When to Work for Free

I am at the point in my modeling career where I rarely take what we call a "TFP" gig.  TFP stands for "time for print," or exchanging your modeling time for experience and portfolio images.  Some people are very specific when using the term (they mean only physical prints for your portfolio, and will use TFI for "time for digital images," or TF* for any other non-monetary exchange).  When I use it here, however, I mean it in the broader sense of working for free.  Of course, modeling isn't the only artistic skill set that has a concept of working for free associated with it: just ask any musician about playing for "exposure."  It’s the same idea. 

I, like many working artists, don't take TFP gigs for an economic reason: when art's your livelihood, you have to concentrate on what pays the bills.  Although it's a self-enforced concept, I would invariably get frustrated whenever someone didn't respect my time with money.  If a photographer's work was obviously below the level of my portfolio, but he still asked me to work for him for free, I would feel uncomfortable and guilty.  It always sucks to tell someone "no,” and there are enough people in the world that will get angry if you tell them no, even politely.  

I can see that I'm not the only one in the freelance modeling industry that feels this tension.  Models' online ports and bios are filled with phrases like "I can't afford to shoot TFP, so please don't ask!" and "No TFP--this is my full-time job," or, "although I love my job, I can't work for free--I still have to eat."  

Should you shoot for free?  If so, when? 

Should you shoot for free?  If so, when? 

My most recent bout of TFP-itis occurred around a local TV project.  I'm one of the only professional models in my area, and they were looking for a host, so they came to me.  I don't have acting or video experience and the gig was particularly low compensation, but I figured why not?  I'd never tried it before, so it wasn't like I could command a high price.  And besides, it might be fun, and it was a paying gig.  

As it turns out, yes, it is fun to be in front of a video camera.  However, soon the requests started.  "Oh, you play the piano?  Could you compose our theme for us--wouldn't it be nice if our host was also an artist connected with the show?  Of course, we couldn't pay you directly. . .It'd have to be sweat equity.  But the harder you work, the more you'll earn when our idea makes it big!"  

"Oh, your degree is in English, and you're a writer?  You should write our scripts for us--that way it'll sound so much better than if I write it.  You know how you speak.  Of course, we couldn't pay you directly. . ."  

I politely told him how many hours a week such an endeavor would require, and that I didn't have the time to devote to it.  "Sometimes you have to make time for what matters," he told me.  

There it was again; that feeling of discomfort, frustration, and even offense.  I’m not sure he meant it patronizingly, as he was just focused on his own projects and goals, but that’s how it came across to me. 

"Yes, you do," I replied.  "Which is why that time is devoted to my own writing projects."  

I had given him the right answer, though I didn't know it at the time.  As a freelancer, you learn to smell a dying project.  I had gotten more than a whiff from this particular situation, so I disassociated myself from it.                                     

Of course, that didn't prevent me from going home and fuming about being asked to give up my writing time (my most precious commodity) to work for free.  I couldn’t make any sense of it—there was no reason why it should affect me so strongly.  Why did turning someone down make me so unreasonably upset? After all, art isn't about me.  

As a freelance artist of any kind, I have always believed you have one boss, and that's your consumer.  However, it was only while I was stewing over my recent brush with TV programming that I put the next part of the logical progression together.  

The only person you should work for free for is yourself.

If my audience truly was my boss like I believed, then the producer I had been working for was not.  I'd had the relationship all wrong in my mind.  I was not my producer’s employee; he was my client.  I wasn't working for him for free--I had never been working FOR him in the first place.  And I wasn't feeling guilty, frustrated, and offended because potential clients weren't respecting my time with money. I was feeling that way because I wasn't respecting my own time.  Because I thought of photographers as potential employers instead of potential clients, I felt obligated to do whatever they asked, and then angry at myself for putting their desires above those that mattered--my own, and particularly my audience's.  

Now, all this does not mean that working TFP is evil, or wrong, or bad.  It just tells you when you should agree to a TFP arrangement, and when you can say no with a clean conscience.  The only person you should work for free for is yourself.  When you shoot TFP as a new model, you aren't working for the photog for free--you're working for yourself for free to build your port.  But if you TFP with a photographer who can't add value to your port, then you're not respecting your own time: you're wasting your precious ability to support your art.  (Remember, your art isn't about you.  If you still have trouble saying no, or feel guilty about it, don't think about it as giving up your own time.  Think about it as giving up your art's time--you know, that thing that you believe in and care about more than anything else.  Think about what you're depriving your audience of.)

An excellent question to ask is whether or not the unpaid gig gets you closer to your own goals.  Neil Gaiman once described his career goals as a mountain, and his decision-process as trying to walk towards it.  He would ask himself, "Does this project get me closer to the mountain?"  Do the same thing.  Ask yourself: does it get you closer to your mountain?  Drafting scripts for a TV show wouldn’t move me forward on my path toward being a writer.  Composing jingles was in the wrong direction, too.  

Think of yourself as a company or a firm.  Would they take on a client for free?  Sure, in some cases, which are analogous to the cases where a model might.  They'd do it if the client has such a large-name draw that working with them will get them more work (adds value to your port).  They might if they're just starting out and trying to build a client base (shooting TFP at the beginning).  And they just might work pro bono if they believe in the cause (collaboration on personally inspiring art).  

Just remember: you're either working for yourself on your own vision, or you're working on someone else's.  If it doesn't get you paid (thereby supporting your own art!) or closer to your goals, then you need to ask yourself why you are doing it.