Maybe It’s OK To Work For Free After All?
“Never work for free!” says the established creative who long forgot the joy of creating or collaborating. They know relationships are what drives business. But that sentiment is not as cool as talking down to you. So I’m here to tell you, it is okay. In fact, I’m demanding you. Go work for free!
When I started my career, I was a college graduate with one undergrad photo class under my belt. I abruptly quit my tech job and decided, yea, I’ll be a photographer. With limited knowledge and less experience, I took on an internship. Three, in fact. One paid, two were for college credit. And let me remind you, at this point, I was already a college grad. And just as you can’t pay rent with photo credits, you can’t pay rent with college credits, either. But I was determined to learn the ropes. And I was investing in my future. Which had a nice ring to it. Soon I met a few people and got a few breaks. And soon I was earning my living with my photos.
While I’m giving you my unauthorized stamp of approval to take work for free, understand there are some stipulations.
My first rule of thumb is if I’m asked to shoot it, you’ve got to pay me. I work for free all the time, but I ask myself a few questions first – Do you believe in the person/band/brand? Will you professionally gain something from taking on this project? Will it give you access to something that you otherwise would not have access to or would normally have to pay for?
Maybe a model is building her portfolio. You give them the photos they need. But in return, they agree to participate in a concept you’ve been developing. Now you’re collaborating, not just “working for free.” If you have the bandwidth, what is more valuable to you? Binge-watching another Netflix show? Or upgrading your portfolio? It’s what you feel comfortable with while not sacrificing your skills. Or more importantly, your dignity.
So the headline is about working for free. But the underlying idea here is building relationships. And it’s been the bedrock of my career. I love live music. And I love photography. I was shooting a few concerts a month for agencies and magazines, but usually in a “first 3” capacity, which is industry standard. Basically, unless you’ve been given prior clearance, you can expect to be escorted out of the photo pit in various forms of politeness after the third song. But I wanted to shoot more shows. And the whole show. Then get on the bus with the band. I wanted to document the in-between moments. And let’s be honest, those are the most interesting.
I grew up playing soccer and had a teammate that scored a ton of goals. He was a pretty good player. But his real skill was being in the right place at the right time. Sure, even a blind squirrel finds a nut eventually. But consistently being in the right place at the right time. Now that’s a skill. So while I was stoked to shoot Beyonce for 50 seconds (literally) from the soundboard with a 300mm lens, it was (literally) keeping me from where I wanted to be. Close to the action.
So applying what I’d learned at the start of my career – creating my own opportunities – I went to the source. Small shows, meeting bands, and managers, meeting their bosses. Moving up the chain. Starting to collaborate. Building a network. Taking chances. Putting myself in a position to score. Music festivals became my networking events. I’d go on my own dime, I’d shoot as many bands as I could, license the photos through Getty Images to make some money, but more importantly, build my network. These relationships have brought me all of my music industry work, not to mention some of my best friends.
Maybe you don’t want to be a music photographer. But if you want to be a working photographer, you need clients. If said clients don’t know you exist, you can be the greatest photographer that has ever walked this earth, you won’t get hired. And while social media and online portfolios and mailers are all a great way to get your work out there, you’re just screaming into a very crowded space. But the beauty is, now people are more accessible than ever. So start there. Nothing will ever replace real-life connections and relationships. It’s not totally what you know, it’s who you know. So get out there and get to knowing. Rome wasn’t built in a day. And neither was anyone’s career.