Sunday, August 28, 2011

Why No to Free Photography Means No

Words of Wisdom from UK photographer, Tony Sleep, published on his web page. To say I agree with and endorse everything Tony says on this subject would be an understatement.

I lifted Tony's message and pasted it below. Hopefully, he won't mind. He's an English guy, BTW, so the spelling and some of the word usage might seem linguistically un-American. Trust me. You'll still comprehend the gist of it, if not the entire message he's communicating.

Tony writes: I receive an average of 2 proposals a week from people who have "no budget" for photographs. Book publishers, magazines, newspapers, charities, corporates and start-ups nowadays all believe that photos are cost free, or that they are doing me a favour by offering to use my work and giving me a byline.

I no longer reply to such inquiries except by linking to this text.

Let's be clear about a few things:

"No budget" is a euphemism for "we think photographers are mugs". This offensive interpretation can easily be verified by trying the phrase at your local restaurant, e.g., "I have no budget for dinner but I'd like to eat". Adding a promise to tell all your friends where you ate will not deflect your head from the curb as the manager throws you out.

Now imagine being a restaurant where most people who come through the door try this on. The answer is NO, and I am being excessively polite.

If you didn't really mean it and your "no budget" claim was just an opening bid, the answer is still NO. I want nothing to do with greedy opportunists who try to commence a negotiation with a lie. You have already demonstrated you cannot be trusted. You probably won't be honest about usage, and will try not to pay.

And if you were one of those promising lots of better, paid work later if only I can help you out now, offer a contract else I'll know you're talking bullshit and the answer is of course NO.

You see I don't want your stinking "exposure", I want mutually beneficial, productive relationships with clients. I try to behave with integrity, honesty and fairness, and I expect clients will do likewise. Exposure is the end of that process, not a means. Similarly with bylines. I don't require applause earned by being a sucker. If free matters more than good, ask someone else.

Like most people I work because I need to pay bills and support myself, my work and my family. The fact that I love what I do is why I have spent 40 years persevering whilst going without stuff most people take for granted. Vocation is not an invitation to disrespect.

Unsurprisingly I will not support parasitic business models that rely on exploiting photography, or me, to extinction. With very rare exceptions (small charities run by unpaid volunteers that I choose to support) I have no budget for subsidizing other peoples' work and profitability. Supporting my own is next to impossible thanks to the current vogue for passing off exploitation as opportunity.

When I can afford it, I will drop a few quid into a charity box or give to a homeless person on the street. I regularly work for charities at a discounted rate. I look after baby birds that have fallen out of nests. I am a generous, kind and loving human being. But I make an exception for salaried beggars who ask me to stuff a bundle of tenners in their pocket. They just piss me off. Especially when they insult me by telling me my life's work is jolly nice but worthless.

I have had the most amazing conversations with numerous chancers who think decent photos are just some sort of serendipity that they should be entitled to freely earn off because electrons don't cost much. One woman, a CEO of a £3.3m/yr organisation, explained that they like to use photos on their website because readers tell them that images communicate on a more accessible level than the text she commissions from her paid writers. So the value of photos was not in question. But she could not understand that perhaps she ought to use some of her £160,000 year website budget (I looked up their accounts on the web) to pay for photos. She could not understand that the photo she wanted to use only existed because I had invested time and money and learning in creating it. "Most photographers are happy to let us use their work for free". Oh no they aren't. They just didn't go and look at her accounts and see that this woman was on £66k a year salary and ask why she didn't work for the same rate she was shamelessly demanding.

Supply without payment is, of course, only viable for hobbyist photographers who don't need an income from their photography. They have salaried jobs, pensions or private incomes, or perhaps suicidal romantic tendencies. I do not. They have a selfish attitude to destroying the sustainability of photography as a profession which they call "beating the pro's at their own game". Moreover a byline might appeal to their idiot vanity. I suggest you ask one of them. Alternatively find a new graduate or student to exploit - they are desperate and naive and you have the opportunity to add to their crippling student debt by saving yourself a few quid.

If all this means you can't source the images you want, that is just tough. I can't source free cameras, computers, software, food, housing, fuel, either. If it's all so damn easy and cheap, go and make your own photos.

If all this offends you, best stay away from mirrors too.

Yeah. What Tony said.

The freckled-faced smoker at the top is Faye. It's one I captured in a just-for-fun photo session we did last year. I don't mind working for free when the work isn't work and I'm doing it just for grins and giggles. Enjoying a bit of foto-fun when it's with someone like Faye is an added bonus.


Ed Araquel said...

Funny, I received such an email last week from a publicist in Beverly Hills. I wondered if she was working for free as well. :-)

Nick Muzik said...

Well put!

Ed Verosky said...

The frustration is understandable. But if Canon and Nikon were giving away their gear for free, it would be hard for me to decline the offer.

They are not, of course, so their business model is intact.

Anonymous said...

I'm a surveyor and I can not believe the number of people calling me, ask me to spend time finding their old job file in my records and then to make a copy and could I sign & seal it. When I tell them I don't work for free they're put off, then I ask them how they earn their income. Occasionally I'll give a break on my fees to the truly needed; charities often. People just want something that is on paper for what they value the sheet of paper. They don't want to pay for all the work that goes into creating that sheet of paper. Whether it be a photograph, map or other intellectual document.

jimmyd said...

@Anon the Surveyor-- My theory its been the web that has created this "expectation of free" attitude. Because so much has been, and continues to be, pirated on the web, and then offered for free, many now think that's the norm and that all kinds of services and things should be free or near-free, on and off the web. Unfortunately, there's more than a few people, for whatever reasons, willing to oblige those who want things for free or near-free... you know, like photographers.

Daniel Fisher said...

Love this article!

I got a similar email from a designer last week "come and shoot for our website for free.... it'll be great exposure for you"


You'll make a packet from sales resulting from my images and I'll get squat!

God it pisses me off.

chuck said...

I will be including a link to this blog with my replies to future "will you work for free?" emails.

jimmyd said...

@Chuck: :-)