This is a touchy subject. I know this, because whenever the topic comes up amongst creatives of all types... PASSIONS are IGNITED like an Italian lovers quarrel!
For those who dont know what TFP means... Trade For Print or in other words... work for free. The reality of TFP can be some low res images 8 months down the track... sometimes nothing... yet, sometimes...
It's for the magic moments that have creatives around the world getting lured in to TFP for the romantic notion that some magic will happen for everyone involved... and like a sordid addiction... have no awareness of when to stop... or even that stopping is a choice at any moment.
The fear of saying NO to a TFP and then it turning into an amazing project, connection or lead to possible work sure has gifted some creatives sleepless nights or at least that extra glass of wine to calm the nerves.
I have been around a lot of students lately and so questions about TFP has come up a bit. Now that we are in the times of a major feature film having a $250 makeup budget in which Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews go on to win the Oscar for... it feels like a good time to share my thoughts.
Some artists are a strict NO to free work.
I went through phases of thinking this way... In and out of complete stubbornness... sometimes even righteous on my NO's... however I dont think the question of saying yes or no is a simple black and white answer. Here lies the problem.
I definitely think it's a case by case scenario and you should always at least CONSIDER it before you say no and slam the door. I also think that TFP for your career evolves over time and possibly gets more valuable as your career progresses. Now, everyone will have their individual opinion on this... but this is what I have learnt over the past 14 years:
Why work for free?
Sometimes that hardest part of TFP, especially when you are in your first few years of your career, is explaining to your friends and family whom cant get their head around the fact that you would 'work for free'. This is a crazy industry and its hard enough sometimes for us to wrap our heads around whats going on.. let alone people who aren't in it. So give them some slack. The trick for others understanding, and your peace, is education... I am often saying "hey remember when I went and did that ____ for free? Well from that, I met _____ and I picked up this ____ job and now have a new client who pays well"... I feel like I am now, however, well practiced in choosing my TFP so I can say that more often... but i did have to 'kiss a few frogs' to learn the ropes.
When you start in the industry, the benefits of TFP can be great. You get new images for your portfolio, you get to meet new industry people, you also get to experiment and refine your craft under real working conditions. That in itself cant be bought.
The catch is, no one can tell you what will be a good TFP or not... you need to develop your inner compass. You will make mistakes along the way but you will soon get a good feel for it.
One of my favourite TFP stories is a few years ago...standing backstage at Sydney Fashion Week after just directing makeup for Miss Unkon... and realising that the whole reason I was in that position was because I one day said yes to a TFP through Model Mayhem... the photographer and stylist from that shoot went on to start Miss Unkon who took me along for the ride.
Say yes to everything? Think about it first.
- When you are a new artist... its easy to frantically say yes to everything that comes your way. Regardless of your experience... you should still do your homework. I like to consider TFP as relationship builders... not just an opportunity for a new folio picture that, lets face it, you will probably stop using the image in 6 months time as you will have better examples of your work as you refine your craft.
Here are some mantras I find useful -
"Will this HONESTLY move my portfolio forward?"
"Do I have a good feeling about this job? Yes? Do it. No? Dont EVER be afraid to say no."
(no ones career has stopped because they said no)
" Do I like the past work of the photographer?"
"Am I willing to give away this time and product for free even if nothing comes of this work?"
"Is this a working relationship I want to invest in?"
Do your homework... you can soon tell photographers who do the rounds of new artists. This may be a clue into seeing that may not be a long term working relationship. If you like their work... then go ahead and do something for your portfolio but dont get upset if its a brief working relationship.
Regardless of your experience... I always say... think before you say yes.
The art of good investing in TFP is recognising the VALUE for your career.
After a non specific period of time... (and you will instinctively know when this is happening)... your TFP starts to transition into something new. It actually NEEDS to to benefit your career. It goes from photo shoots with strangers where you just have your fingers crossed something will look great... to testing, where you as a team collaborate to create folio shots. The difference is only subtle... but it does strangely feel like you are at the next level of the computer game we are all playing.
It's during this time you should start saying no more often... not to your collaborations with other creatives you are testing with... but no to the TFPs you were saying yes to at the start. Basically say no to anything that isn't going to elevate your portfolio... or more to the point, start letting go the grip you have on the idea that every single offer of TFP is an amazing opportunity. You have already invested the time building your folio from scratch... the time now is to build UP on that... not sideways.
This can be the most difficult part... and for a lot of people this is the time they get righteous and say no to every single unpaid job. They start building momentum and that's it... no more free work. "How DARE you ask me to work for free!" I think there is certainly a time to cut it down dramatically... however, you should always keep an open mind to testing with your favourite professionals and you could be creating fresh new images for your folio that fills gaps. Your working life isn't going to magically provide you with the perfect recipe of examples of your work that will have the clients calling in. Sometimes you need to boost you body of work with a test to show your versatility as an artist. Also sometimes a test with someone higher up in their careers is worth its weight in gold.
Trust your gut instincts
I have had TFP jobs where something inside me said to do it... and even though I may have hated every minute of it... something good has come from it in the end. I have also had the opposite happen... I thought it was going to be GREAT and the results were rubbish and I never saw those people again. I clearly didn't trust my gut on those occasions.
