When you ask me to work for free

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This is a post I don’t want to write, so much so that I’ve started and stopped writing this very post for several months, never having the courage to hit “publish.” I fear my message coming across the wrong way, I fear other photographers rolling their eyes, I fear sounding over-dramatic, but I’ve seen others talk in-depth about the topic and do so gracefully… so I know that it can be done. I also know that this message needs to reach my immediate tribe of people. I can’t assume you’ll thumb through the archives of business bloggers I follow and find this information for yourself, which is why I have to write it. This isn’t something exclusive to photographers, this is happening in all fields. It’s my honest hope that this post shows you a bit of my heart and opens your eyes to the reality of many creative industry professionals. I want to help you understand something important…so here I go!

I started my photography business five years ago because it was something that I loved. I loved the idea of freedom from corporate America, freedom to make my own schedule, freedom to serve people in a different way, freedom to fulfill a part of my heart that longs to create, and the thought of getting paid to do so fit nicely into the puzzle. I knew there would be a time for building, a time for offering my services at a lower rate, but I also knew that with time people would start to see me as a proper business. What I didn’t see coming was the vast amount of people and companies that would still view my job as a bargaining tool, five years later.

As a photographer, I’m part of an extremely collaborative industry, regularly working with other professionals and businesses to create mutually beneficial content for those involved. This is a portion of my business that I love! I love to network with other people, I love to create together, I find value in working with people to elevate the industry. I love the opportunity to give back and to give generously to people, to my church, or donate my time to a cause I believe in! But the tricky part is, I want the freedom to decide when and where to do so.   

I get it. Everyone is a photographer these days and with the quick click of a button, voila! A beautiful picture comes to life. In fact, I bet your smart phone takes a better picture than your digital camera does! Perhaps this is where the disconnect between people and professional photographers happens. The lines become fuzzy and this very thing makes our job “look easy,” so it must be no problem for us to volunteer our services. 

It becomes a very tough road to navigate when I receive requests from well-intentioned friends, family, or other professionals asking me to do my job for free or discount my rates. I get asked to exchange my work or discount my services for promises of exposure! and referrals! and I’ll buy your dinner! and photo credit! and and and!

Friends…I really, truly love what I do for work. But the truth is, I don’t want to work for free and I don’t think you do either. I recently watched a video by Jon Acuff that did a beautiful job of explaining this very concept. The last time I tried to pay my phone bill by promising to refer all of my friends and family to AT&T, it didn’t work! Turns out they don’t take referrals and exposure in exchange for cellular data, they just take real money ;). Hopefully you see the humor in this. It’s crazy to think about trying something like this with any business, don’t you think? This seems to be the expectation however, for a lot of creative industry professionals. For whatever reason our industry has become a negotiable one with a “will work for free” sign on our foreheads.

It isn’t abnormal to exchange business with people. It’s actually a beautiful thing that I love to be part of! Some of the best friendships that I have, have come from collaboration with other businesses. It’s more about understanding the proper way to approach the matter and doing so with grace. If you’ve ever asked a photographer to give you a discount or work for free, don’t feel bad! You truly didn’t intend to devalue them and their business, I know this and I’m not shaking my finger at you. But I hope you understand better now that our jobs are as real as yours. My photography business pays our bills, it allows us to gift our family with Christmas presents, and just like your job, it’s how I make a living. It becomes exhausting trying to prove your worth over and over, and I don’t think any business owner should have to do so. 

There is a large community of my friends and family that do value and support what I do, and to those people I thank you. This post is for a select few; the ones that may have never considered any of this, the ones that truly didn’t realize, the ones who needed a little reminder. This is your opportunity to change your mindset and help support your friends and family in their craft by (gasp) paying them! This is true across the board, in all fields…not just photography. Please friends, value the work you see your friends and family doing. Understand the sensitivity of this topic when approaching them and don’t assume you get the “homie hook-up,” or “family deal.” Give them the opportunity to be generous with their talents. Don’t make them dread doing what they love. I know this might be hard to digest, but it’s the honest truth and I hope you receive it with an open heart!

…Deep sigh :)

  • Jay Farrell - Well said, and I agree. But it’s how creatives treat their craft and business that dictates how others perceive it’s value. I am glad to see more standing up for it.ReplyCancel

  • dj - I respect your wishes. I also am a photographer and believe photography is an art. The term “starving artist” is not just cliche. To ever have the hope of making a decent living in this industry you have to go “all-in” and be prepared to tighten your belt. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great book about this called “Outliers”. Based on his best selling theory, if you are currently spending all your current time and effort in photography, then you only have 5 more years to be at the top of your field and really able to be the best at what you do. Only then will the public be willing to pay you your true worth. It will be easier because you won’t rely on your family, business associates, and friends to sustain you. Great ideas here, I just feel you need some more time completely engaged in the art. The money will find you. Best wishes.ReplyCancel

