Most people think creative talent — photography, writing, music, acting etc. — is part of the genetic makeup of a creative person, much like arresting beauty is part of the genetic makeup of a model. Consequently, people who ask for favors from a creative professional do so thinking the ask isn’t a big deal. That the final result is easily conjured because of the magical abilities inherent in the photographer, writer etc. This is a spectacular misunderstanding.
We creatives are partly to blame. We undervalue ourselves because our talent is inextricably entwined with our very existence. A photojournalist sees visual stories everywhere she looks, whether she has a camera or not. A writer automatically corrects writing in his head as his eyes slide over the syllables of everyday communication. A musician finds the beat of inspiration in the clang and clacks of daily life. Paradoxically, the longer we live with our creative abilities, the better we become at producing them, and the easier it looks to others.
Communicating to — pardon the factional distinction — non-creative people that what we do is in fact difficult has been a conundrum for professional creatives for centuries. There seems to be only two responses to requests for the favors of our talent; a definitive “no”, which can unfairly make us look discourteous, or a congenial “yes,” which we might regret later when the amount of unpaid work required to complete the favor becomes apparent.
The first step to a healthier interaction in doing favors is to outline your personal criteria. Imagine your friends and acquaintances sitting on rings extending concentrically out from your heart depending how well you know them. Now pick a ring that represents your cutoff. For those lucky enough to be sitting in the inner circles, a strategy must be employed to explain the amount of effort required to accommodate their favor.
Strategy 1: Offer a barter. For example, if a massage therapist or personal trainer asks for images to advertise their burgeoning business, break down what your time commitment will be and do an even trade. To illustrate, I use the example of headshots: the most misunderstood type of photography by those who don’t know photography. A veteran shooter can bang out a beautiful headshot in twenty minutes. What gets taken for granted is the travel and setup time. Factor in posting the images for selections, the back and forth via email over what the best shot is, the opinions the photographer will have to field from friends of the subject, and then finally post production, retouching, sizing and delivery. It all adds up to two plus hours. When you do an even exchange, the true value of your craft is revealed.
Strategy 2: Send a zero balance invoice under the auspices of defining the scope of the project. Put your normal fees and expenses, then under the payments line enter “friends and family discount” with a negative amount to bring the bill to zero. It seems harsh, unsympathetic, and maybe a little gauche, but there is no better way to bring to light the value of a favor. It also serves as a sanity check for you to track how much you are giving away in a year.
Exceptions will always be parents and ex-lovers. The reason you take care of your parents should be obvious, and ex-lovers, well, nostalgia and the heart are powerful forces.
Another critical exception is doing free work in order to advance your career. This is a topic with many complexities, pitfalls and insecurities that we will explore in the next article. Until then, keep in mind that just because what you do as a professional creative is fun and a part of your DNA, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have great value.