7.22.2010

The one instance in which working for free is justified.

Lou.  In the studio.  Scanned from a print.  

I wrote this because I read John Harrington's post on the perils of working for free and then I read Don Giannatti's rejoinder to John's post and then Don and I went back and forth a few times in semi-private and I thought, "Oh, what the hell?  Let's start at the core and work out from there."  What John is essentially saying is that any time you work for free, regardless of the reason, you are devaluing the whole industry of commercial photography (photography done to make a living....).  What Don is saying, in a nutshell is that John has used too wide a brush to paint his arguments and that there are indeed times when working for free is okay.  

When I pressed Don a bit (maybe I'm a lousy reader) we came to a clarification:  It's okay to work for free if it's something you want to do, you initiate the photo because of your desire and you get tangible benefits as a result of your work.  Maybe it's the access to shoot someone you admire.  But the important thing in Don's point of view boils down to this:  If they (potential client) call YOU then THEY pay.  If you call them and want something from them then maybe YOU pay in some way but you win something too.

Well.  I agree with both of them but then my head started hurting so I laid down on the couch with my dog and took a nap.  When I woke up I decided NOT to think of all the shades of gray entailed in Don's approach or the high contrast blacks and whites of John's post.  I decided to start out easy with one example and then, after I write this, head back to the couch and re-nap.

Here's the one time I'm sure it's okay to do work for free:

I was sitting at a coffee shop on the main drag in front of the University of Texas at Austin, wasting time, thinking about business and wondering how I could do more portraits that were in the style I wanted instead of having to do them in the style that clients of the moment demanded.  I'm pretty sure I was drinking drip coffee because I've never really developed a taste for milky, espresso based coffee drinks.  I know I was at a place called, Quackenbush's Intergalactic Coffee Bar and Bakery because that was one of the early and magnificent Austin independent coffee houses.  They had lots of tables and their cakes and pastries were pretty good too.  I did a lot of reading and thinking there.

Anyway,  just as I was bemoaning my own lack of initiative and spunk, and wishing I could shoot more fun stuff and giving myself the excuse that I just didn't have access to the right people, I looked up and say the most beautiful young woman I had ever seen.  Amazingly beautiful.  Not in a "hot goddess/garage glamor" sort of way but a refined, sophisticated, perfect Audrey Hepburn sort of way.  I remember her light gray corduroy pants, her rough, deep blue sweater with a white shirt collar peeking over the top.  And a look for brilliance in her eyes.

At the time, she was 18 and I was about 36. For a moment I processed all the reasons why a beautiful young girl would not possibly want to entertain an invitation for photography from a stranger twice her age.  Then, because I sensed this was an turning point of some kind for me as an artist,  I wrestled up the courage to walk up to her, hand her my business card and roughly outline what I wanted.  Which was the chance to make a portrait of her.  Nothing else.  

Now, this was before the age of the web, and so there were no ready references I could send her to which would vouch for my skills and intentions.  The best I could do was to provide a reference from a female art director at a well respected magazine.  I'd done my best.  I could only wait.

In a few days I got a phone call from Lou.  She agreed to come to my studio and pose for an image.  A portrait.  Her payment would be whatever prints she would like from the shoot.  From the first moment every frame was something wonderful to me.  We worked together on and off for the entire four years she was going to school in Austin.  I used her commercially for a magazine cover, an industrial video, and a bunch of print projects and all these were paid gigs for both of us but all the images that we did for my portfolio were done for fun and art.

If the assignment was commercial I paid her for her time and usage.  If it was for me I paid her in prints.  When my kid was born she was our first baby sitter.  If everyone were as beautiful, kind, smart and funny I'd be working for free for an awfully long time.  The benefits to me?  She made me look better than I was as an artist.  The images we made together opened doors for me.  The friendship was wonderful.  The memory of making the images is a treasure.  Who would have paid me for all this?

If you feel passionate about photographing someone or something you find a way to do it.  Not everything can or needs to be "monetized".

The rest of the hypothetical scenarios are just that.  Life is short.  You make your own roadmaps.  You decide.

You might want to do some reading about the business..............