Why Working for Free for Nonprofits Hurts Photographers

Why Working for Free for Nonprofits Hurts Photographers

I want to be totally transparent and say that I’ve worked for free for nonprofits and I’ve written several articles on working for free at NGO Storytelling. You can see them here and here. I think I’ve made some compelling arguments for why you might need to work for free. But this is a blog about why you shouldn’t work for free or for a low rate, even for a good cause.

I often see articles like this one, which says you shouldn’t work for free but with an important caveat. The author states: “Small charities, causes you support, creatives, general creative expression, etc. are all fantastic reasons to take photos without money exchanging hands.” 

While I appreciate the reference to “small” charities and not all charities, we – and by this I mean photographers, storytellers, videographers – are creating an unsustainable situation by working for free. In fact, we’ve set up the expectation that our work holds no monetary value and that we’re ok not getting paid for our photography if we think we are doing good with our pictures. 

Here’s the thing, nonprofits are businesses, albeit, businesses that have to show zero profit at the end of the year. They generally pay the people who work for them for their time and services. Beyond that, I’d be willing to bet that most nonprofit organizations care about the ethical treatment of people. Guess what? Photographers are people. And most of the time we’re people who don’t have the luxury of not making an income. So why is it OK not to pay photographers? 

Earlier this year at NGO Storytelling we conducted a survey entitled “How Much Are Photographers Paid by International NGOs.” You can see our survey results here. Two-thirds of the photographers who responded to our survey have been offered a shooting rate of $0-$200 USD per day by an international NGO. We did not ask whether people accepted these rates.  

Let’s see how this $200 per day rate works out in real life. We’ll be generous and say a photographer in the United States got 100 jobs this year (a fair number for any freelancer) at $200 USD per day. That’s a gross income of $20,000 USD. Then say they had $2,000 USD of general business expenses (this number is low for most businesses but we are being generous for this example) for the year. That leaves them $18,000 USD to live on before taxes. That averages out to $1,500 per month. The average rent in the United States is $1405 per month (approximately 16,860 per year) so that leaves the photographer $95 USD a month for taxes, food, utilities and health care. Folks, the average cost of health care alone in the United States for an individual is $321 and for families it is $833. There is no way this photographer is going to be able to cover their expenses by photography alone. And that’s assuming someone offered them $200 USD per job and they could get 100 jobs a year. Expecting photographers to take no or low rates for a good cause means that many photographers don’t make a living wage. 

And we can’t have this conversation without discussing wealth and privilege. I don’t have specific data on this but I’ve had multiple conversations with white, Western photographers of a certain level of wealth who work for free, especially for a good cause. As mentioned before, I am one of those photographers and I’m lucky enough to have a partner with a stable income whose job covers living expenses and my health insurance. After years of observing and engaging in free work and also negotiating with nonprofits for paid work, I have come to believe free work drives down the rates that nonprofits (even nonprofits with healthy budgets) are willing to pay. In fact, I would argue that our acceptance of low or no rates from nonprofits has led to the unethical treatment of photographers around the world, especially local photographers. Let me explain. 

Nonprofits already often see Western photographers as more skilled or more desirable than local photographers working in their own countries. This is not true; just look at the incredible work of Native, a photo agency for diverse talent from across the globe. Beyond this preference for Western photographers, there is also a misconception that local photographers in foreign countries have a lower cost of living and lower cost of business and therefore can be paid much less than a foreign photographer flown in for the same work. In actuality, local photographers often have to pay much higher prices for gear due to import taxes and for repairs due to the fact that there are very few places -- if any -- to get gear repaired. This is only further complicated when Western photographers work for free or for a plane ticket.  All photographers deserve fair and equal pay for their work regardless of where they live. 

I know that it was not my intention to hurt the photography industry when I took free work. But my actions and yours allow nonprofits and businesses to operate under the premise that they don’t need to pay photographers or that they can pay photographers very little. If you are a photographer who can afford to work without pay, I’m going to be bold and ask you not to do it. And if you need to build a specific portfolio or a skill then I ask you to do it in moderation and only for organizations that truly have no budget. Here are some personal guidelines that I used in the past for deciding when to do pro-bono work. If you are a nonprofit or work for one, I ask you to advocate for fair photography rates and ethical treatment for everyone who works for your organization. 

Please remember that we are part of an industry and our actions affect people. When we work for free for nonprofits (or anyone for that matter), we change the way they value not only our work but the work of all of our colleagues. And those of us with wealth, power, or privilege (myself included) shouldn’t be blind to the fact that we already benefit simply by being Western photographers. It’s time for all of us to stop accepting low rates and free work and require fair and equal pay for work we bring to the table.

Image: © Warrengoldswain| Dreamstime.com

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