Here is, (in a round about way) an example.
I had just moved to Sydney from QLD and one of my favourite clients had booked me for a paid campaign in Byron Bay. I was super excited as I LOVE this client and I always get to do beautiful work. A week prior... I had an overwhelming gut feeling that I should replace myself for the job. This went against ALL logic... financially and any other logic that applied. I mulled over it for a day and then felt I had no choice but to have that awkward conversation with my client. I replaced myself with another artist who was amazing so I knew she was in good hands.
The next day I woke up with one of those "What the hell have I done???" gasps. I couldn't change my mind back so went about my life.
The day I was supposed to be in QLD for the campaign... I was sitting in my studio when I received a phone call. It was from the moving company who were transporting my large furniture items and sentimental things down from QLD.
They were 3 days early.
Not only were they early... but the truck driver was irate that he couldn't get down my street... a long story short, I spent the afternoon calming him down so I didn't have all my stuff broken as well as finding a place to park the truck and borrowing a Ute so we could move my precious things to where they needed to be.
Had I been in QLD... he said (in the most irate voice) that he would have dumped it all at a storage shed and it would have cost another grand at least to them have it moved a second time. Not to mention I had a sneaking suspicion my things would have been damaged.
My campaign money would not have covered the cost.
Needless to say... I gave my gut instincts a high five and was grateful nothing got broken by the neanderthal who hated his job. I also still have a great working relationship with that client whom I still work with today.
BEWARE the CARROT DANGLER
If I ever hear the words "this will be excellent exposure for you", as a rule, I run away as fast as I can.
I find this is a line fed to artists when the asking party needs to convince the artist to work for them because in fact it is better for the asker than the artist.
In other words... "this will be excellent exposure for you" translates to "I need you, but I dont want to pay you... and this is all I can think of to say to sound attractive to you"
Those TFPs that I have done where I have been fed that line... never works out the way it's promised it will. Never.
You know what is great exposure? A commercial during super bowl. Is this job a super bowl add? No? Think HARD before you say yes.
There IS of course that one exception to the rule... which is:
You independently see value in investing your time in this job.
I have said yes to TFP jobs where this horrendous line has been fed to me. This was my response (or something like it)
" You know, I know you think this is going to be great exposure for me. This is going in a national magazine and it sure does sound amazing. However, it's not actually 'great exposure' ...No one is really going to pull your magazine apart and search fro my tiny name in tiny writing down the spine in hope to catch whoever did that most beautiful natural ,barely there makeup on that naturally gorgeous model, then try and find me to book me for more work from that picture. I do, however, need some more natural tear sheets for my book so of course I would love to come along. Please dont use that line again."
We all had an awkward laugh and it turned out to be a great shoot and the rest was history... and I bet they never use that line on anyone again.
*just note I knew I could speak like that as I had rappore with the client... I wouldn't say that to just anyone... or maybe I should ha!
The biggest lesson I have learnt about this whole debate is unless the job is with a group of excellent individuals all collectively getting together to create an image/s that will elevate everyone's portfolio... or if you personally see value in doing this TFP after long consideration... you should say no.
Now, of course for the newbies in the industry.. TFP is essential to create a circle of working relationships to also work on your own craft....it's your time for building a foundation of good people around you and this is an excellent way to do it. However, this period can't go on for too long. I also think any job that isn't purely for portfolio is probably taking advantage of you. You wont die if you say no. The sooner you say no to TFP the sooner you attract paid work.
I think the key is communication. Saying things like " I am in a period where I am building my folio so I would love to say yes." then " I have come to the end of my initial folio build, so thank you for the offer, but I am currently transitioning into paid jobs"... or something along those lines ensure you are in control of your decisions. Develop your compass by checking out the final products of the tests you said no to... if you wish some you had said yes to... keep practicing your selections.
Then... as your career grows... TFP turns into valuable test shoots with people you love also working with. The definition of TFP changes and you create great shoots to work on your folio.
Dont get caught in the perfectionism trap... your folio will never be perfect... I dont know any creative who has stopped working on their folio. Say no sooner than you feel comfortable as it will contribute to a better industry.
Once you have your basic folio, only say yes in very special circumstances. The opportunities will keep coming if you are proactive. Commissioning your own tests for your folio is always a good alternative to TFP. The other way to say that is "if there is no door of opportunity... build your own door."
There are so many grey areas in this debate.
Not everyone will agree with what I am saying too.
I think each opportunity should be evaluated case by case. If you think its a job that you should be getting paid for.. then say no. You wont ruin your career. I still test all the time... ( test is another word for TFP ) most of us still test, however with people we know and love and are sure to get amazing results from. Its the best way to stay fresh, current and reinvent our folios to be current in the industry. So the notion to NO TFP FULL STOP is a bit restrictive to possibilities in your career.
I am sure the artists on Dallas Buyers Club saw the immense value in the extremely low budget job... and boy did it pay off.
But those offers dont come around all that often.
Listen to your instincts and get all the facts before you make a decision.
Use TFP as a tool for your career... dont let TFP use you.
If in doubt... watch this. Your doubt is probably your instincts telling you to not do it.