the money's already gone.

    Get some money. Get something of physical value in trade.

  8. Richard Gilbert June 6, 2013 at 12:28 am #

    Couldn't help but wonder if that intern was working for free! The latest capitalism scandal, along with ridiculous levels of college debt due to high interest.

  9. Tsu Dho Nimh June 6, 2013 at 1:54 am #

    Oh Wow. I'm a writer. If I had a dollar for every "I can give you exposure on the web" solicitation …

    Look you cheapskates, if I want exposure, I'll drop my pants on the plaza AND … I'll videotape it and put it on YouTube. I'll live blog about it and I'll update my status with it on Facebook, tweet about it on Twitter and post pics of my flabby butt on Twitpix and Flickr.

  10. Leslie F. Miller June 6, 2013 at 1:55 am #

    @Tsu Dho Nimh HAHAHAHA! That's funny. And sad. Because it's true. Well, not the flab part. I don't know about that.

  11. Anonymous June 6, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    Never do free photography says the person using a free blogging site. You know there are people making a living designing website for a living, right? I have nothing against asking people to consider charging for their photography, but you are a bit over the top here. I will continue doing mostly free photo shoots with a couple of paid jobs a year because that's what I want to do. What I get out of the free jobs is satisfaction in helping others out, which is also a leading reason people donate to charity. I wish my photo charity didn't cause you to make less money, but photography has always been a challenging field to live off and there are still ways to be very successful in it today.

  12. Leslie F. Miller June 6, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

    @Anonymous I've been using this free blogging site since this free blogging site was made. I've had ten blogs. I know CSS code. I have a MFA in writing and an MA in graphic design. Would you like me to hire someone? I've paid someone to design a website. I have had several.

    I didn't say you shouldn't use free tools. I said you shouldn't ask your friends to design your website for free, and website designers shouldn't offer to do it for free.

    I think you are wrong about my being "over the top," because this is one of the few fields in the world where its members are expected to work for free. That's why I used the examples I did. No one else works for free. Artists shouldn't, either.

    I'm glad you feel that you are helping out other people. Good luck to you.

  13. Gail Dragon June 6, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

    Do you know how many co-workers come into the Design office and ask us to do invites and christmas cards and I barely know most of them? I started saying no, they don't come to me anymore, though my office mate is always doing something for someone. I have done a painting for a rescue group auction, though next time I believe I will do the painting and make Giclee prints for the charity and sell the painting.

  14. Pamela Haag June 6, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

    I agree. Your insight about this is another description of the emiseration of intellectual and creative labor (think of adjunct professors, too, with Ph.D.s, who make almost nothing for teaching courses), along with the emiseration of labor-labor. A lot of those excuses come down to the notion of some vague (too vague) payback in the form of "publicity" or "exposure," but it's a sinkhole, or a self-fulfilling doom, because with social media and the gazillion of online outlets that technically count as "publications," and with millions of people willing to write FOR FREE to fill those sites, and to encourage the creation of yet more, then even the vague promise of exposure or publicity is negated by the sheer volume of places and pages… And, you're right–the excuses ultimately do boil down to, "i don't think that i need to get paid for my work." There's not much wiggle room around that, and no "yeah, but…" statement that gets around it.

  15. worthingtonpost June 7, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

    I am with you all the way, though I have a harder time relying on credentials when I came to writing only 2 years ago, without a writing degree or paid writing jobs to speak of. Who's going to pay me without any credible writing jobs or history under my belt?

    I did feel blogging for Patch was good experience and practice and gave me a built-in audience. I learned how to interact with the readers, got a sense for how much time things took and how things worked, then struck out on my own. I used them and they used me. Now that I'm getting somewhere, I've left Patch since they regularly and quickly denied my requests for getting paid. For the last year, I've been writing only for myself, and a few outlets that will pay me. It's a pittance, but it's also a start.

  16. Anonymous June 11, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

    I agree. Your insight about this is another description of the emiseration of intellectual and creative labor (think of adjunct professors, too, with Ph.D.s, who make almost nothing for teaching courses), along with the emiseration of labor-labor. A lot of those excuses come down to the notion of some vague (too vague) payback in the form of "publicity" or "exposure," but it's a sinkhole, or a self-fulfilling doom, because with social media and the gazillion of online outlets that technically count as "publications," and with millions of people willing to write FOR FREE to fill those sites, and to encourage the creation of yet more, then even the vague promise of exposure or publicity is negated by the sheer volume of places and pages… And, you're right–the excuses ultimately do boil down to, "i don't think that i need to get paid for my work." There's not much wiggle room around that, and no "yeah, but…" statement that gets around it.

  17. Elaine Dudzinski June 27, 2013 at 11:15 am #

    Totally agree with you on this. Now I need to apply it. I'm tired of everyone devaluing photography and trying to get art free, and when asked for money, they become appalled. LOL! Seriously. No more freebies.

  18. cybergabi July 1, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

    I just sent a link to this blog post to the next two requesters who wanted to publish two of my photos with my name and a link to my website. Your writing is so eloquent that it doesn't need any further explanation (except for the respective price tag for the respective photo they want to use).

  19. Leslie F. Miller July 1, 2013 at 3:51 pm #

    @cybergabi A lovely comment for today. Thank you!

  20. Elaine Dudzinski July 3, 2013 at 10:07 pm #

    News Flash: Today I had to put this to the test. iVillage saw a picture of my dog Ozzy on Flickr and emailed me to ask for free use of it with my name as credit. I sent a letter to them like what you wrote on your blog. I also asked for a meager 10 bucks. Again, it was the principle of the thing, not the money. The response I got was this:

    "Hey Elaine! Of course it is perfectly okay to ask — but I'm afraid we're offering only credit and links back.

    No worries that it's a no-go — your picture is great! Thanks for getting back to me."

    I expected nothing less of these people. They are looking for free content and Flickr is a great place to get that with permission. No one wants to pay. They all want it for free. Their job finding it isn't free. It really fries my ass now when people solicit this way. I'm sure she will go to the next person to ask to use their photo for free. Most likely, they will say yes to her request. She probably has 1000 photos tagged to ask about, and will go through a few to get them for her job. Sad state of affairs indeed.

  21. achim September 13, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    you will probably get more publicity from this post on you blog tham from any of those dubious offers. =)

  22. Leslie F. Miller October 17, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

    @achim Right!

  23. Anonymous May 4, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

    Dont take a piss without getting paid for it. Pick my brain, you pick my pockets. Dig it, cheapie.

  24. Leslie F. Miller May 4, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

    @Anonymous I wouldn't go that far, but I think it's important that we respect ourselves and our work. It's the only way others will.