Credit: GG Illustrator AJ Duncan (@ajc.illustrates)

Experience or exploitation?

By Rothery Sullivan

Should you ever provide work for free as an aspiring artist?

There’s a debate in the young artist community over providing artwork for free: should artists have to give away their work with no compensation just for the sake of publicity and to build their portfolio, or should artists still be compensated no matter how little experience they have? I think in this situation there are multiple circumstances to consider – but overall, every artist should be compensated for their work in some sort of way, whether it be with money, knowledge or both.

As an aspiring journalist myself, I wouldn’t want to give away my writing for free unless I was giving it to an organisation that I support. While it’s true that my skills as a writer improve every time I write a new piece, writing for free ultimately devalues the work, time and experience that I have put in over the years to develop my skills. It’s difficult to build a portfolio without writing for free publications, and so it’s important to consider which publications you’re donating your time and work to.

For me, the first thing to think about is if I’m writing for an organisation that deserves my donation of time and work (which has some monetary value even if it isn’t paid for, as many free publications make their revenue from advertisements). I enjoy writing for not-for-profit, free publications that I think benefit communities I’m a part of, such as The Glasgow Guardian, which helps to spread the voices of younger adults (that wouldn’t otherwise have a platform) and inform university students on important issues. While it can be argued that free publications hurt the journalism industry by discouraging consumers from paying for the content they read and forcing journalists to write for free, I think that many publications are free in order to provide a platform for voices that would otherwise not be heard. This being said, I would also happily write articles for free on behalf of not-for-profit charities (such as writing an article about an animal shelter desperately in need of donations), as the charity would be an organization worth the donation of my time. In regards to who you donate your writing to, this is a personal choice, but I think that it can be ethical in a multitude of cases.

However, I do think a serious issue exists with many organisations exploiting young, less experienced journalists with the only form of “payment” being “exposure” or “portfolio building”. Often times young artists will jump at the opportunity to be published as it will give them a chance to get their name out into the writing community; think of how amazing it would seem to be published in a world-renowned newspaper because even if you wouldn’t be paid for it, you would still have the chance to get your name out there for publishers and potential employers to read. However, if the organisation is profiting from your work and pays their other journalists, then it is unethical for them not to pay you just because your portfolio is smaller, you’re younger, or you have less professional experience. If the work is at a high enough quality to be published alongside other paid-for pieces, then that work should be compensated for as well. 

There is one contingency here though, and it applies to unpaid internships. There are some circumstances wherein an unpaid intern’s work will be published without monetary compensation, which may seem unethical at first glance. However, there may be situations in which the intern is compensated in knowledge, as their work may not have been at a high enough quality at the start of the internship, but with the help of editors and other paid staff, their work is improved to the point of being worthy of publication. In this instance, the organisation pays for their interns work in the form of knowledge by paying its employees to teach, edit, and work with the intern to improve their skills. The intern is gaining the value of knowledge, which most would agree has monetary value as well. Organisations should compensate their journalists for the quality of work they provide, not necessarily just for the level of experience the artist has. If the organisation is a not-for-profit and doesn’t pay any of their staff, then it is up to the artist whether or not the publication is worth their time, but if the organisation typically pays their staff for their pieces, then it is unethical to ask for a person’s work for free simply because of their age or small portfolio. I think this applies to all types of art, whether it be graphic design, acting, musical performance, etc, as many organisations will try to exploit younger artists who are unsure if they are deserving of a paycheck. Providing work for free should not involve another person profiting off of your skills when you gain nothing in return, as this devalues your time as an artist and does not take into consideration the years of work you have put in to gain the skills that make you successful at your craft.


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