Are we all dying from “exposure?”

Used with permission,

I was recently invited to submit some of my travel films to a new section on the website of a major American publication. It’s a showcase of short films and when you go to the site, it’s full of spectacular nature, adventure, and travel films that are daringly executed, expertly shot, and beautifully edited…and, to watch one, you have to sit through a 30 second, non-fast-forwardable commercial.

“Fair enough,” I think to myself when I check it out and watch the same 30-second commercial before each of about a dozen films  I viewed on the site to get an idea of what they were running, “you’ve got to pay for these high production-value films somehow.”

(I’m not sure, though, if I were a casual visitor to the site, that I’d sit through more than one film on those terms.)

The process to get a film up there is a daunting two-step gauntlet…first you submit to one of a board of editors. If the piece passes muster with that editor, he or she takes it to the full board of editors, and they must approve the piece and then, and only then, does it make the website.

I submitted six films, waited a month or so, and was thrilled to hear that three of my films made the cut! We were swapping addresses for contracts to be sent and just before we hung up, I threw out a question.  “In all the excitement,” I said, “I forgot to ask you how you pay for these things…by the minute, by the piece, how?”

And then I heard the words that stopped me dead in my tracks.

“Oh we don’t pay to run these…most people are happy to do it for the exposure.”

Dead silence on my end. A giant of American publishing, a 30 second mandatory commercial, a gauntlet to be run that makes getting a film into Sundance look like a cakewalk, and they don’t pay a dime to the content creator?

“Does that change anything?”

“You are #@%$^&*()_&^^$4¢£∞∞¢ right it does,” I think to myself.

But being the well-raised son of a very proper English lady, I say politely, “Yes, it does. I would prefer to be paid for my work, and if I can’t be, I don’t want to give you the films.” They wouldn’t budge, and neither would I, and so we went our separate ways…but it doesn’t always work that way.

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 11.07.34 PM
Used with permission,

A day or two later, I am approached by an editor of a custom publications company to have me and my work featured in an advertorial they are preparing for a photo industry giant. I am thrilled, and will be interviewed by a great writer, and the piece will be featured in a couple of major magazines.

I’ve gotten all the info, know what my deadlines are, but thanks to the experience of being “once bitten, twice shy,” I assume nothing and ask right away, “what are the rates for this?”

And I am told, “oh, we don’t pay—everyone else has been happy to do it for the exposure.”  (Later, I poll some other colleagues, only to find out that some shooters are hiring publicists to try to get in on this “opportunity.”)

Hiring a publicist to get the opportunity to give away work for free for commercial usage?

Oh, sweet mother of Jefferson Davis, break out the defibrillator, because the Old Man in Motion’s heart is stopped from sheer incredulity and disbelief. In what galaxy or universe can this be construed as a business plan for a professional?

You do all this for nothing, I’m told,  so you can get more “followers?” Well, that’s great, because if you run your business like this, it’s just a matter of time before you starve to death. And then you’re going to need a lot of followers to act as pall bearers when they cart you off to potter’s field for your pauper’s burial, because the funeral director wants actual $$$, and not “Likes,” to let you use his hearse.

And so, despite all the good breeding me old English mum tried to instill in me, I respond:

“No, that’s unacceptable….if the writer is being paid, and the magazine is being paid, and the printer is being paid, and if everyone else in the whole process of producing this piece is being paid or drawing a salary, then I want to be paid as well!”

And then, mirabile dictu, I get an email response asking, “How much?”

And we proceed to have a negotiation, just like two professionals, that results in a fee that we both can live with, one that is enough for me to be able to look at myself in the mirror (not, I hasten to add, the Old Man in Motion’s favorite activity these last few years:-). and still call myself a professional.

Look, I know this isn’t same business it was twenty years ago, and I know we’re in a “sharing” economy (which, as far as I can see, means that “many people share so that a few may profit wildly”—think Instagram—300 million contributing free work for a company with about 100 employees, valued conservatively at $20 billion (that’s BILLION with a B).