  • Bruna - Love love love this!ReplyCancel

  • Jackie Willard - Well done and written very well!ReplyCancel

  • Carmen Salazar Photography - bravo girl!ReplyCancel

  • Erika Hartford Becht - Beautifully written.ReplyCancel

  • Haley Schell Christiansen - Well written post, and it took a lot of courage to write something like this. Thank you for sharing your heart and for helping folks see that value in what you do!ReplyCancel

  • Kayla Yestal - Love love love this! Written respectfully and thoughtfully! Well done!ReplyCancel

  • Eileen Eich Ran - Well said, as a hair stylist, I can completely relate to what you are talking about;)ReplyCancel

  • Jacqueline Richards Glover - People expect that of all artists. Well said.ReplyCancel

  • Christina Scalera - Agreed. Which is why I pay my friends. Or at least try.ReplyCancel

  • Jillian - THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! You’re courage is inspiring! We are a “new” business and week and week we have continual influx of people asking to do work for free/trade. It’s frustrating and upsetting but the day will come when we post a post like this. Sharing with others the struggle of creative entrepreneurs and free/trade work is a MUST! Thank you for putting this out there!!ReplyCancel

  • Alisia Mellors - I feel your pain all the time. Well said.ReplyCancel

  • Kaley Ridge - So well written. Thank you for putting so many of my own feelings into words.ReplyCancel

  • Amberlee Christey - This is perfect!ReplyCancel

  • Joanne Bungay - Beautifully written and good for people to remember when they are charging for services too- there is no shame in asking for a fair price for your skill!ReplyCancel

  • Tyler Shearer - Being a fellow creative I agree with you full heartily. The thing that people don’t see is the gamble and risk to try push ourselves above all the other photographer. Maxing out credit cards to get that next lens or light and then hoping to book a few weddings the next month to pay off that bill and put food on the table.

    To add to your awesome post, if you hire a photographer pay them on time. Photographers live job to job and chasing down money so we can pay are personal bills. There has to be a sense of respect, a sense of appreciation to creatives because they earned the right to charge what they asked because of their experience and talent.

    Love your post. Keep up the good work!ReplyCancel

  • Kayla Perry Marcum - Love it!ReplyCancel

  • Sharon Crowe - Well done Alice you have worked hard.ReplyCancel

  • Cheryl Jones - Very well written… And so true!! As one that uses their creativity to pay bills – I know this too well.
    Thank you- HUGS!!ReplyCancel

  • LaVern Drollette - It works with sewing too. I love what I do……but don’t ask me to do it for FREE.ReplyCancel

  • Patricia Barker Warford - Bravo!!!!ReplyCancel

  • Fonda Lawana Martin - Walk around with a photographer at a wedding and your awareness and appreciation of what they do will more than double. It is more than a day’s work. I did this and I’m glad I did! I personally was worn out. LOL. Thank you photographers for doing what you love and giving others priceless treasures.ReplyCancel

  • Mandi Mitchell - Perfectly said!ReplyCancel

  • Rachel Lidster - Im a small home based Cake Decorating Business and have the same issues xxxx Perfectly put in a way every one can understand , Very well said xxzReplyCancel

  • Michelle Toner - Bravo. Well said.ReplyCancel

  • Elizabeth Cherevaty - Well said. It’s very similar in health care. Thank you for sharing.ReplyCancel

  • Colleen Charles - Good for you. I’ve published a few things on my business page about my cake business and often wonder if people think it’s a bitch fest….it’s not. It’s trying to get people to understand that just because you work from home, doesn’t mean that it’s not a ‘real job’ and you need to get paid for your work…just like they do at their ‘real job’.
    Owner at SweetCakes and CheeseCakesReplyCancel

  • Andi Tormohlen Willis - I’m a professional organizer and have had this happen several times. No, I don’t want to trade my valuable time for jewelry. One of the benefits of being a self employed entrepreneur is the ability to choose who to offer free or discounted services to. Thank you for expressing this so eloquently.ReplyCancel

  • Jill Robson - Well said!! Thank you for putting into words what all of us who have our own businesses have felt at one time or another.ReplyCancel

  • Jenny Martin - I’m reminded of this quote, “May my heart be kind, my mind fierce & my spirit brave” you’re incredibly talented & your photos are beautiful. You’re worth every cent. Proud of you, friend.ReplyCancel

  • Beth Dryden - Very well said… I am a graphic designer and have this issue as so many of us do. Thanks for posting.ReplyCancel

  • Sherrie A Smith - Thank you for sharing this well thought and well written post. I am a Professional Pet Sitter & Dog Walker, I have been in business for 13 years and this is something that is pervasive in my industry. Your thoughts and perspective resonate with many service related industries. Thank you again!ReplyCancel

  • Latisha Willis - I LOVE this. Thank you so much. I am so guilty of writing the whiny, complaining Facebook vent with regard to this issue. Thank you for communicating this in a way it could be easily digested by those who need to read it.ReplyCancel

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