Working for Free:
Collaboration or Exploitation?
By Vicki Amedume
This is a topic that has been coming up a lot recently; working for free or low pay. As artists and makers of work it is something that we are often asked to do. People see the value of what we make but not necessarily the hard work and investment you put in to make it. I generally don’t encourage people to devalue their work but even at this point in my career (where I feel fairly established) there are instances where I have chosen to work for free or very low pay and it has been a positive experience. There have also been a couple of occasions in the past when I have felt exploited. So this morning I sat down and tried to figure out what has been the difference in situation and circumstance. I couldn’t come up with any hard and fast rules instead I have a series of questions it is worth asking yourself if you are thinking of working for free.
1. Is someone else making money from this? If somewhere down the line there is someone profiting from your work then question why they just can’t pay you and make a little bit less themselves. Make sure you are clear on the purpose of the event, ask who is being paid and who is not. By working for free you are essentially making a financial contribution to them and if they in turn can’t be transparent about their financial arrangements, be cautious.
2. Will you be appropriately treated? Will whoever you are working for respect the value of what you are offering? If anyone asks you to work for free or low pay and also makes you feel like they are doing you a favour, walk away. Think about how much people would normally charge for that work, that is what you are giving them. Do they show you that they recognise and appreciate that?
3. Am I devaluing my (and other peoples) work? Sometimes whoever approaches you needs a reality check. Are they asking you to work for free because they think that this is some kind of hobby for you? Sometimes by working for free, you perpetuate a culture in which creative work goes unpaid. I refer you back to question 2. Who is getting paid and why? Why can’t they pay you? What can they offer instead of cash? Lame answers include – “We don’t have the budget”, “Lots of people would jump at the opportunity”, Exposure without specifics, future work offers where they don’t have a track record and you don’t get some kind of clear framework for how this might pan out.
4. Is this something I really want to do? No matter how great the ‘opportunity’ is, if you don’t really want to do it you will probably have a rubbish experience. Do I get to work with someone amazing? Will I get to do something I have always wanted to do? Will I get to try out an idea that I can’t do alone?
5. Will this opportunity be “great exposure”? This is probably the most overused phrase in the arts, used as a vague assertion when people are unable to outline any tangible benefits you will get from doing the work. Can they be specific about who will see your work? Who are they inviting? What networks your information will go out to? Will you be able to sign off any representation of you and your work going out into the world? No one reputable will have a problem answering these questions and by asking you get the chance to think about what kind of audience you want for your work and whether this opportunity will help you reach them.
6. Could this lead to future work? Working for free is not a great way to start a business relationship but occasionally it can work out. Is the project something you are genuinely interested in? Do you have a real rapport and trust for the people you are working with? Do you have in place some sort of agreement or understanding about what the deal will be for future work? You don’t want to end up feeling like you have been used to forward an agenda that will not benefit you in the future. Unless you trust and respect the person making the offer, have a formal agreement in place otherwise they have absolutely no obligation to help you out long-term.
7. Have they been clear about what they want you to do and when they want you to do it? There is nothing worse than giving up your time for someone that does not respect it. If you agree to work for no or low pay, make sure you are clear what the commitment is. You don’t want to find yourself doing weeks of work you had not expected to be doing. Before you agree to anything it is important to have clarity about what you are agreeing to.
8. Will you be treated professionally? At one event I chose to do for a charity early on in my career, I was told to arrive at a certain time only to find everyone in chaos and everything running late. I was told I would have to wait for my tech rehearsal and after waiting over 3 hours past my call time I was finally told they couldn’t squeeze in a full tech all because they had been inefficient with their time. I left. I really believed in the charity but I was not willing to risk my safety or compromise myself artistically. I had been very clear on my requirements and taken the time out of my schedule to be there to do the work as if it were any other professional engagement, unfortunately they couldn’t reciprocate.
9. Who owns the intellectual property on the outcomes? The work itself, images, videos and am I ok with it?
In a capitalist society, we live with the idea that no one owes you a living (please note this opens a whole other debate not covered in this post). If you choose to work in the arts you are entering a high-risk industry (again another can of worms I am not to opening). You have to find a way to set your personal boundaries. To determine what kind of life you want to live and what kind of work you want to make. Once you have those principles they should guide your decision-making and hopefully lead you to the right kind of work and opportunities.Try to think, in the choices you make – what is the long-term value? How will it help me sustain myself, my work and the art form we all love?
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