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Take Me, I’m Yours

One of the most counterintuitive notions for a person intent on selling their wares is to give it away. We get into this in a vocational capacity to earn an income, to pay for our gear, to live debt-free and pay the bills. We get into it to do what we love. Giving it away seems like the wrong way to get down the right street, and so many of us never explore the advantages. In fact, so often the resolve not to work for free, not to be taken advantage of, stops us from doing what we love. I know this goes against the flow, but I’m going to put it out there anyway—free is powerful. For those of you who just got goosebumps and a desire to write me a rebuking e-mail about how this is killing our industry, stick with me. In fact, in the next few pages I’ll discuss the need to guard against this kind of thing. But it’s your career—your calling and passion—and if creating photographs without a fee attached to it helps further that, then it might just be that the industry needs a recalibration.

I have worked without a fee attached. I still do. But it’s never free. It always costs someone—usually me—and I’ll discuss that in a bit. So it might be helpful to stop using the word free. Perhaps calling it no-fee photography is more accurate. Working sans fee—not only at the beginning of your career but all the way through it—can bring some strong benefits worth considering.

Not the least of the benefits a no-fee shoot can bring is the freedom to create work that you can put into your portfolio. We are judged by our work and our experience, and you need work to get work. Doing some collaborative shoots for a person or group that has no budget allows you to create work and to experience the collaborative environment of a working relationship without risk for either side. They get images—you get experience. I’m careful to say that this would be for a client without a budget because if it’s a freebie for a cheap client with a large budget, then it’s exploitation, and I’m pretty sure that’s a step back for everyone.

Related to this is the control that you have over an end product when working without a fee. When a client pays you, you surrender a certain amount of creative liberty. That’s the reality of combining your craft with commerce, and if you’d prefer not to deal with this then you might experience less angst by crossing “vocational photographer” off your list of ambitions. There is always a measure of compromise, even if it’s just the constraints imposed by the fact that you’re shooting a cover and need room for a masthead. Shooting without a fee will introduce you to some of these constraints; after all, your images are no good to the client if you don’t shoot the brief, but you’ll have greater freedom to play and explore your options. That’s the trade-off the client accepts; if they aren’t comfortable with that, then an appropriate fee can be arranged.

Shooting without a fee can get you into places and gain you access to people you might not otherwise get. Donating a week or two of your work to a struggling conservation agency in Rwanda could gain you access to mountain gorillas that few others can get without paying an extraordinary amount of money. It’s a win-win-win situation. You get to create the work you’re passionate about, the conservation agency gets images it can use for fundraising and awareness-building, and the photographic community at large isn’t harmed because it’s for an agency that wouldn’t have had the budget otherwise.

Finally, shooting without a fee is sometimes just the right thing to do. You got into this, I assume, because you love it, not because you love money. And there are times when you need to free yourself from the money-chasing that this business can lead to and just go give it away. Call it karma, call it reaping what you sow—giving it away is good for the soul. And, not to put too fine a pragmatic point on it, it’s good marketing. It’s more relationships, more contacts, and another chance to make connections. It’s casting your net wider. That’s the shiny side of the coin.

Free is a powerful word, and a powerful concept. It’s getting a lot of discussion in the marketplace, with some going so far as to suggest it’s a commerce model all its own. Boiled down, it amounts to this: the market is clamoring for free. If you don’t give it to them, someone else will. In our context, they want free photography, free postprocessing, free images, free teaching. Turning a blind ear to this is not only mixing your metaphors in a dangerous way, but is a good way to get left out in the cold. We have to listen to the power of free. I write consistent and valuable content on a blog that costs my readers nothing. When we give, everyone gains—including the giver. Free wallpapers cost us nothing but give something to the market. Free prints when you book a sitting—they cost the photographer pennies, but provide a great gain for the consumer and the producer.

On the other hand, giving it all away for nothing is not viable. In some ways, there is no such thing as free. It’s an illusion. My wife wants to eat, and so do my cats. My landlord comes back each month for a rent check, and my cameras are going to need to be replaced. Doing business costs money. So does living.

