Veteran Photographers Say Working For Free Has Rarely Paid Off

By Katelyn Umholtz

ATHENS, GA (August 6, 2016) - When the world of visual journalism crosses paths with the internet age, most journalists have been hearing the word “free” more frequently. Because of this, there are two different visual journalists—those that just want something published and accept “free”, and those that adamantly stand against being taken advantage of.

Offers to work for exposure and no pay are not new. Ray Stubblebine, a photojournalist out of New York City who has been an NPPA member since 1970, said he has seen and heard this for many years, mostly with younger people trying to break into the industry.

“There are certain newspapers that don't pay very well, but for some reason, people want to work for them to get their name out,” Stubblebine said. “But I don't think it really works out that well. I think they take advantage of photographers who are trying to make a career.”

With increasingly better technology, a camera phone user normally will not charge anything and can replace the work of a professional photographer.

“I just don't think people should be giving away their photos,” Stubblebine said. “It's bad enough that anybody can make an iPhone photo, and technology is so good now. In some cases, they don't even need you now.”

Stubblebine speaks from experience. He was once swayed to work for cheaper than his normal rate because of a company’s cry of budget issues. So he thought, “maybe just once.”

“I said I would do it for half the rate I would normally charge.,” Stubblebine said. “But then they had me work much longer than they said they needed me. I haven’t worked for them again.”

Even in Alfred Golub’s younger “hippie” days, he said he wasn’t interested in doing work for free. Golub, a freelancer with more than 50 years experience and NPPA member, said people still asked for free work.

“I was really excited to shoot for this band,” Golub said. “But they couldn't understand why they needed to get paid to be a band, but I didn't need to get paid to be a photographer.”

There are always exceptions, though. Now retired, Golub lives near Yosemite National Park and volunteers every now and then by taking and providing pictures to the park.

“I volunteer with the National Park and work my ass off, all for free,” Golub said. “But it's for a purpose higher than me. I would work for free for that.”

However, he said there is a difference in providing free work for something like he does, and letting businesses use your work for free. This is especially the case, Golub said, when they are trying to make a profit or promote something using your work.

“If it's a professional business making money, they have no business using your images without giving you money,” Golub said.

There are, of course, certain jobs that a visual journalist must look at and see if taking it on for free is worth it. But overall, doing free work is generally a terrible business practice, according to NPPA board member Brad Smith.

“Every situation has to be weighed,” Smith said. “It depends on the photographer. But if you're just giving out your work, it can devalue it. It also devalues the photographer community as a whole.”

But Golub has a positive outlook on this industry. Well, sort of.

He said though many new visual journalists may opt for free work as a way to get their name out there, eventually free work becomes tiring. Golub has seen this, where photographers take free jobs and eventually get tired of them.

“There have always been those people who do the work for free to get published, but they don't last very long,” Golub said. “I've outlasted a lot of them.”