You do the math, but at a certain point, giving up your work for free so that major corporations can commercially exploit it is just plain career suicide and just hastens the demise of our profession.

Remember the observation that the great Walt Kelly made in a classic Pogo comic poster to promote the first Earth Day, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”

But this is nothing new…take a look at this clip from the great cult classic 70’s film “Putney Swope,”  a satire of the advertising business (among other things) directed by Robert Downey Jr’s father.

It looks like we photographers and videographers have been our own worst enemies for decades, but now, our profession is in critical condition.

And while it’s true that everybody has to die of something, I’ll be damned if I’m willing to die from “exposure.”

26 thoughts on “Are we all dying from “exposure?”

    1. If I am getting a request for work from a charitable organization with a paid professional staff, then I ask to be paid as well. If it’s a grassroots, volunteer driven smaller organization whose work is close to my heart, I will reduce rates, or do it for nothing and ask for a receipt for the fair market value of work and use it as a tax deduction. But be careful with large charities…the staff is often paid very well, and travel in style. There’s generosity, and then there’s just being a chump.

      1. Thank you for your blog. I also do work for NGO’s and often for nothing, meaning I pay for it myself with my expenses and equipment. I feel most of them can use my help. Can you please explain how do you “ask for a receipt for the fair market value of work and use it as a tax deduction.” Thank you.

        1. Vladimir: I don’t know how the tax laws of your country work (is it Netherlands?), but here, charitable donations to legitimate, government registered non-profits and charities are tax-deductible. So what you would do is to estimate what the job would have cost the charity/non-profit, and get them to write you a letter acknowledging a donation “in kind” of that amount of dollars. So if shooting a video for them would have cost $4K in fees, you ask for a letter acknowledging a $4K donation and use it as a deduction. It’s all perfectly legal (here, anyway, I can’t speak for any other country) and it takes a little of the sting out of working for nothing. Keep in mind that even in non-profit work, everybody else in the chain, from the staff, to the printer, to their web-hosting service, is on salary or getting paid a fee, and the photographers are often the only ones in the food chain actually “donating” anything. Everybody else gets paid.

          1. I am American, just retuned to Washington DC after living in Netherlands and Tanzania, so USA laws apply. I knew about expenses deduction, but not about “fair value of work”. Makes a big difference. Thanks so much for your reply. Best, V

          2. Yes, you are donating a service that has a monetary value. You just have to agree on what they would have paid you if they were hiring you and you weren’t donating your time/skills, and then have them give you a receipt for a donation of that dollar value.

  1. OMG, what’s next — we pay to have our photos/videos used? Too late to become a Defense contractor or Wall Street titan! Not a chance. Love what we do. That’s worth everything!

    1. You got that right, Chuck. That’s the literal definition of “amateur”—from the Latin “amator”, which means to love. And that’s why we’re so easily exploited….we’d do it whether we got paid or not!
      Hope you are well my friend…

  2. Yes, guilty as charged. I was asked last year by a local print shop to use one of my images as a 9×12 foot mural. They didn’t “have it in their budget” to pay for it, but did all the work themselves on the installation. I settled for the “exposure” in that case with the agreement that it was one time usage and no further replication. I haven’t received one call for business as a result, even though the do have all of my contact info posted next to the mural…. Next time, no freebies, and no succumbing to flattery….

    1. Dave: Don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s a small business too, and you never know what may come down the line. What I’m mostly objecting to is when huge corporations play that same “no budget” card.

  3. Wonderful article Bob. Those of us who have been in the business a long time feel the pain, knowing how things use to be.

    As to doing work for charity non-profits, my answer has always been, I will donate my day if your CEO will donate one day of his/her
    salary to the charity. Strangely, I have never been asked to do an assignment.

    Doug Wilson

  4. Pretty much everything is like this . In my field (medical in Canada), folks expect paper work to be done for free: insurance forms, pension applications, tax forms, sick notes, and even the government burdens me with paperwork for employment insurance and etc. The same work for which a lawyer and accountant or a civil servant is well enumerated is expected to be done for free. And this is mostly the fault of my colleagues who devalue their time and ARE doing this for free – then leave medicine because of paper work burn-out.
    I’m not surprised that photography consumers are behaving like this.

