In the free world

Interesting pair of articles I encountered recently. On working for free.

First up young Jack Alexander – lifestyle and fashion photographer, who wrote a strong piece for fstoppers entitled ‘Why I Think All Creatives Should Consider Working For Free More Often’

Jack’s had three years of experience as a photographer and has an interesting business model:

“I didn’t know what to expect when I first started working in the creative industry, but I soon learned the extent of how many jobs are expected for absolutely no payment in return. But is it really all that bad? Speaking honestly, I don’t think so. Here’s why I think we should stop complaining and, within reason, keep saying “yes” to more free projects.

Recently, I was trying to source a creative team for an upcoming photoshoot — just the usual: a makeup artist, hairstylist, and wardrobe stylist. The shoot was with an up and coming musician signed to a major record label and the feature is to be inside the next print issue of a renowned British magazine. I thought it was cool; this is exactly the type of project I want to be working on and exactly the kind of photographer I want to be. But when asking around to see which of my regular contacts were available and interested, I couldn’t help but notice a reluctance from quite a few of my peers once they found out there would be no payment. One said they were focusing exclusively on paid work right now. Another asked if it was for the magazine’s front cover and soon lost interest upon finding out that it wasn’t. This, to me, was really strange — to completely write off the opportunity to have your work printed in a respectable publication. I can’t help but feel it was almost a little arrogant for these people to be seeing nothing further than the prospect of money. It got me thinking about the state of the creative world.”

Yes Jack thinks people who expect to be paid are “arrogant”. Now in case readers misunderstood his thinking Jack was happy to provide clarification:


jack a 1

I’ve tweeted twice to Jack to ask if he ever invoices for his free work but sadly he’s not replied. I am genuinely interested to learn whether he does or not. Jack – care to reply?*

Curiously – Jack is listed as a Staff Writer for fstoppers. Here he is in the back pages, not a ‘guest writer’ but a Staff Writer – which I presume means he’s being paid. (I could be wrong, given his track record).

jack a 2

But if he IS being paid, then this all smells rather rotten. I’ll simplify it in case it’s eluding some of you:

Aspiring photographer writes article urging more creatives to work for free and gets paid to write it.

Of course I could be wrong and he’s not getting paid to write it. But then the ad revenue for the many thousands of page clicks just racked up a nice little sum for the site owners. Or are fstoppers a charity that runs its site for nothing and gives all its profits to the homeless? I have no idea.

The other piece I noticed, was this rather nice video which should explain to young Jack why his business model needs tweaking a little:



*If you DON’T invoice for free work how will the person you work for (for free) ever know what you’re worth?

Free stuff has value. And it is good to do free sometimes. I do work for free, and supply images for no cost, and have done this quite a few times over the last three decades, mainly for small charities and other organisations that I know have little or no budgets. However, some organisations (or certain key individuals within them) will often place no value on your work, free is free. And once they’ve got it in their mitts, it’s still free and they’ll treat it as such, which might mean reusing it in other ways or even passing it on to others for them to use. For free. So it is a good idea to invoice for your time/expertise/value of work. Work out exactly what it costs you to produce the work and send a proper invoice with 100% discount.

Why an invoice?

Simple: If you don’t put a value on your work why should anybody else?

But what this invoice should also carry are the use restrictions so they know exactly what they may/may not do with your work. Bear in mind that this is also a contract, and acceptance of the images for use implies acceptance of the terms, and if they breach that contract by either passing on the work to others or using it in ways not stated in your T&C’s they can be held to account. And the value of the invoice is a very good starting point for compensation. It works, and I’ve pulled folks up several times for misuse of ‘free’ stuff and been paid. Just because my work was free does not mean I consider it worthless.

But there is a further value that such an invoice has for charities and the like – if they are in receipt of a lot of ‘free’ stuff there is a hidden cost to running their business that they may not realise, and may not be taking advantage of. If you invoice them (with 100% discount) there is an audit trail that will clearly show how much their image material should cost them. Where that becomes useful is when they are applying for funding support – your invoices can be used to show an ‘invisible’ cost that may be able to be covered with grant funding. Now what that might mean is that in subsequent years they ARE able to pay you – they get more good work, you get real money, or if you are still committed to the work of the organisation and can still give free stuff, they may actually be able to use those surplus funds to underpin delivery of services to their client group which attracted you to them in the first place. Everyone wins. And remember also that although the people you deal with in these organisations may be image consumers they may have no idea at all about the time, costs and expense of image production so you are in fact educating them. That’s something that is well worth doing.

