When asked to work for free or cheap, negotiate up or turn the gig down
By Brooke Anderson, Freelance Member, Guild Freelancers
I am a photographer. Or, at least on the good days I feel confident saying that. I delight in documenting the raw energy and hope of the social movements of our times. When I don’t have a camera in hand, I still dream in light, shadow, color, lines, angles, and faces. And, just to complicate things, photography is also one of the several ways I pay the bills.
A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from a representative of a large publisher with a net worth of billions of dollars requesting that I send them a high resolution version of one of my photos for an upcoming book. For free. If you’re also a freelance photographer (or creative of any variety), you’ve likely gotten these emails, too.
I considered immediately deleting it, or maybe responding politely with my reprint fees as though I hadn’t even noticed that they had asked me to work for free (because, seriously, who would do that?) But I was angry. It was so unfair. Here’s an excerpt of my response:
Maybe you think the photo should be free because if you’d been there, you could’ve shot the same image on your iPhone? Except that you weren’t there and you didn’t get the shot, and even if you had, it wouldn’t be of professional quality. Being in the right place at the right time actually takes time, resources, and relationships. Not to mention the thousands of hours practicing, studying, and developing my craft, and many more thousands of dollars on equipment that makes my images shine.
Sending you the photo requires time spent searching my files, retouching the photo, exporting it with requested settings, uploading it, signing contracts, sending invoices. Even explaining this to you takes precious time that I could otherwise spend shooting, editing, writing, or maybe just getting much needed rest.
It’s ironic that I am asking you for money because, I actually hate money. Or rather, I hate the economic system in which we must monetize our time and talents in order to pay rent. But your business exists in that system. So if you’re going to profit off of my work, I’m going to get paid.
I am not the first photographer to write about how infuriating it is to be asked to work for free. Other cultural workers have penned pieces on this, from rapper Kiwi Illafonte to artists Favianna Rodriguez and Julio Salgado to the graphic designers behind the No Spec page.
As freelance photographers, we face many challenges. There is no steady or guaranteed income. We spend almost as much time chasing work as practicing our craft. There are no vacation days, health care benefits, workers comp or a retirement plan. We find ourselves basically running a small business with none of the legal, accounting, or financial management skills to do so. We often work in isolation, while pitted against each other in a race-to-the-bottom bidding war to get the gig, scared that if we demand the true cost of our services, we’ll be undercut by another photographer and lose the client.
As the prevalence of cell phone cameras has increased and the price of quality cameras has decreased, suddenly everyone is a photographer. While I actually encourage everyone in my life to take photos (“it’s about learning to see, not about the equipment you own,” I preach), it becomes a problem for professional photographers when people who don’t rely on photography for their income give away their photos for free because “it’s good exposure,” taking business away from those of us who do rely on selling our work.
When potential clients turn to volunteer photographers, the hammer falls hardest on the most vulnerable photographers (women, people of color, working class, newbies), which deepens existing gender, social and racial income inequalities.
So how do we, as freelance photographers, go from competitors to collaborators?
It’s harder for freelances to organize for our labor rights than traditional workers who share a fixed workplace. And yet, freelance, subcontracted, and misclassified workers are getting organized and winning the wages and respect that they deserve — from domestic workers to Uber drivers. If they can do it, so can we.
Here are three actions that freelance photographers can take to “get together to get ahead”:
1. Value your time and talent. Don’t work for free or cheap. When you get asked to do something for free, or substantially less than your time is worth, either negotiate up or turn it down. If you have a hard time asserting your own self worth, think about it as defending standards for others. I’ve often told clients, “It is important to me as a working and union photographer not to accept rates that drive down standards for other photographers, many of whom are more reliant on their craft than I am.”
If you don’t know how to much to charge, you are not alone. The lack of transparency about rates is one of the things that keeps rates low. Ask other photographers what they charge for similar work. And never, ever agree to scab (do work that would otherwise be done by union members) when staff photographers are on strike.
2. Build community while developing your skills. Cut through the isolation of freelancing by meeting other freelance photographers. A great way to do this is by participating in events offered by the freelance unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Our next one is a “Know Your Rights for Photographers” workshop on Sept. 14 in Oakland. The mission is to help photojournalists who interact with police understand their rights. Can a police officer confiscate my camera or images? Can the courts subpoena my images? How far away from the scene can police move press? What rights does a press pass grant? We’ll hear from lawyers, first amendment experts, staff and freelance photographers.
3. Join the union. If you haven’t yet, join the Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA Local 39521, AFL-CIO. Benefits include: vision and dental coverage, press passes, workshops and free trainings through Lynda.com. The union, however, is more than a series of benefits. It is a way to join together with other freelancers to defend our rights and collectively advance an agenda of fair pay, good benefits, creative control, fairness and respect. To join the union, visit Guild Freelancers.
Brooke Anderson is a freelance photographer based in the Bay Area, covering movements for social, economic, racial, and climate justice. Among other places, her images have appeared in such publications as YES! Magazine, Oakland Post, East Bay Express, San Francisco Magazine, and North Bay Bohemian. She is a proud union member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA 39521. Her work can be found online at movementphotographer.com.