    1. Good points. And makes me glad that I occasionally throw a small photo related gift for my GP, who is an avid photographer and is always taking time to write me scripts for malaria meds, etc. when he is clearly not “on the clock.”

  5. Very well said, indeed. I see this all the time in all areas of the industry. It makes me sad to see it in the commercial side. Especially from big corporations that clearly should be paying. It is curious, because if you simply did it for exposure, why would they even for one moment think another company would want to hire you and PAY you, when the original company worth millions or even billions was not willing to pay? It is very shady business practice. I have similar situations being a wedding photographer, although slightly different. I charge peanuts for my work, but that work is internationally recognized and awarded. Yet my clients only care about saving money. When I tell them my price, they often say, “My best friend will do it for free. She has a nice camera.” Ouch. Nobody should ever do an entire wedding for free. There is a huge amount of work and stress that goes in to it, and if you screw up, there could be some very hurt feelings, which could lead to much worse. Even friends should be compensated for their work. I have heard of situations where the bride will shell out a fortune for other things, like the venue, cake, dress, flowers, etc, which won’t even last past that night, but they won’t pay a photographer a fair price. Mostly because there are just too many photographers out there willing to give it away for nothing.

  6. I’m glad someone finally addressed this monster. Publishers and organizations love riding the wave of “exposure” as an easy price to pay for photography. Photographers are also quite too eager to “sell out” for the sake of “exposure” or the pride of seeing their work published. Photographers in fact ought to place more value on their work. Value that doesn’t diminish whether the work is published or not. If all photographers stood their ground and maintained that they value their work at more than just credit mention, publishers would eventually have no choice but to meet them either at that value or something agreeable. Too many times all the players forget some of the basic facts that photographers are forced to live with: Gear and time both cost money AND “exposure” doesn’t pay the bills.

  7. What a topsy-turvy world we live in. CEOs, or some of them, are overpaid, but photographers are expected to work for free. When I read that some photographers are actually hiring publicists to find free work, I realised that the deception is now complete. It cannot get any more absurd, surely?

    On the other end of it, big fashion magazines are paying some photographers astounding amounts of money, when their work does not justify it. I would not buy a fashion magazine because of the photographers – I would buy it for the photographs, no matter who took them. Some exceptions would apply for me, like when David Lynch did a one-off shoot for Elle.

    One amateur photographer who produces work far more beautiful than anything I see in those magazines had one of his photos used without permission by a website. He asked for removal or compensation. The website owner apologised, but also wrote, sarcastically, “sorry that I gave you traffic.” Yeah, real classy.

    So, how is there such a misunderstanding of what ‘exposure’ really means? Here’s an example: I was asked why I don’t enter photo competitions – after all, it’s good exposure, isn’t it? And there you go. If one doesn’t understand how meaningless this exposure really is, how can one understand reality and sympathise with the photographer?

  8. Excellent post, about a topic I wish more photographers would discuss with the same point of view. In my own experience, whenever I’ve been asked to work for free or for ‘exposure and networking opportunities’, I politely inquire whether that person would ask their plumber or their dentist to provide services for nothing? Then I say “I also provide a service involving skill, equipment, training and precision. As such, I also deserved to be paid for my work and my time.” Seems to gently get the point across more often than not. (Although it doesn’t stop another company or person from asking the very same thing. The only thing that will put and end to that, is if photographers of all skill levels refuse to work for free.)

  9. Mr Krist, health and time permitting, you need to post more! Your advice is GOLD! The internet needs more people like you with a respectable body of work talking about photography/videography.

    Otherwise we will get countless bloggers egging people on to buy new equipment and try new gimmicks, which will lead to an army of photographers/videographers that are dying to try out said piece of equipment or gimmick for …. exposure ….

  10. This article makes me glad I’m only doing photography for myself as a hobby/escape/for fun. It would be depressing to have to deal with companies that want everything free and you just get ‘exposure’.

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