Should I work for free or give away photos for free?

Article Dedication

In honor of

Jane Evelyn Atwood & Raymond Depardon


Taken in part from my forthcoming artists’ book:

Presenting Photography to Curators and Museums

Selection from 'Bikers' Mardi Gras' artists' book by Daniel D. Teoli Jr.

A perennial question on the photo forums / blogs is…

“Should I work for free or give away photos for free?”

Well, unless you are loaded with $ and have no use for it – then by all means sell your work and services. But, that question is not answered by the photog, it is best answered by the marketplace. Either you can make a go of being a pro photog or not.

There are plenty of photogs that earn a decent living from their photography. If you have to ask the ‘work for free’ question then you must not be one of them. This could be because your not trying hard enough, not talented enough, not well connected, just starting out, your market is wrong for you or for some other reason.

Whatever the cause, if you can’t sell your work or services, then the marketplace has spoken and your question is answered.

Many of the greats of photography did not have it easy. Here is some background on W. Eugene Smith’s life. When he died he had $18 in the bank.

Other photogs become wealthy from their work. Just depends on the photog.

For the photog that is not making it big…

At one point in history there was a lack of jobs for buggy whip makers. If they didn’t move on to a new occupation, they starved. Sure, a handful of buggy whip makers may have survived, but they all could not survive in that trade. Same goes for photogs. Some may make a good living, but many aspiring pro’s don’t.

As long as the electric stays on I don’t foresee anything positive in this discussion changing for the average photog…I see it only getting worse. Generic photography will continue to be devalued as hordes of photogs gradually realize there is no commercial outlet for their work and they just keep putting millions and millions of images out there for free.

Only you can decide how much of your time you want to spend in continuing to beat your head against the wall if you are not successful at your quest.

Personally, I’ve worked on projects for almost a year full time, investing nearly $15,000 of my own money in it…and I failed to even give it away for free. The projects were landmark and had outstanding content. If you’ve seen my work you know I don’t sign my name to garbage.

But that is how it can be with art. Lots of rejection, so get used to it if you aspire to be an artist. Don’t take any of it personally, you have to suck it up and move onto the next project…or don’t be an artist.

The market knows that generic photography is cheap. On LinkedIn companies are always posting shoot for free jobs. Here are some recent listings:

Storytellers International
Volunteer: Social Media for Documentary Film

Carolina Animal Rescue and Adoption
Volunteer: Pet Photographer for Animal Shelter

Taproot Foundation
Volunteer Photographer – Los Angeles

Girl Scouts Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas
Volunteer: GS Summer Camp Volunteer – Photographer

Kasie Helpz Kidz Inc.
Volunteer: Videographer and Photographer Needed

Volunteer Photography for Playworks Massachusetts

Back in the early 1970’s, when I was interested in becoming a commercial photog I used to solicit established photogs to work for free as an assistant. One photog told me he got dozens of calls every week from aspiring photogs wishing to work for free to learn the ropes. Obviously he could be very choosy in filling his 1 or 2 assistant jobs with all the work for free applicants he had. From what I recall, after calling photogs ‘A to Z’ in the L.A. Yellow Pages for 1-1/2 years , I was able to work for 2 days as an assistant for free. Crazy…isn’t it?

Artists’ have a long history of doing their art for free, even if no one will pay for it. If you have not seen this series, I suggest you do so. You can get it from your library.

Whether painter, draftsman, photog, writer, musician, sculptor, actor or poet, artists use their art as a way to see, interpret and make sense of their world. If they are a true artist, they will do their art for free…just for the therapy value. The Jazz series will give you an excellent rundown of the trials and tribulations facing many an artist when it comes down to making $ from their art.

In 2015 the unfortunate reality for the photog is this…

The world is polluted with images. Generic photography has never been more worthless in our society. In 2016 there will be an estimated 2 billion cell phone cams out there. Sure everyone with a smart phone can’t produce great work. But even so, there is no shortage of decent photographs out there. Even toddlers can produce nice pix. (As was in the news recently, even a monkey can do it and outdid a dedicated human photog.)

Most photogs have an unrealistic worth of their pix and self-worth. Pretty pix are a dime a dozen…or even free.

Do we really need any more flower pix?? 1-1/4 million+ flower photos – just in this one pool. Tens of millions more flower pix out there. Can you even look at a fraction of them?

Sunsets? Almost a million…tons of other sunset groups out there with millions more sunset pix.

If this group had 10 million sunsets pix would that stop you from shooting another sunset? What about 100 million sunsets? Reality and practicality don’t seem to enter the picture when the subject is making pictures and producing art

You see, none of this matters if freezing time is in your blood. If your dedicated to your art, you must produce and keep producing, whether you have an outlet or not to make $…or even have any practical use for your output. Irrespective of recognition, fame and riches, we all have one thing in common…as long as we can keep pressing the button and freeze time, we fell the better for it.

Weegee on the subject…

“Sure. I’d like to live regular. Go home to a good looking wife, a hot dinner, and a husky kid. But I got film in my blood.”

In this post I discuss a gallery exercise for you to do. It is taken in part from my forthcoming artists’ book: Presenting Photography to Curators and Museums. You will soon find out the answer of ‘your worth’ when it comes to your pix. Give it a try.

If I was the photog out there battling the $ question I would be more concerned about my photos dying with me, and not having an afterlife, than be worried about putting them to use for free. If you don’t want to share your work for free, then hoard it and make no use of it other than for personal use.

Personally, I put my photos to use whenever and wherever they can be used. Money never enters my decision. If I had to ask the question of how much can I get for a photo before I press the button I’d be sunk. If I have to solicit model releases from everyone in my photos, photography would be just impossible for me.

Money only comes to play when the question of funding a photo project comes up. A policy that has served me well is to ‘not shit where I eat.’  As such, I make my money in non-photographic areas to fund my art.

Authenticity in art is important. To be authentic at your art, you have to be free and not be pigeonholed with such concerns as profit, clients demands and censorship. Don’t let your art be crippled by money. Authenticity comes from a choice divorced of need. If you too busy worrying about how much money you will make from a project or shoot it according to others demands, you are not being true to your art.

Of course it takes $ to live as well as produce art. I’m just saying don’t let money be your driving force with your photography – unless of course, money IS your driving force with your photography.

If that is the case, I’d tell the vast majority of you this. Unless you are a very, very talented photog, well connected or are extremely lucky – there are much easier, productive and dependable ways to make money than by photography.

De Wallen Graffiti copyright 2014 Daniel D. Teoli Jr.