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Why New Photographers Shouldn't Work For Free

Four ways to get your name out there without selling yourself short.
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New photographers, beware this career landmine. It starts innocently enough, a benign email introducing a project that dear sender thinks you’d be very interested in, or perhaps it’s a little more outright, like a job posting on Facebook with big, bright letters; WANTED: PHOTOGRAPHER. The work is unpaid, the listing says, but allegedly offers plenty of opportunity for growth and exposure; a chance to build one’s portfolio. Scroll past it now.

But before we turn our noses away completely, let’s begin with a caveat: There’s a difference between being hired to work without compensation and pursuing a creative endeavor worthy of your own time, even if this happens to be uncompensated. One is exploitative, the other is work you would have wholeheartedly produced either way, paid or unpaid. Every new photographer, in one way or another, will pay their dues getting burned by the former and pursuing the latter—it’s all a part of the hustle, and so is learning to tell the two apart.

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There’s a difference between being hired to work without compensation, and pursuing a creative endeavor worthy of your own time—even if this happens to be uncompensated.

We know that the oversaturation of photographers willing to work for peanuts has inflated the expectations of unscrupulous companies and individuals. Not only does asking for free labor devalue creative work, they bastardize the terms “exposure” and “experience” too; use it as a tool to emotionally manipulate young creatives into wasting their time. Because there is value in chasing work that trades in actual experiences and yet it’s a tricky thing to be able to tell which ones those are.

It’s a matter of clearly identifying what sort of experiences and lessons you want in your arsenal, and carefully acquiring them. Maybe that means interning for your favorite magazine, working on your own personal photo project, or volunteering images for your favorite NGO. Either way, for every job posting promising exposure and the chance to build your portfolio, there’s a wasted opportunity to work on something meaningful to you that might actually get your foot in the door someday. Anybody who has the gall to offer nothing for a random ten-hour event coverage, for example, should be turned down immediately. Because, really, when is that ever going to pay dividends? It’s a one-two punch.

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For every job posting promising exposure and the chance to build your portfolio, there’s a wasted opportunity to work on something meaningful to you that might actually get your foot in the door someday.

You need time and effort to develop your own artistic voice, but companies that don’t inherently respect the effort you’re supposed to put into the job are not likely to provide you the platform to produce a strong body of work. Accepting these jobs not only robs you of time and energy, they also distract you from figuring out the answers to questions such as: What am I inspired by? What type of images am I interested in producing? Where do I ultimately want to take my photography? How do I get there?

Efficiency reigns when you’re starting out, but the adage of “quality over quantity” still applies—quality in quantities, even more so. My advice: avoid falling into those traps and put your work out there through these means instead.

Pursue personal projects and collaborate with other young artists.
Organize shoots and chase your own leads. Start a network of would-be models, hair and make-up artists, and graphic designers; even travel to other locales on your own dime to hunt for stories. The best part about working with other people on the same playing field is that you get to connect with a community, the sense of fulfillment involved when you all improve and move up together.

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Apply for internships or apprenticeships.
One of the most effective ways to anchor yourself to the industry is to intern for a studio, a publication, or assist photographers on assignment (although, to be fair, proper professional photographers would never ask you to assist them for free). Be deliberate and approach the ones that are closest in style to your desired line of work. Absorb as much as you can, ask questions, maybe even ask if you can show them your portfolio. Developing a strong relationship with mentors will help provide insight into the industry at large and might even earn you a job recommendation.

Don’t be afraid to show your work.
It can be intimidating to present your work to other people, but getting an outsider’s perspective is essential to improving your photographic eye. Start with your friends and eventually work your way up to attending open calls and photography workshops. The Angkor Photo Festival and Invisible Photographer Asia are two particularly popular and reputable sources in Southeast Asia. Aside from that, it never hurts to reach out to your favorite photographer or publication to ask for feedback—you never know.

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Get a job that complements your passion.
We’ve all got to eat, and pursuing one’s passion—at the onset—rarely puts food on the table. If freelancing full-time isn’t an option, securing a job that puts you in close proximity to photography (for example, being a writer, videographer, or graphic designer; stylists and models have been known to make the crossover, too) makes it easier for you to freelance on the side. If anything, it at least helps you keep tabs on the industry. 

Lastly, for a handy flowchart on whether you should work for free, refer to Jessica Hische’s www.shouldiworkforfree.com.

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About The Author
Fruhlein Econar
Fruhlein Econar is a photographer and writer. She is currently the Features Editor for GRID magazine.
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