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 []. 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. 



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 (  If you think that’s a fair deal, you can send me some PayPal cash, and I’ll send you a high-res image. 



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:

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.  



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.”

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