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A Harsh Rant On Working For Free By A Hollywood Writer | But Is He Right?

By Kishore Sawh on November 15th 2014


Where do you stand on working for free? It seems there’s a bit of a divide on the topic and feelings on the subject are so intense, that it’s akin to picking a religion – a line in the sand is drawn, and whichever side you choose is going to meet with real conflict from the other.

It has been my experience, however, that those on the side in favor of never working for free are a bit more fierce about it. To them, the world of work and compensation for work is rather black and white, or, green rather. It would appear to many in that camp that the only type of compensation for their work is monetary. This is a sentiment shared, rather passionately by writer Harlan Ellison, as depicted here in this short excerpt from the film ‘Dreams With Sharp Teeth.’

Harlan is known for being outspoken about the things he believes in, whether that be copyright, or marching for his beliefs as he did in the 1965 Bloody Sunday March led by Martin Luther King Jr. In this clip, it’s about the former, and likely many of you share his sentiments. The idea of working for free is abhorrent to Ellison, and he makes many of the arguments as a writer that photographers make.


There’s mention of how amateurs are undercutting the pros and how it’s in fact the amateurs who make it hard for the professionals because their willingness to work for free trains the public into thinking this is how it should be. He further goes on to challenge the value of publicity in return for work. Take a look at the short clip and see how you feel.

*Warning* This video is not censored and rather abundant in profanity.*


My introduction to Ellison was a few years ago when I read a vintage piece from Esquire Magazine said to be one of, if not the best magazine article the magazine had ever published. ‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’ is somewhat a profile of Sinatra, but there’s a short segment noting a minor altercation between him and Ellison. Granted, I still didn’t pay much attention to it until the person who sent me the piece told me about the scripts Ellison had done for shows like Star Trek and Hitchcock. Yet as much as I like Ellison, I disagree with his perspective.

Actually, let me clarify, I disagree that it’s so cut and dry. The value of working for free doesn’t have to be measured in coin. Ellison may not need the publicity as much as he needs the money, but he’s also already very established. In the quest to become established, working for free can be one of the best things you can do. There is value in publicity for most of us, but aside from that, depending on the situation, you may be able to learn something from the venture, or contribute something, and perhaps the gesture may carry its own weight in the form of good faith, to be redeemed later on.

[REWIND: Your Work Can’t Speak For Itself | Do You Know What Else You Need To Be Hired?]

I, and a number of successful people I know, granted most not in photography, have worked for free at some point in life. Worked hard for free, and for some, including myself, for months upon months, and the payoff was worth it. If you want to secure a spot in a business with high competition, even as a studio right hand, the offer to work for free may set you apart and get you on a shortlist. It can be a chance to prove yourself that the other side may not have gotten. Working for free in some scenarios also often shows that you are probably very serious, and since it’s your time on the line, won’t waste that of others.

I can hear some of you saying, “Ok Kish, but we are talking about shooting for free,” to which I would tell you the same applies. Like religion, it requires a leap of faith. Obviously, you’ve got to know when you’re being taken advantage of, or when there’s really nothing in it for you, and when to cut your losses. But to draw a hard line that you’ll never work for free, and that money is the only value to be had from any venture, well, you may giving and not selling product, but selling yourself short.

Source: PetaPixel

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Tosh Cuellar

    Great video, great article, I’m of the opinion that it’s not so black and white, I’ve seen great work and great relationships come from free work, and I’ve seen a free shoot lead to lots of paid gigs.

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  2. Greg Faulkner

    I saw this ages ago originally but its still great to watch.

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  3. Anthony McFarlane

    Lol, great video. Million dollar company… pay the man.

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  4. Len Feldman

    In this particular case, Ellison is talking about a promotional video that he filmed years earlier, and he has a perfect right to be paid. Warner Bros. could have purchased perpetual rights to the video at the time it was made, but it chose not to. In general, I believe that the only black & white decision on whether or not to work for free is when you do work for a non-profit charity that you strongly support. In that case, free work is effectively a contribution to the charity. In other cases, I would ask a few questions:

    1) Is this a project that the producers expect to make money on? If so, you should get paid for the value of your work.
    2) Is this a project that would really benefit you if it was part of your portfolio, even if the producers are unable to pay you? If the answer is yes, it’s worth it to at least consider doing it for free.
    3) Is this a student or art project, and would the experience be helpful to you as a learning experience? If those are both true, it’s worth considering doing it for free.
    4) Are other people on the project getting paid? (I’m talking about people being paid for services such as acting, lighting, sound, camerawork, etc., not equipment rental.) If the answer is yes, you should also get paid, or at least have a very good reason to forego payment.
    5) Is this a “friends & family” project, where your family or friends are behind it? If that’s the case, you’ll probably end up doing the work for free anyway…

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  5. John Cavan

    I’m not a professional photographer, I don’t even play one on TV, but I’m a very avid amateur with some decent enough skills and a deep enough wallet to buy some good gear. If guys like me give it away, then guys like you do lose out in some ways and I don’t think the truth of that can be escaped. Even if it isn’t necessarily lost business, it’s probably in the price you might charge for that business. That situation has all but killed stock photography as a means to make a living, so I don’t think other segments are particularly immune.

    I know that the dedicated professional is going to produce a better outcome, that’s the skill investment that I haven’t made, but who can tell or cares enough to look? As I noted in another article here, the things that I see photographers agonize over isn’t anywhere near the radar of the average consumer. Ever see either Mom or Dad, while herding the kids, pop out a loupe to check that sharpness on the latest wall art fad? Professional advertising agencies and publications have a different standard, sometimes, but even that isn’t assured as witnessed by the Chicago Sun-Times (who have since rehired all of 4 from the 29 let go). Long story short, there are a lot of people that simply don’t have the standards that would make the professional vs amateur value add meaningful to them. Good enough is a real mantra.

    So, I have to admit, I agree with Ellison. I don’t code for free for the same reason, but I might give a very good “friends and family discount” that turns into a nice steak dinner as the case arises but that would never be to a business.

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  6. John Sheehan

    I guess it depends on the project. If it’s a project I believe in with my soul, I don’t care as much about the financial compensation as I do with bringing that project to life.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Sure John, i agree it really isn’t cut and dry, and depends on the project. As it can depend on a lot else too. Cheers

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