You’ve been given only so much time and talent with which to pay the bills. Give it all away and you’re hurting yourself and others. I recently received an e-mail questioning the price tag of the annual Lumen Dei workshops Matt Brandon and I lead. What my interlocutor failed to realize is that these workshops take a year to plan, market, and administer. Ignoring the costs such as airfare for instructors, all meals and ground costs, and so forth, we give two weeks of our time, plus three or four days of pre-trip planning in-country and at least two days of travel. Call it an even 20 days, plus an estimated 10 solid days of planning during the year. Thirty days. If we do not charge accordingly, those are 30 days we can’t use to contribute to our annual cost of doing business. So we need to take more from those other clients—in my case, clients working with women and vulnerable children. Not an appealing thought for me.

I can only make so much money in a year, but my costs are pretty static. My overhead doesn’t go away because I wish it would. I still need to pay for my website, my marketing materials, my taxes, my savings, my daily living expenses. Free will put you and me into bankruptcy so fast it’ll make our heads spin.

Working with charities and NGOs, as I do, you’ll encounter client after client who asks you to give it away for free, and they’ll tell you to your face that 1) they can’t afford you—probably true—and 2) they are responsible to carefully steward what little finances they have—also true. The strong implication, however, is that you are somehow responsible for their stewardship. You aren’t. You are responsible to steward your own time and money. Your family and your business. This doesn’t mean you can’t find creative ways of doing the latter while working for the client, but it does mean you need to know what your CDB is, and whether you can actually afford to give it away. You need to remind yourself there’s really no such thing as free. If they don’t pay you from their budget, you need to pay yourself from your own budget.

Failure to do this means you will sit closer to the survival line, take gigs as cheap as you can, undercut the others struggling to make it, and in the end put yourself out of business, which helps no one. You must steward your time and money, and that begins with knowing the true cost of going out for a day or a week, and then finding ways to cover that that do not include a line of credit or plastic. Heed me on this. If you do not know your CDB, you need to. In actual numbers.

Again: there is no such thing as free. Someone always pays, and in this case it’s you. Those of us who take pro bono (notice it’s not called “free”) work often fall into the trap of thinking that “we’re not getting paid for this one.” As if it’s simply a break-even on the books. It’s not. You are paying for it. If you need to earn, for example, $1,000 for each day you shoot in order to meet your annual cost of doing business, then that money has to come from somewhere, and agreeing to shoot a week for free means not a week without pay, but a week with a $5,000–$7,000 deficit on your annual budget. How many of those can you afford?

If this is beginning to sound like a hard-assed capitalist speaking, then good. I’m not, for the record. I’m Canadian, so I’m closer to being a socialist. As I write this, I’m wearing a Mao Tse-Tung T-shirt I got in Beijing, and I have a strong affinity for revolutionaries (though I have a strong dislike for their methods, and I wear this T-shirt with not a little cognitive dissonance; I digress). The dollar is a tool, not a god. But you have to wield your tools well, and most photographers are very kind people who want to give it away, unconscious to the staggering cost of doing this, even as a hobby. I’m not saying you need to make money your priority, but you do need to make the wise management of your time and money a strong priority.

Here’s what I’ve done to steward my time and money while continuing to work for clients with small or nonexistent budgets:

  • I have strong sponsored relationships with generous leaders in the photography industry. They give me products that I would otherwise pay for, lowering my overhead and thereby lowering my CDB. I can afford to spend more time doing pro bono work.
  • I have sought alternate means of funding. Someone has to pay for me to photograph child laborers in central Asia, but that doesn’t mean it has to be me or the NGO. One of my recent assignments was paid for by a businessman in Vancouver who wants to make a difference in the lives of children. He cut me a check and told me to go shoot. Be creative about how you fund your work; find a way to make this a win-win for everyone.
  • I have diversified and sought multiple income sources from shooting and teaching (I discuss this in the next section). I shoot while I am home and charge more to my commercial clients than I ever could to my paying NGO clients. One subsidizes the other.
  • I have been blessed to have a couple of solid clients who see the value in what I do. One of my projects raises several millions of dollars for the organization. They see that emotionally compelling images create exponentially more powerful fundraising and advocacy campaigns, and in the end that means more money. They pay me well. But they are the exception. Educating other potential clients on this is important.

I still give it away sometimes, but I do it selectively and with my eyes wide open to the actual cost. All this doesn’t temper my idealism and desire to change the world. It doesn’t make me greedy or mercenary. It doesn’t pay for a Mercedes—in fact, I choose not to own a car at all. It means one thing: I can continue to do what I love and feel called to do without going bankrupt or neglecting my family, or wondering how in the world I am going to replace the camera that just broke or was stolen. It means I can do this longer, and be of greater good to the world than I could otherwise.

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