Hey guys, Andy here. My open letter to Tom Ford has now garnered over 100 ‘reactions’ and comments that show requests for free work are unfortunately all too common. The letter was not personal, I do not know the man himself, rather the behaviour from the brand is an indicator of a wider trend of a creative’s work being valued at £0, but good enough for a third party to gain from, often financially. It is not the only bad practice by brands and it shows a disconnect between what brands claim and how they behave.
Requests for work for free and #RightsGrabs are not new. Photography competitions have been seizing rights for work entered for decades but the frequency of these requests and grabs is increasing; this tweet appeared today on my feed today of a photographer asked by Vogue Runway, a publication owned by Conde Nast, for two images for credit only. When asked for a rate, the request was withdrawn. The issue isn’t limited to photography either; at the end of May Tesla’s co- founder and CEO, Elon Musk, invited artists to submit work to cover the walls of the new Giga Berlin plant with “awesome graffiti art”. The request was subsequently confirmed by the company official Twitter channel. While there was no clear indication that work was expected for free, it is worth noting neither was there an offer of payment. Valued at $567bn, with co- founder and owner Musk himself worth $162bn, there is no reason for Tesla not to pay.
While I was not explicit in saying it in my open letter such practices are exploitative. There is no other way to describe billion dollar companies and individuals asking for work for free. To be clear exposure or goods in return do not pay the bills however while a request for free work is attention grabbing, it is not the only exploitative or poor behaviour practiced by brands; other red flags include low rates and changes to licensing at last minute. More warning signs can be found here.
Accepting a low rate can be rationalised by establishing a relationship with a client in order to book bigger and more impressive work. From experience this rarely happens; once you accept the work you get pigeon holed as only being capable for photographing those types of images. I give up the number of times I have photographed events for brands and never more interesting jobs. I photographed high performance brand Shackleton’s first shoot in return for a parka jacket after which they promised there would always be a place for me with them (I turned the jacket down as I had no need for it, thus effectively completing the work for free). I was asked back for one paid shoot and then the brand stopped contacting me. When I quizzed them why they replied they knew I’d get upset with more requests for free work, so they were getting (free) images from another photographer. Full transparency, I do not know if they have started to pay for photography; needless to say they have not reconnected with me. I also accepted a low rate to shoot portraits for British luxury brand DAKS in the hope of getting my foot in the door with the brand. The morning of the shoot they changed the licence for no extra fee giving me no option but to walk away. Due to forfeiting on an equipment deposit, I lost money.
Accepting low rates disincentivizes me as a creative to truly engage with a shoot. Why should I work above and beyond expectations to give a client a great product when both I’m accepting a low rate and if I know it will not lead to better work? The shoot is not an investment in future opportunities thus I will not see a return on any equipment or production spend; merely it is a drain on what goes into my pocket. So why accept a low rate and not insist on higher rates? Low rates are accepted as there will always be someone willing to work for cheaper and if so, why should they get paid and not me? Also, it is really hard not to accept low rates if that is the only work on offer. It is easy to expound the virtues of differentiating yourself by offering a higher quality product than your competitors but, for reasons just offered, it is often hard to achieve.
And herein is the disconnect; at Tom Ford, a men’s jacket is priced at over £2,000, the house blazer at DAKS is £425 and a Shackleton parka is priced at over £1,000. Yet all three brands were or are unwilling to pay a reasonable rate for photography to help sell and promote their items. Vogue Runway refused to offer a rate for images they wanted to publish and Elon Musk and Tesla did not offer a rate for art work to decorate their new factory. All are brands that market themselves as luxury or premium, yet while they claim quality, innovation and aspiration, on the other hand they are unable or unwilling to recompense the talent that behind their product. When consumers are increasingly voting with their feet and purchasing and consuming goods in keeping with their own values, how long can brands and companies ignore the creatives on whom the brands depend? How can work be valued if the creatives behind them are not rewarded for their efforts? Such practices destroy trust and disincentivizes effort yet creatives are afraid to say anything lest they are seen as trouble makers and black listed from future work, which allow such practices to continue as they remain hidden. What is more when bigger and successful brands such as Tesla and Tom Ford behave in this way, the practice is normalised and used as the example of how to behave by smaller brands which further ingrains them in the market place. Such behaviour needs to be called out and it needs to end. Work has value and should be rewarded.