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Imagine our world void of commercial art. What would Time’s Square be like without images? Vogue Magazine without photography? Toys and clothing without licensed characters? What value does artwork hold for those making millions of dollars from the sales of these products?

Working as a graphic designer for 15 years, and as a photographer for the last 5, I’ve more often than not felt underpaid, undervalued, absolutely replaceable and, in fact, completely worthless to the world at large. Art is subjective, and since everyone with a camera and photoshop fancies themselves a photographer or designer these days, there is more than enough supply to satisfy the demand of our image saturated society. Add millions of aspiring artists, many genuinely talented and skilled, so desperate to follow their passion that they’ll work for free, and we find ourselves at the very bottom of the food chain.

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I remember being so disillusioned after finishing art school because I couldn’t find any jobs offering more than $9 per hour for my skills. Why did I bother going to school? Even today, with over a decade of legitimate industry experience, I’m constantly asked and expected to give my services for free or very low cost, often with the promise of “exposure” for my business or for the benefit of the community. The annoying thing is, I’m the kind of person who really likes to help others, and has a very hard time saying “no”. I don’t want to disappoint you. I want you to like me (keeping this character trait in mind, maybe you’ll be nice when leaving comments at the end of this article. Pretty please?)

I’m five years into my portrait business without ever having made a profit. Now, this can largely be chalked up to bad business sense (Ugh! I just want to be an artist!) and the fact that I spend the majority of my time being a mom these days, but it still annoys me that people even have the audacity to ask, and usually at the very last minute (“Hey, Tanya, we have a charity event tonight, on Christmas Eve, and forgot to get a Photographer. Can you come do it for free? It’s for a really good cause.” OMG).

How many other professionals would you ask to work for free? What value would my work hold for the success of your event or campaign? How many benefits are you receiving from the work I’m willing to give to you? Trust me, I’ve never gotten one ounce of “exposure” or leads from photographing an event for free. In fact, in most of these situations I’ve not even been given proper credit for the images when they were published.

And can you guess why? I gave my time for free, and therefore it was not valued. Which do you value and remember more…a free sample from Costco or a $50 steak dinner at a luxury hotel?

So, this year I’ve been saying “no” a lot more. I’ve raised my portrait and commercial photography prices to at least allow me to break even (Oy! I need a business manager) and refuse to be devalued. You see, the first step to creating value for your work is to acknowledge the value of it yourself. Are you worth it? Are you good at what you do? Then don’t do it for free!

There are a few exceptions to that rule for me. If the work will enrich me personally, build a relationship or contribute to a cause I deeply care about, then I’m willing to give of my time, talent and skill. This was the case for my recent trip to Jamaica, photo documenting humanitarian aid projects with an incredible organization called Great Shape!, Inc.

Why did I break my newly rock solid rule of not working for free?

1. Personal enrichment

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I realize donating my time for personal enrichment sounds incredibly selfish, but I feel personal development is so key to being a better wife, mother, friend, artist and overall human being, that it’s practically a necessary part of giving back. You can’t save anyone else if you don’t put your oxygen mask on first.

To say my trip to Negril was life changing would be an understatement. I experienced a full gamut of emotions during the 10 day absence from my family. From relief for not having to worry about changing diapers, to heart wrenching longing to kiss my babies goodnight. From annoyance for having to sleep on an uncomfortable roll-away bed without air conditioning, to extreme gratitude for the incredibly comfortable life I lead back home with my indoor plumbing and wall to wall carpeting. From fear of being assaulted and having my camera gear stollen in the Newark NJ airport during an 8 hour layover in the middle of the night, to the most incredibly empowering knowledge that I can travel across the country by myself without incident.

You can’t put a price on confidence. You can’t measure the value of perspective. You can’t purchase love and affection…

2. Relationships matter

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Who would you be more willing to help out…a random panhandler on the street (who might be scamming you!) or a friend you’ve known for years who has proven to be trustworthy and makes you feel important and cared for and worth something? Someone who sings your praises and tells others how amazing you are. Someone who builds you up and acknowledges your value.

Well that’s a no-brainer. Of course you’ll help your friend! And that happened to be the case for me and this project. Lucinda Kay, the communications director for Great Shape!, Inc, just happens to be my friend and does all of those things I mentioned. When she asked me to go with them and take pictures, how could I say no????? Karma is real, folks. When you genuinely give, you will get back. Just make sure you’re not giving and giving and giving to people who suck the life out of you. Because then you will die…or at least become very bitter.

3. Contributing to a greater cause

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Three sisters founded Great Shape!, Inc. in the ’80’s after a hurricane, when they brought duffle bags full of supplies to aide those affected. Over 20 years later they’ve organized the largest dental and vision humanitarian projects in the world, as well as a literacy and computer training program for teachers in rural areas of Jamaica.

Georgene Crow, one of the sisters, told me she felt like Jamaica was home the first time she visited. While I didn’t feel that kind of connection with Jamaica in particular (I felt that way in Hawaii, though. Karma, are you listening???), the cause Great Shape!, Inc. is working for, helping those in need, and with such a joyous spirit, speaks to me. It’s something I want to be involved with. It’s a collective effort so much larger than myself and what I could do alone. I don’t feel part of a collaborative effort on a daily basis as a house wife and small business owner. In fact, I feel incredibly alone in those two roles. This project filled me. So much so that I wished I was either independently wealthy or actually getting paid for the work, so I could do it all the time.

4. Consider the artistic community

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I’d like to add one more reason you should seriously consider before giving away your services. It goes back to the beginning of this article where I talk about supply, demand and expectation. You see, when you give your valuable skill away for free, it lowers the value for everyone else. So, if you don’t value your own work, at least consider the artistic community as a whole before you ruin it for everyone. Sadly, I think it may be too late, but maybe we can make a change moving forward…

Should artists ever work for free? It depends. I’ve worked out my rules for deciding when I will give of my time, do you have yours?

To find out more about my trip to Jamaica, read How I Changed the World (and Myself) with Photography at SLR Lounge. To find out more about volunteering with Great Shape!, Inc. visit http://www.gsjamaica.org.

 

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