Free: without charge, for nothing, complimentary, gratis, at no cost

Free is a very loaded word. It implies that something didn’t cost anything.

However, products do not appear out of thin air. YOU might have got something for free financially. But somewhere along the road SOMEONE, probably multiple people, did pay for it. With time, effort, expertise, labour, the material things that turn it into a product. With power and resources. From their own pockets. Perhaps with their wellbeing. All of those things have a monetary implication for someone. And if it’s not monetary, it might well be emotional or physical.

Over on my Twitter feed not so long ago there was a heated debate about writing. It concerned writers not being paid. It’s the old ‘time for’ argument. And largely it’s exactly the same problem that’s going on in the photography and fashion sectors. It’s a story that never gets old. I imagine the problem is just as bad in front of the keyboard as it is behind the camera. I am also a writer. But it is for the most part a supplement to other things I do, and I never expect to get paid for it.

The advice of course came from a writer who IS being paid and the only work she does for ‘free’ (or so she tells us) is for herself via her own blog which is a sideline of her career and her way of advertising herself. Her strapline in her argument was that:

‘…if your work is worth something to someone, let them pay for it.’

If only it were that simple. She suggests that anyone not paying for time and, we suppose, getting sub-standard freebies will ultimately go under (she is primarily refering to content websites and publishers). That, in the photography world, we of course know not to be true.

Some of the most talented people I know make their art gratis (I mean the whole team not just the photographer). Which makes the challenge of being paid for your high standards ultimately very very difficult. Your work does not always speak for itself when it comes to the bottom line. Because there are an inordinate number of people willing to scrimp on quality to fill page space. I see it every day. I am sure you do too.

I totally agree with what she says of course. But professionals, people who are running businesses, are being undercut all the time by those who seemingly don’t need to be paid, often because they have day jobs. Which are of course supplementing what they SHOULD be doing as their paid job anyway. Therein lies the Catch 22. It happens to photographers, models, fashion brands etc etc. I realise I am a part of the problem as well as the victim of it. It’s a vicious cycle. And I don’t see a way to challenge it where money is the guiding factor and where the market is so saturated. I am just thankful I make enough to survive and I love what I do.

And I can’t help feeling that simply refusing to work for anything other than money just doesn’t work in the creative sector. It never has. It is not that simplistic. True creativity is not driven by money. It is driven by desire. To suggest that ‘if your work has value, charge. If you don’t think it has value, you shouldn’t be offering it at all’ does not balance because those with a profit margin are always looking to increase it by reducing outgoings and those who are creative will create.

The key is how others view your skills and whether or not they value you enough to pay for your time. It’s also about disposable imcome, because if you have none you will see what you can get gratis to enable you to keep creating. Creating is a state of mind, not a 9-5. You will find a way to do it, if that’s what you do.

The arts of course, are always stretched to the last penny. Whether you are looking at Joe Bloggs with his camera working from his spare bedroom or the culture section of your local council that only functions because of its volunteer sector. Even our high end fashion magazines are notorious for getting images ‘free’ because ‘you should be grateful for the press’. Of course, everyone falls for that. No, really they do. But online publishing is not a tangible product. It doesn’t feel like an achievement. It’s not a glossy magazine in your hand.

If today, you stopped doing your creative work for less than your hourly rate (presuming you have one), how much art would you make? Be honest. Of course, if everyone stopped doing anything for free, eventually people would have to pay. And then clients would only pick the best. Do you see where I’m going with this? But that doesn’t happen in the real world does it?

‘If you agree to work for free, you perpetuate the message that working in the arts isn’t ‘real’ work.’

I agree with this statement too. But you cannot stop someone else offering their services for free because they simply enjoy it as a hobby. And I suppose hobbyists versus professionals is the problem here. And that there is no industry legislation to stop just anyone from setting up as a photographer, or doing a bit of modelling for fun at the weekends. And to be honest, for those of us ‘trying’ to make a living out of it, these people represent valuable assistance. Because if at any point I do earn enough to pay teams, I know who I’ll be paying first. You know who you are.

You just can’t simply refuse to work, because noone will notice. It’s a saturated market. If I closed down my business tomorrow, very few people would care. Even less would notice. So the argument is really a non argument. Of course, I couldn’t get that across. We all move in different worlds. And where our writer friend has made a success of not doing anything for free, so many of us will struggle to make anything from it at all.



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