Photo by Chris Curry on Unsplash

Dying of Exposure: The Perils of Unpaid Work

No matter what field you’re in, you may find yourself struggling to find work that matches your degree, certification, or other qualifications that you work so hard for in college or trade school. You may see the insane job listings that demand five years experience for an entry-level position (hint: those are done when they have an internal candidate they already plan on hiring but they’re required to still advertise the position). You may find yourself feeling like the “unpaid. but great experience and potential for future full-time employment!” listings are your only hope.

Many millennials and Gen Zers feel your pain. As boomers retire later in life, there simply aren’t as many jobs opening up. Job growth has recovered since the Great Recession, but is still slow. And make no mistake, STEM fields aren’t chock-full of jobs. Many people still can’t find full-time work in their field.

Thus, young people tend to live in the gig economy. While boomers often mistake this for our employment preference (and even if it is, that’s okay), the reality is that, especially for creative fields, one often has to work in the gig economy to make money for what they do. Navigating the world of freelance is tricky, and there are plenty of great resources here on Medium.

The dark side of freelance is the dreaded exposure option. Established creative professionals can easily scoff at this. Give away your work for free?! Accept promises of exposure to people who will pay? How foolish!

Rather than laugh at people considering work for exposure, let’s revisit it as an inevitable question. It’s incredibly common for people to want photography, graphic design, web work, acting, you name it for free. And sometimes, working for free can help boost your portfolio. You’ve got to play it smart.

Seeing Through the BS

You hear a lot about class warfare these days. In the arts industry, you’re one of two things: privileged, accomplished artist in a higher earning bracket, or starving artist. Sometimes that changes within a week. It’s essential to protect yourself and your ideas, because if you’re in the starving artist mode, you have no bargaining power if someone “borrows” your ideas. And I hate to sound cynical, but they’re not going to give you credit. It’s dog-eat-dog.

Use your common sense. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The best anecdote I personally have about this is drawn from a Craigslist ad I saw, requesting illustrators to work on a Cartoon Network project that the poster claimed had been greenlit by the network. He said that he could not offer compensation but would give a free DVD of the completed project. So presumably, Cartoon Network has such a tiny budget that it greenlights shows and then has its creators recruit talent on Craigslist and offer no compensation. Doubtful. I sent an email calling out the poster on this, upon which he wrote back complaining that I was “being negative” and admitting that while the show was not greenlit, he had no reason to believe it wouldn’t be and this project would be great “exposure” for me.

Wrong, wrong, wrong!

Lessons Learned

I once responded to an ad for a makeup designer for a haunted house. They wanted really unique and gross designs. As someone with past experience in this, I was excited to apply and even more excited when they responded. They asked for two sample designs. I spent several hours on renderings of truly unique designs.
I never heard back.

You know why? They got designs for free through the ad, and they probably got a cosmetology or theatre student to execute the design for “exposure.”

Protect your ideas and plans; wait until things are in writing before sharing any of the juicy bits of your plan. And never, ever send any sort of intellectual property through email. Show in person only.

Don’t give something that’s reproducible for free. Logos are especially bad. Many new businesses know they need a logo, but they don’t think it’s worth more than a few dollars (or they say that, anyway). They are going to slap it on everything. How is not worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars?!

I learned my lesson by the time I started doing freelance graphic design work. I did a poster, handbill, and program for a charitable event. Each item took a lot of time, but I believed in the cause, so it was worth my time and effort. And most importantly, they couldn’t use my design after the event, but I still had something for my portfolio, and the exposure I received from donating my time got me paid opportunities.

Is Exposure Worth It?

Here’s the thing: working for exposure has a time and place. A very specific time and a very specific place. For example: opening for an established local band in your community for no (monetary) compensation will have very little impact on your future success, although the broader the following of the band, the more likely it is that performing for free will help “get your name out there.”

“Exposure” happens through your audience who likes your work so much that they tell the world about it. That has nothing to do with whether or not the venue or producer pays you. Remember, promoters have no reason to pay unknown performers, because they’ve got a bottom line to protect and your name isn’t going to boost their sales. If you insist on compensation, you’ve got them by the short hairs: they’ve got to book talent, and a lot of it, while preserving their reputation. They know that other promoters will pay if they don’t. So don’t be afraid to ask for compensation.

In fact, always demand compensation of some kind. If you’re working for exposure, make sure you get it. Ask for your name and social media to be included in the client’s website, flyer, etc. Ask for a stipend, or if they would reimburse your gas.

And on the other side of things: If you need photography or graphic design, for example, done but can’t afford a pro, don’t abuse a desperate recent graduate or rapidly improving hobbyist who might do it for free. Offer a stipend or work on trade.

There’s really no excuse to not compensate someone fairly, but if you must deal with someone who refuses to pay, make them work for you, not the other way around. After all, they’re not paying you, so technically you don’t work for them!

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