Kinda of getting paid but still asking for lots of people to work for free. Seems a bit mercenary to me.

Deep background:  Written after two assistants called me to talk about "offers" they'd received soliciting free labor.  The offers were from working photographers either doing personal projects or projects for which they would be paid or benefit from indirectly.

I keep seeing tweets and posts and other stuff wherein ostensibly working photographers are putting out the call to Attract/get free assistants.  They want people to stand around for a full day in the stinking hot sun to shoot second camera, video camera, behind the scenes camera or  to provide some other function in the service of the photographer's project.  The dodge is that they are justifying the "free" ask by claiming the process will be: fun, educational, a way to garner potential work experience/resume fodder or (the most disingenuous) a way to participate in an innovative social networking event.  The final argument might also be:  "Hey!  I'm not getting paid (directly) for this either!"

Let's break it down:  If a photographer with decades of experience is doing a project big enough that it requires multiple assistants (and even more so, anonymous assistants) he is doing it with the expectation that there will be a payoff of one kind or another, for him, down the road.  If it is true that he is not currently getting paid perhaps he will be willing to pay you by giving you a percentage of his take when, and if, the project does become profitable down the road.

For a project to be "fun" it would have to be challenging, entertaining, comfortable and leave you with good memories.  Perhaps you can't have all the things on my list but you should expect a combination of some of them.  It might be intriguing to learn how to hold a light stand in a brisk wind but I think the fun value might be more like......five minutes.  Not eight hours.  Will the volunteer opportunity be catered?  Or will you be expected to be delighted with a bottle of Ozarka water and an out of date PowerBar?

For a project to be a learning opportunity it would need to include time for you to observe the process, unencumbered by volunteer work.  And there would have to be something to learn.  Perhaps the lesson is: "How to take advantage of people who want to be in a creative occupation so badly that they'll work against their own enlightened self interest."

Ah.  The resume.  I started working as a full time professional photographer in 1988.  That's 24 solid years of good and bad experience.  In all that time I've never had a client request to see a resume.  A portfolio of my own work....yes.  A resume?  No.   I thought I might be an anomaly so I asked around.  Nope.  No other working photographer keeps a resume on tap.  Doesn't come up.

Oh goodness.  The chance to participate in a social networking experience!  I thought these only happened in Paris, Los Angeles and Tokyo (sarcasm served up piping hot...).  I heard  from a professional rep who went to a talk given by a photographer who has probably donated/thrown away/wasted/spent more time on social networking, tweeting and other forms of "Hi!  I'm here.  This is what I'm thinking about right now.  Look at this link!  Please remember me?!"  The rep asked the world famous social networker point blank:  "How many paying projects have you gotten from all the time you've spent doing this?"  The honest answer?  "TWO."

So, next time you are asked to do a job get a bit mercenary (take care of yourself first) and ask, "What's in this for me?"  If you want to ask a lofty question you could always try, "How will this project move our industry forward?"  And if you are totally pragmatic you could always ask, "What's in this for you?....and how do I get some of it."

Remember that the barriers to entry are about an inch high when it comes to technology and working with the photo gear.  Learning to do a one inch high hurdle shouldn't be a lot of leverage in exchange for a day of your valuable Spring season time.  The only other product of most creative products is the expression of creative vision.....but I can almost guarantee you that it won't be your vision in the project and few people have found a quick way to teach in depth creativity.  In other words....go into any volunteer project with your eyes open and an understanding of what everyone stands to gain.

You might find the weekend to be more enjoyable hanging with beautiful friends, taking fun images and relaxing around a pool.  I get being a volunteer for the Red Cross.  For Bob's Photo Hut Inc.?  Not so much.


atmtx said...

Kirk, Great advice as usual.

I also love it when, I think, I know the back story to the post. Of course I maybe totally off base and either way I will keep it to myself.

I know for me personally, as I gain more knowledge and experience and by reading your sage advice, my perspective on this new work for free economy has change quite a bit.

Thank you as always,


kirk tuck said...

"Work for free" is a virus. The only organism that benefits is the pathogen. The rest of us are hosts. When the virus goes epidemic no one will be paid to work. And then we're all screwed. Not just the photographers.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry. I just don't get it. Even when my photography business volunteers to do something for a non-profit charity we still pay the assistants. We always pay the assistants.

Ken Bennett said...

I have a resume, but then I am a staff photographer and would need one should I need to look for a similar job elsewhere.

Otherwise I totally agree. I pay my students for assisting/shooting. It's the right thing to do.

Jim said...

People ask photographers to work for free all the time. I suppose it was just a matter of time before photographers started asking assistants to work for free. :-P

Dave Elfering Photography said...

Possibly my favorite post of yours Kirk. After a (modest) I used to think there was a zen master or uber lens that would unlock a pandora's box of creative chakra and there would be instant ticker tape parades. I spent way more time shopping hardware and wishing than practicing. Imagine how silly a french horn player would look if they skipped practicing in favor of shopping for horns, or how silly it would be for them to volunteer to hold the music for someone else rather than work on their art.

Taking advantage of people is sad and show lack of character.

David Hobby said...

Absolute arguments rarely hold water for me. I think it is relative, and depends on the situation. For instance, I'd assist Dan Winters for free in a heartbeat.

Don said...

