Working For Free

Saturday, February 13th, 2010 - Nicholas Calcott

Photo via

I regularly check the craigslist job postings here in Paris to try and pick up the occasional web project and was recently struck by the following ad, which I would say characterizes most of the job postings I find on craigslist:

We are looking for assistants to help an artist with a variety of different tasks in [artist’s] atelier. This weekend we will need 3 to 4 enthusiastic and energetic people to help paint a large sky and walls of an imaginary village.
No experience necessary, simply the will to be creative over a weekend and perhaps longer if you happen to be looking for experience within an artistic environment.
Please apply immediately if you are able to help us.

And under the heading “Compensation”, it simply says “Experience”.

Now, forgive me for getting my knickers in a twist, but this strikes me as suspiciously close to Tom Sawyer painting a fence, and annoyingly typical for art and photo jobs in general.  If you don’t believe me, witness the flap over James Nachtwey‘s unpaid internships – here, here, and here.

I won’t get to into this particular instance as this was aeons ago in internet time, but, in Nachtwey’s defense, this behavior is industry standard.  Which is completely fucked up.  Yes, I realize you don’t have a budget to pay someone to paint your fence/spot tone your photoshop file/photocopy War and Peace/get coffee for everyone in the office, but assuming that your potential intern has nothing but time and can pay for him/herself for the duration of the work period is essentially asking them to subsidize your business.  And yes, I know it’s an educational experience, but how widespread unpaid internships are goes way beyond any pay-off in educational terms.

An internship is an opportunity to learn something significant about an industry, not an unlimited and free source of work to do all the things you don’t want to pay someone to do.  This is ethically indefensible, and to top it off is ruining the industry.  By ensuring that the only people who can build up experience are those who can afford to pay for it, you’re essentially closing the door to anyone who can’t afford to pay for it. So the only people who can become photographers/artists/creative types of any stripe are those whose parents can set them up with a budget to live off of while they work their way through an expensive college and then unpaid position after unpaid position.

I realize that this is not the typical case here in France: here, instead of doing an internship at university, all internships are paid (for a third of minimum wage which, you can imagine, is not enough to live on), though you do them after you graduate, repeatedly, until someone offers you a position, typical when you’re 27-30 years old.  Oh, and because of the payment, employers tend to altogether ignore the educational aspect of the process and you spend the time doing database entry or filing. So, yeah, Socialist France is the paragon of an enlightened economy in this case.

And though working an unpaid position is not something the typical freelance photographer will do, being asked to work for free, provide photos for free, shoot an entire project on your own money and time and then show it around until someone picks it up for a pittance, or being required to pay to be featured on the pages of an-unnamed-here-but-very-real-blog are all examples of the typical economics of this industry when people will not accept that yes, it’s a lot of work, and no, it’s not acceptable to foist the costs of that work on people farther down the employment ladder.

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  • Ian Aleksander Adams
  • I am so 100% with you on this one.

  • Juan Carlos
  • Check this one out, it is ridiculous and to think that some people WILL do the job:

    Calling Student Photographers (north beach / telegraph hill)
    Date: 2010-02-09, 12:12PM PST
    Reply to: [Errors when replying to ads?]

    Local independent ad agency seeking aspiring professional photographer to shoot some of our outdoor ad placements for internal use. Shots need to be digital, hi-re, clear, crisp and per any outlined specs. (eg. whether we’d like during the day; night; people in shot, etc.) Agency will outline details of location of outdoor boards and specific details as appropriate.
    Will pay $10 per accepted shot and agency retains all usage rights.
    Transportation of some kind required.

    This is an ongoing need; but the immediate one is week of 2/9 for 6 placements though we might want multiple of each.

    Please send your resume and a sample of your work to the above Craig’s list address.

    Thank you!

  • Benjamin Rasmussen
  • It is spelled “Nachtwey”.

  • Nicholas Calcott
  • Whoops. I fixed the Nachtwey misspellings…

    And yeah, it’s ridiculous what people think is reasonable pay. At least they’re offering some money, though it’s probably less than the cost of gas.

  • Kirsten Teasdale
  • This is also rampant in another area of the arts field: museums. Museums as an institution pay a lot of lip service to increasing diversity in the field (i.e. not just rich people) but with these same policies–volunteer until you are granted an entry level position! Remain in that entry level position until you are 50!–they ensure that nothing will actually change. It’s disheartening for people trying to break into the field, but most just accept it as the way things are.

  • Kristin M.
  • Nice one, Nick. Gerry posted this on FB. It’s just as bad for writers and editors – everyone thinks they can get you to churn out content for them in exchange for “exposure.” Yeah right. Not only does this bs limit creative work to people who have outside means, but it also limits the profits you can make once you do get paying work, because there are so many trust-fund brats willing to do it for free.

    Check this rant from Harlan Ellison: