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Four Reasons to Consider Working for Free

The U.S. stock market has been cut in half. And some countries have it worse than we do. Companies are shedding jobs like there is no tomorrow. And heaven help you if you work for a newspaper or a magazine.

The US auto industry is on the verge of imploding. People are losing their homes to foreclosure. And, on the off chance that you had the nerve to try to buy something, credit is almost impossible to come by.

It is against that backdrop that I would like to talk about working for free.

Why? Because I think it is one of the fastest ways to make yourself a better photographer, whether you are a pro or an amateur. If you are wondering if I have completely lost my mind, make the jump to judge for yourself.

A Little Framework

I want to put the flashes down today and talk about something that I hope can help you grow as a photographer. I know it is helping me, and I suspect that some people could use a little professional bright spot right now.

For the purposes of this post, we are talking about photography. But there is no reason that this discussion cannot morph into other areas. If you are a blogger and riff on this in another direction, please leave a linkback in the comments. I really want to see where this goes.

As a point of reference, I am going to broadly assume that many of you fall at least loosely into one of the following areas:

One, if you are a pro, you are probably not being hired to shoot full-time, wall-to-wall. You might have some down time right about now. Maybe even a little too much.

Two, if you are an amateur, you probably spend some time on a regular basis shooting for yourself when you are not working the soul-sucking day job.

After 20 years as a pro, I find myself with a foot in both ponds. I still thnk of myself as a professional shooter -- and I am shooting assignments, after all. But I also have a non-shooting "day job," which you are reading right now.

As such, over the last few months I have been thinking about my shooting in a different different way. I have had long conversations with other photographers about it, too. Some were rank amateurs, some are big-shot pros, and some in the muddy middle.

Money Equals Control

Well, duh. But maybe not in the way that you think. If you are a professional, it is the client with the check who determines what you shoot and how you do it.

Maybe you want to shoot conceptual portraiture. But if The Money says that it wants you to shoot little Billy's bar mitzvah, guess who is gonna win in the absence of that conceptual portrait assignment?

A check is a good thing. It puts food on the table and keeps the business running. But that same check can also keep you from growing in the direction in which you want to grow.

The trick is getting from what you are now shooting (and how) to what you want to be shooting (and how). And the fastest way to do that is to forego some money.

Tenet One: Free Buys Access

I will start out by saying that I want to be a location people shooter. More specifically, I want to make engaged and technically sophisticated portraits of people who excel at what they do. I want to benefit from both the photos and the experiences of meeting my subjects.

That is my personal photographic compass point. Where the photos get used is secondary. As is how much -- or even if -- I get paid for them. For now, anyway.

That's my mission. If you have not defined your mission as a photographer, I would highly suggest doing so. The simpler, the better. It adds clarity to every decision you make downstream.

My problem is, right now no one is beating down my door to shoot the kinds of people I want to shoot in the ways that I want to shoot them. I am getting plenty of work, but not the kind that furthers what I want to do. So to get closer to my goal, I have decided to take money out of the equation whenever it makes sense to do so.

I do not know how much "free" time I can devote to it yet, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that I will devote whatever free time I can to making those kinds of photos.

So, I am approaching people I want to photograph and offering to do it directly for them, at no charge. And that includes usage, too -- no holding back. That is my offer -- I photograph you, and in exchange for your time you get what I hope will be high-quality images to use.

Now, that usage does not extend to a third party -- for example, the subject's publisher, an advertising campaign, etc. In that case, there would have to be payment involved. And the types of photos (and, to date, subjects) that I am doing would not normally be shot with enough specificity to be useful in those ways. But it is important to take into account to keep yourself from being taken advantage of.

The usual reaction is a mixture of equal parts confusion and suspicion:

Why are you doing this? What is this for? Why free? Do you suck as a photographer or something?

Because I want to grow by photographing extremely interesting people. It is for my portfolio and whatever use you can find for it. Because that is the fastest way to get the photos I want into my portfolio. And you can judge the last question for yourself after seeing my work.

At that point, they are usually interested. And how can they not be, unless they are insanely busy? It is a flattering thing to be chosen on those merits. And what do they have to lose, except for maybe a half hour?

As for me, what am I really giving up? Not money, unless someone would have hired me that day to do something equally interesting. I am giving up time I would have spent shooting something less useful for me.

And hopefully, I am circumventing the photographer's Catch-22 -- that you won't be hired to shoot subject matter that you can't already show in your portfolio.

Tenet Two: Free Removes Boundaries

Assuming they go for the idea, now is where it starts to get interesting. And if they don't, no big deal. I move on to the next person on my hit list.

But if they do, we have everything we need to make a photograph -- a photographer and a subject. No one else to steer things.

The art direction is courtesy the collaboration between you and your subject. The budget is whatever you can scrape together. And I particularly enjoy bootstrapping something from nothing.

Foregoing money buys you that control. Not total control, mind you. You have to work within the framework of what is true to your subject. But all good portraiture has that restraint.

The important thing is that there is no one telling you to shoot color or B&W, no shape to match, no limitation on post processing, no nothing. It is a wide open collaboration.

If you are a corporate shooter, maybe that means you go from guys in ties to shooting artists. Or inventors. Whatever.

If you normally shoot social events, maybe it means you get to shoot what you really want -- architecture. Or beauty.

