If you’ve ever attempted to make a living in a creative field, there’s a pretty big chance you’ve been asked to work for exposure. You know what I’m talking about — someone asks for your services, and in return, they display your work for other potential clients to see. The downside? You aren’t going to see a penny.
If it sounds like a disappointing trade for your work, it’s because it is. The creative field is a pretty brutal industry to get into, and many would argue that working for exposure is a rite of passage for budding photographers. Not to mention that exposure seems to be beneficial for several reasons — it gets your name out there, helps you pad your portfolio, and just might lead to paying opportunities.
Before you decide to work for exposure only, you might want to consider what it means for you — and for the creative community as a whole.
Your Equipment Isn’t Cheap
To be a photographer, you don’t just need a camera. You need tripods, lenses, lights, memory cards, protective cases, and a plethora of editing programs, many of which cost a pretty penny. And considering technology is fallible, it’s always important to make sure you have enough money stored up in case of emergency repairs or vital equipment upgrades. The moral of the story? Being a professional photographer isn’t cheap.
It’s important to remember the money you earn doesn’t just go toward your bills — part of your compensation goes directly toward your equipment and repairs. Exposure, unfortunately, isn’t going to pay off your monthly Adobe bill or help you upgrade to better equipment. You could argue that it might lead to other jobs that will, but honestly, it doesn’t guarantee you a future paying job — in fact, it might just lead you to yet another exposure opportunity.
Your Time Is Money
We already know your equipment is pretty expensive. But what about your time?
People say that time is money, and it’s true. Time is the most valuable thing you’ll ever have, and the one finite resource you can’t make up for later. And as a photographer, you’re probably using up a lot of it — not only do you have to account for the hours you spend taking the photos, but also the time it takes to get from your home to the shoot, the time you spend sifting through photos, and the time you spend editing each one. That’s a lot of time to offer someone for very little in return.
If you’re a naturally creative person, it’s easy to dismiss the hours you put into your work — after all, it’s probably something you’ve done for free most of your life. But just think of it this way: you wouldn’t offer to work an office job for free in hopes of getting a recommendation for a better office job. In fact, you would expect to be paid for your time and to expand your professional network while building your resume for future opportunities. The creative field should work no differently.
You Shouldn’t Belittle Your Own Craft
Let’s be honest here: creative work doesn’t have the best reputation. It’s often treated as something that’s easy and worth very little. There are countless examples online of creatives who have gotten messages from potential clients asking them to do a lot of work for essentially no pay at all, only to have the potential client get angry when the creative demands fair pay for their time and effort. The painful reality is that there are people who see your craft as useless, but you shouldn’t be one of them.
While offering exposure isn’t exactly the same thing as someone to work for free, it’s not too far off, either. By accepting that offer, you’re telling yourself (and others) that your work isn’t worth any monetary value, which simply isn’t true. You deserve to get paid for the work you do. You deserve to get paid for the time you put toward creating something for someone else. You deserve to see your work as something valuable.
You’re Paving The Way For Future Creatives
I read somewhere once that when creatives work for free, they’re letting down other creatives who work hard to live off their craft. It might sound dramatic, but it’s true — by accepting to work for exposure alone, you’re telling your client that they can continue to hire people at little to no expense as long as they give you credit for your work, which they should be doing either way. And if enough clients believe they can get work for free, you’re essentially forcing other new and upcoming photographers to accept this fate as well; once it becomes the norm, the only way new photographers might even be able to get work is if they settle for “exposure dollars,” which, in the end, isn’t going to pay their bills.
It’s a pretty gnarly cycle, but one that we can combat by knowing our worth and continuing to push for what we deserve, if not for ourselves, then for others. Sure, exposure might seem like a good trade for work when you’re first starting out, but it’s not worth the cultural implication it might mean for creatives, whose work suddenly won’t seem to be worth much at all. By simply demanding pay for your work, you’re helping to dismantle a system that paves way for the “starving artist,” a wrongly-glamorized but increasingly true portrayal of what a working creative looks like.
The fact of the matter is that photographers — and other creatives — don’t have to work for free. If we all stepped up and demanded the pay we deserve, we’d probably get it, because believe it or not, our services will still be needed.
So next time someone asks you to work for exposure, think twice before you accept the offer. While it may sound tempting, you and your work are worth a whole lot more.