The Free Culture


“We needed a small favor… we need some high resolution shots for a photo-wall for our event.
Please do let us know if you can spare some photographs for us.”

“We want you to attend our conference and photograph it because it will be great for your portfolio.”

“I don’t understand why you charge so much?! The other photographers have quoted only X amount.”

A response to my price estimate for an assignment : “Does it also include air travel to Venice?

This is a small selection of emails – and other modes of communication — I see often and in large numbers. Since I work with a lot of non-Indian clients too, it is worth pointing out that every single one of these emails comes from my own fellow Indians, whether resident in India or abroad.

They point to an uncomfortable truth about the “Free Culture” that many of us suffer but few speak up about or against.

 

Let’s deal with these one by one.

The “We needed a small favor…” excuse.

If an organisation is holding an event, they have a budget for it. The budget pays for the venue, the fabricators, the caterers, and other related expenses for a successful event. And then as an after thought comes archiving. They then scurry around looking for a professional photographer – I have had calls to cover spectacular launch events for well-established brands by PR agencies scrambling the day before the event – and ask for images for free. Would they get very far if they had approached the venue seeking a similar “favor”? It is doubtful. “Oh but Naina, they’re just asking for digital files! They’re not asking for you to even make prints!” To which I want to say, “You must mistake me for Rumpelstiltskin for I cannot weave pictures out of thin air.” The truth remains that PR agencies, like other service providers, rarely or never push back when a client gives them an improbably small budget. Why don’t they push back? Because they themselves aren’t mindfully present in their roles as advisors nor have the confidence in themselves to disagree with the client politely. They are scared to lose the business, because the client might see disagreement as an affront.

 

The “good for your portfolio” excuse next.

Yes, I care about my portfolio and I want it to include pieces that I am proud to showcase. I put in hard work and time to create those pieces. Mostly with the help of fantastic clients, and sometimes on my own doing personal projects. But if you like my work enough to come to me to cover your grand wedding or a client event, it goes without saying my approach to building my portfolio has paid off. It would be good if you could show some concern about my not being driven out of business. You can show this concern by paying me. That would also demonstrate your concern about and interest in my portfolio.

 

The “other photographer / designer / branding person” excuse.
To this, I have nothing much to say. Except to suggest gently that you please hire them since you like their pricing and since in your judgment, the quality of work is similar to mine. Really. I won’t be offended. There is enough work for everyone.

 

Then there is this: “Does it also include air travel to Venice?

I believe sarcasm is unnecessary. Did you see me invoke unicorns up there when discussing “digital images not prints”? The professional way to deal with a disagreement would be to inform a professional service provider that your budget cannot accommodate their prices. This can be said in plain English. After all we hardly snigger at your lack of research about pricing various components of your events and your not advising your client better, do we? Over time, clients who did not have the budget for me on one occasion have come back to me for a different project and we have since gone on to do more work together. Remaining professional and polite costs nothing but everyone remembers incompetence layered with uncalled-for sarcasm.

 

Assume for a moment, the same prospects who wrote to me above also wrote the same to a lawyer. Laughable, yes? Or asked a surgeon to conduct a life-saving surgery for free, because the patient would then be a walking-talking advertisement for the surgeon’s skill? No? You won’t ask? What about using the same excuses with your house-keeper and your driver who get to spend their day in the air-conditioned comfort of your home or your car? Never going to happen? Ok I hear you.

 

If you believe that my work adds no value to your or your brand, why reach out?

The answer to that is, “Dekho toh sahi, shaayad haan bol de.” [ Translation : No harm in asking. ]. But there is harm. Just that you do not know about it. I lose all respect for you and your brand. While you might think that I don’t matter in the large scheme of things, I do talk about my experiences – with my peers, juniors and seniors. We all discuss. We all draw our own conclusions. [ There’s also this : whopaysindeed.in ]

In a rapidly growing country, we need to consider not just the short term gain but also the long term benefit of creating a market – that has both clients AND service providers. Both need to exist for the sake of the other. Both need to treat each other well for the respect they deserve for doing their own jobs well.

 

Professionalism is a two-way street. If prospects treat vendors professionally, by offering not to disrespect their trade by asking them to give away their work for free, vendors are inclined to respect their clients too.

I’ve heard this many times, “But can’t you make it a little cheaper? You could do a little less work in return – or maybe not do ‘such’ a good job as with clients who pay you top dollar.” And no. I can’t. It’s not that I don’t want to – I simply can not. It is not possible for me to tell my brain to think slower and not-so-creatively because a prospective client doesn’t have the budget. I still deliver exceptional work and I refuse to be unprofessional.

My business principles are clear : I do not work for free. I know I am good at what I do and I deserve to flourish.

Janmejay Rathore said,

March 25, 2013 @ 4:00 pm

Awesome post Naina! There is no dearth of work for people who are passionate about what they do!

August 21, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

Ha! All the creative people in India face this. To add to this, there are also some who say, ‘This is just the first bit of our project, we just want to see how you perform and then we are going to give you a lot more work’. All they are looking for free work.

Good post by the way :) Hit some right chords.

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