Tenet Three: Free Buys You Near Total Control

It is your project. You are offering photography for time. You are driving. You decide what you are going to shoot.

You can say no at any point, but you can greenlight anything. You can shoot beneath your normal radar screen. You can stretch to shoot a subject you would never have been hired to shoot.

You may as well be Annie Leibovitz, as far as you're concerned. You answer to no one but yourself. If that is not an ideal shooting environment, I do not know what is.

Tenet Four: Free is Powerful Karma

Big deal, you say. That's just personal work. Everyone does that.

Sort of, but not really. Personal work is shooting ninjas in a warehouse on your own dime to stretch yourself and grow your book and get better jobs. (That one worked in spades, BTW.)

But pure collaboration also takes into account the subject. Who can best use the kinds of photos I want to take? What can I accomplish? How can they use the photos? How much good can I do?

This is where it gets goose pimply. How much good could you do?

What will you do with your total control? Do you love kids? Will you shoot portraits of young burn victims at a burn camp next summer like my friend Ed Bunyan did for so many years?

Do you love animals? Will you practice your lighting skills on dogs and cats at the animal shelter? Do you really think they would refuse a serious commitment on your part to photograph animals each week for a few months and let them do whatever they could think to do with your photos?

Very early in my career, a photographer/friend/mentor of mine, John Ashley, did just that. And the photos ran big in our paper, the Leesburg (FL) Commercial. Because John convinced them to do that each Thursday by his sheer commitment and force of will.

For several years, John had a perfect batting average -- every animal he photographed got adopted. Except one. And then John adopted it.

How much good could you do with your camera? And for many of you, specifically, how much of a difference could you make for someone with your new-found lighting skills?

How much would your portfolio benefit from regularly shooting exactly what you want to shoot?

If you are an amateur, this just might get you past practicing your light on your cat and your superhero figurines. If you are a pro, it is easy to think of some cool projects that could add a new dimension to your portfolio.

For Example:

I recently found a great little foodie blog in my county. I can't tell you how many neat little out-if-the-way ethnic joints I have found because of this guy. But as good as his blog is, his photography is very, uh, McDonald's, if you get my drift.

Why couldn't I hook up with him and create a series of portraits of chefs at some of these places? Make his blog look as good as a decent food magazine, create a nice project in my portfolio and hook up more people with great local food?

Answer: There is no reason why I couldn't, if I take money out of the equation. If I wait for money, this little project will never happen. But take the money out, and it could happen in a heartbeat -- and on my schedule.

As I type, I am fleshing a thread for the series out in my head -- why not a portrait of a chef, a nice photo of a typical dish, and the recipe for it? I get a great project, the blog gets moved up three or four visual notches, the restaurants get exposed to many more people and my portfolio gets a new capability to display.

Make it locally-owned only. Chipotle need not apply. Now the county development office and/or the Chamber of Commerce start to get interested. Which might get the project some space in a local venue.

Now, you have just parlayed the project into a potential exhibit in a high-traffic area. People learn about my photography, the HowChow blog, lots of local restaurants, how to cook some killer dishes -- not a bad day's work. And it all works only because it was conceived outside of the framework of shooting for money.

But I Don't Want to be Branded as a Free Photographer.

You wouldn't be. You are not working for free because people asked you to. You are offering to collaborate on a project. And therein lies a huge difference.

When a company or organization asks you to work for free they may be (okay, probably are) taking advantage of you. When you are in control, no one can take advantage of you. You have the ability to offer your work for free, but you retain the ability to decline a request to work for free.

And to be clear, I am not talking about merely showing up at some company with a blanket offering to work for free. That's insane. I am talking about having a photo in your mind that you want to make and pulling together the resources to make it happen. You are the prime beneficiary, but there is gain in it for your subject, too -- which is what makes it very likely to happen.

You may think there is opportunity cost in putting in a shoot for no money. But the cost is much greater, in the long term, if you have a portfolio that was defined only by what people were willing to pay you to create.

Why Now? Isn't the Whole World Caving In?

This makes the most sense right now, for so many reasons. How many people or organizations could use photos -- but have no budget? How many days do you sit waiting for the phone to ring with an assignment?

How often have you looked at your home loan / stock portfolio / shrinking newsroom / etc., and just wanted to feel good about something, personally and/or professionally?

You may not have piles of excess cash to donate, but you have skills. You can leverage your value to someone through your pictures -- and grow as a photographer at the same time.

Are You Still Here?

If you have made it this far, you probably either think I am totally full of it, or are already starting to get ideas of your own.

I know I am not the only photographer for whom this idea is resonating. I have been in too many conversations about this recently and heard too many other photographers' thoughts.

This is a lighting blog, but this approach can be applied to almost anything. Do you cut hair? Are you in IT support? Are you a good cook? What could you do?

And assuming a worst-case scenario, what if money gets incredibly tight for the next few years. How much difference could you make, for yourself and for others, growing yourself by donating a valuable skill?


Other Perspectives

Chase Jarvis puts his money where his mouth is.
Doug Menuez, on turning down the bad jobs and shooting what you love.
Vincent Laforet: Yeah, but don't go crazy with it. Mebbe once a year. But 'Reverie' worked out pretty well for me...
Kenneth Jarecke: It has always been thus.
• I suspected this post would give John Harrington an aneurysm. But you still have to give him style points for lining up the commenters to be machine gunned...


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