Old retro camera on vintage wooden table background

Ryan McDougall on the perils of being a young freelance worker in the creative industry.

Creatives don’t mind doing the odd thing for free if it’s for a good friend, a family member, a charity or if it’s invaluable work experience, and these are all acceptable, valid reasons. But here’s the thing: many, especially those of us who are just starting out are being blatantly exploited left, right and centre.

While the exposure is great and can be a massive help when you’re a beginner, whether you’re a writer, videographer, sound engineer, photographer, artist or anything in between, it can, to put it bluntly, leave you taken for a total fool in the creative industries in the long run.

Let’s just say for instance, you’re asked by someone to put together some form of creative project for them, that will no doubt take you a fair amount of time. Hours, days, a week or longer. You tell said person: “Cool, cheers for asking me to do this! I’ll fire you over my rates!” And you’re hit with: “Oh… ha ha! Well, here’s the thing; I can’t offer you money. I can tell all my friends about you though! I can give you exposure!”

I will stress, while exposure is essential, especially when you’re just starting out, or you’re on a work placement, the same rule doesn’t really apply when it becomes extensive. That’s when it becomes free labour.

Allow me to use the same “exposure” analogy in a different context: A creative walks into a bar and orders a pint. The barman says: “That’ll be £3.10 please, mate.” The creative promptly replies: “I’ll tell all my mates how great your bar is! You don’t need money!”

See, it doesn’t really make sense. Oh lord how I wish I could get a free beer by telling my local bar manager I’ll get my pals to pay a visit.

Let’s just say, you spend hundreds of pounds on a laptop, a camera, equipment, editing software, a website etc. Eager to find work, you spend more money on business cards or fliers, all just to get your name out there and stand out enough in order to get some gigs doing your thing. You finally do get some work, and have nothing to show for it in the end.

Then there’s the flipside of things. You’re offered paid work, you deliver, and your invoice is miraculously never paid. You’re then met with the choice of: “Do I chase this person up and potentially burn my bridges with them? Or do I let it slide and accept their lame excuse, if they bother to give me one?” It’s a tough one, but ultimately, if you rightfully value your own hard work as much as it should be, then you’ll know to choose the first option.

The sad thing is, creatives sometimes let this happen because of the competitive and sometimes brutal nature of these industries. I’ve somehow been lucky enough to have generally always dealt with very fair people, but I’ve got plenty of mates who have told me some absolute horror stories about their experiences. Those who have agreed to do a small task for someone out of the goodness of their heart, it grows arms and legs and they’re suddenly left with shedloads of work that they’re doing for free. Not good.

One of the few occasions of attempted exploitation I remember was at a place I used to work. Rather than being paid with money, I was promised “hunners an’ hunners o’ hours” if I took some promotional photographs for them. Needless to say I never bothered, and was frankly insulted.

I strongly doubt that it’s out of badness that someone would selectively exploit a creative person. Nine times out of ten, they’re giving someone with a hobby a chance to do something cool, and that’s great, but when it becomes habit, it becomes exploitation.

The unfortunate thing is that the only person capable of changing this is the creative person alone. The only real way to do this is to be more assertive, make it clear to people that you’re not just some numpty with a camera, or someone who thinks they know what they’re doing – even try joining a union who will fight your corner in these situations. The National Union of Journalists for instance are great when it comes to helping journalists and photographers.

Explain to people that it’s not just a hobby, but your profession, or livelihood. You’ve got bills to pay I’m sure, just like everyone else out there who works a hard graft each day, and it’s only you who can change the way others might perceive you. Let your passion and professionalism shine through; make people want to pay you for your expertise. Because if you let people take advantage of your skills, you become your own exploiter.