And of course if you ever do subsequently start invoicing these companies for your services the cost of your skill should come as no surprise to them – you’ve been shoving it in their faces in your invoices for ages. In fact it may come as a surprise to YOU to actually tally up your costs involved in production, your time, gear depreciation, pension, tax, accountants fees, transport, software licences/subscriptions, insurance for gear, contractor’s liability insurance etc etc etc.

Free is not free. Free has a cost. If you don’t place your value on your work, don’t expect anyone else to. And at the end of the day being a bit smarter about ‘free’ can see real and tangible benefits for you and others you work with.

But the real bottom line? Just expect to be paid. Paid just like the editors, the picture researchers, the ad execs, the web designers, and the office cleaners who clean up after them…………………..and make your feelings clear to those who wont honour your skills and expertise with a just and proper reward. Fact is that 99% of all the users who want your work for free earn a wage from it, directly or indirectly. Just remember that little detail.

This message was brought to you by duckrabbit. But it’s not free. If you think it’s useful, and you heed some of it, and as a result you benefit from it, next time you see someone down on their luck, buy them a decent sandwich with some of the money you earned, and tell them that sometimes, for some people, there is such a thing as a free lunch. It all just depends on how you think about it.

But lets leave the last word to the delightful Harlan Ellison, talking eloquently on the subject of being compensated as a creative:




Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (11 Comments)

  1. Cliff Etzel says:

    Two words: ‘Nuff Said. 😉

    • John MacPherson says:

      Thanks Cliff. I guess my stance is – “free’ is here to stay, but I think we can all be a bit smarter about using it to our advantage. Creativity should not stop when the shutter button is pressed.

  2. emio tomeoni says:

    That was terrific – you guys do great work, and have such a strong -don’t give a shit what somebody else thinks- perspective, that it makes your readers (me) feel empowered & ballzeier (sp). I look forward to receiving your newsletter all the time.

    • John MacPherson says:

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting Emio. Well I can’t speak for the other authors who write for duckrabbit, but I actually do care what people think! I rarely make personal comment unless it’s informed and might actually benefit them or the site’s readers. It’s too easy to dump on folks, and in this case young Jack means well, but is not as clear in his thinking as he night be. A slight change in tack and his ‘work for free’ model could be a proper working strategy rather than a half-baked notion that gets him further taken advantage of. I hope he heeds some of the advice I’ve offered and in the spirit in which it is offered, and it benefits him. He’s trying hard to make a business and I hope he succeeds. Some folks just need a chill blast of reality to realize that the ’emperors new clothes’ don’t keep you warm when winter comes a blowing!

      • emio tomeoni says:

        thank you for replying, but in quick I dont literally mean it that way (the dont give a shit)- but some people will censor themselves based on the possibility it will rile feathers. Your approach is clearly well informed, but you and other writers here, they write without hedging thoughts or ideas for the sake of it. aka, its just very real, and honest. brutally honest at times.

  3. Guy Reynolds says:

    well done!

  4. TK says:

    Great points all around but I’d just like to say that web banner ad revenue is based on clicks per million, not thousands, and usually ends up being a laughable sum. I’m talking, like, Spotify low. I’m not apologizing for this aggregate site which misuses other peoples works almost daily, but their traffic numbers are not that high, and if I had to guess, they’re underwriten by more native, perhaps dubious advertising models.

    • John MacPherson says:

      Thanks TK. I’ve no knowledge of the actual figures that ads can generate. I guess my starting point is that they don’t generate ‘nothing’, and that same ‘nothing’ is the currency the site owners often refuse to share! (If you follow!). Money IS made, and the aggregate generated by a ‘host of free’ amounts to something, and many struggling freelancers, and in particular those at the start of their careers, would be happy to see in their own bank accounts. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  5. Stan B. says:

    Late here, but as long as we continue to live in a capitalist society- this post will never be dated. And really is the last word.

    “This, to me, was really strange — to completely write off the
    opportunity to have your work printed in a respectable publication.”

    If it was indeed “respectable,” they would be treating their contributors in a respectable manner paying a respectable price. A “respectable” publication doing otherwise is what is really, truly… “strange.” They are asking you to lower your standards to heighten theirs. And that is simply inexcusable.

    The invoice suggestion also makes complete and total sense. I wish all “public service announcements” were this practical and useful…

    • John MacPherson says:

      Hi Stan- better late than never! Too easy to slag off the inexperienced so I thought I’d just leave him with a lifebelt he might find useful at some point. Free CAN be valuable. But only if you invest in it properly.

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