The job will take a couple of days of shooting on location. A couple days of post processing and a few meetings. They would like me to donate my services and I will. I'll do it because it's an educational cause I believe in, the economy has provided me ample free time, and it's a nice showcase for my work. Does this mean that I believe in doing free work as a means of promotion? No.
I've been following a thread on the web wherein the original poster complained about Google asking professional (meaning established, working designers) to submit spec designs for material that would be used on various websites. If accepted there is no other payment than the implication that one's work would be seen by millions of viewers.
This follows on the heels of various posts on the web that contend the only way to break into New York's closed circle of fashion magazines is to offer to work for free. Many people rushed to protest this point of view. And there is a an obvious disconnection.
Supporters of the "work for free" theory suggest that it will bring in massive amounts of commissioned work at highly profitable rates. They further suggest that this the paradigm of the future for artists so we should stop whining and get with the program. They point to photographic luminaries such as Joe McNally and David Hobby as examples of people who are giving away their photo knowledge and prospering. And here's the disconnect: David and Joe have products to sell that are different than photo commissions. They are selling books, DVDs and workshops. Their rationed release of information, and Joe's scintillating stories from the field have as their goal to sell product. Their blogs are not aimed at clients, in fact, if we are to be honest our advertising clients have little interest or time to cruise photographer's blogs. So while David and Joe are prospering by offering free samples they are prospering by selling intellectual property through these vehicles and not art.
For large companies to leverage their reach and their resources to exploit and extract time, intellectual property and art from single person businesses by making vague insinuations about the value of exposure is unethical and immoral. Helping out your family or your favorite cause is part of our common pact with each other and with civilization. Helping a major corporation become wealthier by becoming a "scab", and a free one at that creates inertia that pushes artists further and further away from being able to survive financially in this world.
There are those who argue that they have no obligation to support artists. I agree. The market will decide which artist succeed financially and which will fail. But I would argue that a person supported by his or her profession who muddies the waters of the creative markets by placing the aggrandizement of their ego over the welfare of society in general and, by extension, the fate of the arts, is making choices that will make our culture coarser and less compassionate. I think that's sad. If you are good enough to do the work you should be paid for it in real currency.
Here are my ground rules for donating my services as a photographer: The cause must be good. The entity must be a non-profit. The use of my art must conform to best industry practices. The final piece should have a clear goal and a clear set of metrics with which to measure success.
If you are a full time doctor, lawyer, IT guy, etc. and you are giving work to corporations for free that they would otherwise pay for you are disrupting a system that supports imaginative thinking and creativity. That's all.