I would certainly agree with some leeway on the reality of working with someone like Winters, or Chessum. I shot Ali for free, actually they paid $25 an hour (which I donated to Ali's charity) because - hell - it was Mohammed Ali. I would have PAID to make his photograph.

What I am seeing, though, is that it isn't the Winters and Chessums that want free assistants. In Phoenix, it is the "Advanced GWC's" who are doing 'model' shoots in the desert. In return they will show the assistants some cool techniques as well as some of their model's skin in the desert.

In LA, my assistant bud tells me that the call for free is rare, and usually from someone who underbid it terribly, or accepted an extremely low rate. One guy got an "opportunity" to shoot some hospital execs all over the Central Valley for $800 a day. Yeah, it was an opportunity of a, uh... lifetime. He was dying for some help lugging gear.

Lugging gear. Assistants and lugging gear.

I would imagine most 'free' assistants would find my shoots about as exciting at an inverse ratio to the time they had been shooting. An experienced assistant would want to be paid. A novice would do it for free, but be way way way too much of a problem for me - not an asset.

That being said, getting a bunch of people together to make images is not necessarily bad. I don't have a problem with it usually. Just - you know - spread the wealth around a bit.

BTW - I rarely accept free help offers.

When it comes to assistants you get exactly what you pay for.

I have on occasion called some pro friends of mine for a bit of help - and been ready to help them as well. But that is a bit different... ya know.

kirk tuck said...

David and Don, I don't believe in absolutes either. If I got the chance to photograph Uma Thurman naked in my studio I'd probably waive a small part of my fee as well. As to assisting Dan Winters for free.........be my guest, I'll pass on that deal. But my post is really aimed at photographers who are trying to reinvent themselves in the industry by standing on the shoulders of unpaid "volunteers." There's always a lot of promise but very little fulfillment.

I'd assist Elliott Erwitt for a day. Or Victor Skrebneski but your every day, white bread corporate shooter on a journey of "social media" reinvention? That's one we should all take a pass on.

Don said...

"...but your every day, white bread corporate shooter on a journey of "social media" reinvention..."

Agreed. heh.

Jan Klier said...

BTW - that same thing goes not only for assistants, but everyone else on the team, such as make-up and wardrobe. I always pay my team - as was said earlier, you get what you pay for.

The exceptions to that are, if I know the people involved, have worked with them before, and we're making a fair trade that everyone benefits from.

Anyone complaining about the state of the industry, but then wanting people to do free stuff for them is nothing but a hypocrite.

Bill Millios said...

I think the broad generalization of "if people are working and money isn't changing hands, then the people are getting take advantage of" is a bit too broad.

Some of the best experiences I've ever had as a professional are because I showed up, ready to help, ready to learn, and didn't have my hand stuck out expecting a pay check.

Kirk, if you were within a reasonable distance, and you told me you were doing an LED video shoot, I'd be all over that like white on rice; "Can I help? I just want to watch." The payment in this case would be my learning what you're doing, that you've already worked out after hours and hours of experimentation.

I think as long as both parties enter into the agreement with eyes wide open, and both walk away with something of value, then everybody wins. It could be the exposure to the technique, the networking, the karma, the ... whatever. As long as it is win/win for both parties, I don't see a problem.

kirk tuck said...

Bill, read it again. It's all about taking advantage and not providing a commensurate return. Whether it's education or whatever. Plus, there's not mystery to using LED's instead of hot lights. Just work closer and with a wider aperture or more ISO.

"Can I help? I just wanna watch." What that means to me is someone's going to stand around, not provide expertise or assist, dilute the concentration of concentration in the room and then walk off with all the stuff I've learned the hard way with no skin in the game. It doesn't work in that direction either. That's why we pay people to do specific jobs.

Dave Elfering Photography said...

Great discussion. I've been part of volunteer endeavors, some great and some pointless. I think the key here is whether everyone involved in an endeavor walk away richer in some respect (skills, money, contacts/networking, etc.) Otherwise the relationship takes a quality akin to a one night stand, someone getting their way and someone else *hoping* there's something more to it :)

Any working relationship has to have reciprocal value for both/all parties. It's not always cash but it has to be *something*

Bill Millios said...

I should have written, "Can I be your assistant for the day? I don't expect payment, I just want the opportunity to work with you and learn from you."

And I'd show up and bust my rear end and try my very hardest to be the best assistant you'd ever had. Perhaps I'm atypical these days? I believe in a work ethic. I suspect that if given the opportunity, David would likewise bust his rear end for Winters. There would be no "slacking of effort" just because cash wasn't changing hands.

Kirk, perhaps you find it hard to believe that you are to some people as Elliott Erwitt is to you, and Dan Winters is to David Hobby? :^)

Frank Grygier said...

I would just rather pay for the coaching and work together as a team to learn the craft.

kirk tuck said...

Or pay for the assisting and just get the job done. You've got it right Frank.

Frank Grygier said...

Win Win is a good axiom in any endeavor.

Bold Photography said...

I thought of this discussion when I saw this blatant rights grab in a flickr group:


(this is a link to their grab, not to the discussion in the group)

... Range rover should be ashamed of themselves - they have more than enough budget to pay for the photography in their campaigns...

Skip said...


I don't read many "togg blogs" but I always seem to make time to read yours. Once again, great info well presented. Thanks!