Dear Freelancer, Never EVER Work for Free!

24 Oct

Dear Freelancer,

I know how hard it is to earn a living and to get people to notice you. There are so many fish in the sea, freelancers like you, chasing the same food. But what ever you do, whether is to be kept busy or to get exposure: Do not work for free, no matter how big or prestigious the title or client. You will end up shooting yourself in the foot while spoiling the chances of other freelancers to get paid work.

I have lost count how many times potential clients asked me to provide photographs, text, features and other services for free in return for “a credit” or “great exposure”. There is one incident I will never forget. It was just before the 2010 World Cup when some American guy emailed me with regards to my pictures on Flickr.

He was busy writing what he called “America’s prime guide to the 2010 World Cup” and was “absolutely stunned by some of my photographs”. He wanted to use about twenty of them, from landscapes and people shots to all sorts of soccer related scenes. The book would be published by Penguin Books – not a small player in publishing land. The ridiculous Terms & Agreements were as follows:

I am requesting that you grant permission to me, New American Library, Penguin Putnam Inc. and their licensees, successors and assigns to include the photo indicated below in all editions and derivations of the Work throughout the world in all languages, and in the advertising and promotion thereof in all media now known or hereafter devised.
Credit will be given in the form you specify below either on the same page with the photo, on the copyright page, or in a separate section for credits.
In signing below, you represent that you are the sole owner of the rights granted herein, and that the material indicated below does not infringe upon the copyright, privacy right or other rights of anyone.  Kindly sign one copy of this letter and return it to me. 

Oh, did I tell you there was nada pay involved? “We have a small budget, but it would be great exposure,” he said. To which I responded:

Dear XXX,
As much as I would like to help you out, I cannot give away my photographs for free. Firstly, I need to make a living. A credit – it goes without saying that photographers are credited – does not pay the bills not does it put food on the table.
Secondly, by giving my images away I will be spoiling the market for not only myself but also for other photographers out there. The more of us who are willing to work for free, the less clients like yourself will be willing to pay for images in the future. I mean, why would they as they can get them for free?
Lastly, if your guide will be as successful as you expect it to be, the publication will eventually generate income. This means that there will be money at some stage for the compensation of the contributing photographers.

He then told me, noting that he did understand my position as “he was a freelance writer too”, how many greatly talented amateurs were willing to cooperate for free: “They are so happy and grateful to do so.  And some of them are so fantastically talented.  I just think it’s great in this day and age that someone who isn’t a professional can get their work out to the world through the Internet.”

To which I replied that even amateurs should be paid for their work: “If their images are good enough for a professional publication, then they should be getting a professional fee.”

That was the end of the discussion – he never contacted me again. Good riddance.

Look guys and gals, every freelancer – whether junior or senior – should get paid for their work. Yes, juniors too. Even amateurs! If the potential client believes you are are capable of delivering a professional service, the clients should pay you a professional fee. Just think about it: Your toilet is broken and there is shit everywhere. You call a plumber and he arrives instantly. You discover he only started working a month ago. Would you ask him / her to work for free? I don’t think so. The same should work for us freelancers.

That does not mean I have not done stuff for free. I in fact have provided an image or two, for instance to a small grassroots soccer NGO in the DRC, free of charge. There is a difference doing stuff for free to help a small NGO raising much-needed funds and to do stuff for free for a company/ individual that intends to make money from your work. Having a pro-bono client actually looks good on your CV. Just choose them wisely.

Dear freelancer, are you still not convinced about the above? Then watch this video.

Kind regards,

Miriam Mannak / freelancer, seasoned through and through

PS: South African freelancers: the Southern African Freelancers’ Association has drawn up a list of recommended rates for freelance writers, freelance journalists, freelance photographers, etc. 


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5 responses to “Dear Freelancer, Never EVER Work for Free!

  1. Roxanne

    October 24, 2011 at 11:37 am

    Hear hear, Harlan Ellis and Miriam! The sad truth is that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. For various reasons. One is that many people, companies and publishers believe words written for print media should be paid for, but words written for websites shouldn’t. What’s the difference? They take the same amount of work, insight and time. Second, because there are just far too many non-professionals who are so eager to get their names in lights that this lure of “credit” without pay is irresistible to them. Sadly, in an age where everyone who owns a computer and spell check thinks s/he’s automatically a writer (and everyone who owns a point-and-shoot digital camera thinks s/he’s a photographer) not everyone can tell the difference.

    • Miriam Mannak

      October 24, 2011 at 11:42 am

      Hey Roxanne, Nice to hear from you and thanks for the cheers.
      I am writing for the Interwebs as well and I agree with you: it is much more difficult to get paid for online words. Online copy or content writing is sometimes even more time consuming of you have to take SEO into account. I am not blaming juniors or amateurs for not fighting over pay. To a large extent, I understand. A lot of them do not realise the repercussion it has for the entire market. That is why, who know better (ha ha!) should make an effort convincing them to do otherwise 🙂

  2. Mark Goodwin

    October 25, 2011 at 12:39 am

    I read your post about the photo request for the hotel before I read this one. So forgive me if my ‘jokey’ post sounds a bit facetious it wasn’t meant to…Promise.

    This is a good article Mir and one that I am continually singing.
    Moreover, this has happened since I can remember. When I first started playing drums as a teenager I was semi-pro by the age of 14 and pro by the age of 18. The number of times I was asked to do charity gigs in aid of this fund or that project became countless. In the end you just have to say SORRY BUT NO!! I have to feed my wife and family.

    When I joined CBS in London in 1974 my Chairman was a very well respected member of the music industry world wide. I will never forget his words. “You must never do anything for nothing, if you do it for free, you are giving away your product. It is just like a guy that owns a corner grocery shop, giving away his tins of baked beans! He buys his baked beans puts a markup on to cover his overheads and profit and then hopefully sells them. If he gives them away he loses the contribution to the overhead and the profit and the money he paid out for the Beans in the first place. Well, he said, you also have had to purchase your talent, you have paid to study, to buy your instrument etc, and now you must charge something for that so that you can make a profit. If you feel you are obligated because it’s family or a close friend then you must charge them something…even if it is just at cost price…but NEVER for nothing”.
    His name was Ivor Arbiter I loved him dearly, he was the most generous person I had ever met and the toughest boss you would ever be likely to meet, and he was my mentor. He was a millionaire by the age of 30 and yet he could hardly read or write, mainly because his family in fear of Hitler posted him off to Chicago in the middle of his schooling. But he came back and worked his butt off and it worked. He became a multimillionaire and achieved almost all his goals he had set himself. He died in 2002 of cancer.
    I have only just notice you have a Flickr site my apologies, I didn’t realise you were such an accomplished photographer. If you check out my site you will see pics of Ivor that I took in the 1970’s with Guitar Hero Rory Gallagher.


    • Miriam Mannak

      October 25, 2011 at 2:57 pm

      HI Mark,
      Thanks again for your comment. Now let;s hope no one will never again give anything away from free 🙂

  3. Mark Goodwin

    October 25, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    From your lips to G-d’s ears


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