on choosing when to work for free

“I’m pursuing an MFA degree in creative writing. Yeah, I’m going straight to the poor house.”

I used that line every time I was on a first date, because apparently, having an MFA degree, no wait, two MFA degrees in creative writing doesn’t mean I’m creative. The men I went out with would generally respond by saying, “Oh, that’s not true,” or, “At least you’re following your dreams.”

Yes. I always dream to be poor.

Back when I was in school, though, my cohorts and I would commiserate on the writers job market. Right now, I’m used to hearing things like journalism is dead (thanks, Huffington Post), the job market sucks (it always has and always will be), and a degree in fine arts is a total waste of time (it definitely is not).

Yet here I am, scouring website after website for job ads that are related to my official training (writing) and unofficial training (photography). 90% of the ads are always non-paying internships, non-paying writing gigs, or non-paying photography gigs, all promising exposure and a possible career in the company. Six percent of the ads offer minimum wage ($9 for California). Two percent of the ads are spam. One percent of the ads offer almost reasonable compensation. Only one percent of the ads are legitimate and obviously I never hear from them after applying.

Free work! Free work for everybody (in the arts industry)!

I saw an ad on Craigslist for a photographer for a party hosted by an organization. The poster wanted experienced/student photographer, and promised a chance to network. The ad included the organization’s website, and I learned that the organization was founded by big names in the medical/pharmaceutical industries.

They earn millions and millions of dollars and they don’t want to spare some to pay the photographers? Even student photographers?

That’s how terrible it is for those in the arts industry. And I understand if the reason is because art is subjective. There are some movie directors whose work I don’t get (Apatow, Anderson, and Tarantino). There are some writers whose work I don’t get (D’Agata and David Foster Wallace… and Stephenie Meyer). There are some musicians whose work I don’t get (Marley, Dylan, Gaga). And don’t start with painters and sculpturers and poets. Poets are the worst. I’m sorry. I have many poet friends, but seriously, poets are the worst.

“Jelly Beans” by Cosimo Cavallaro. Photo by LA Weekly. I totally don’t understand why this is art.

What I don’t understand is when people think that writing (or photography or painting or singing or sculpting) is easy and therefore justifies the nonexistent or meager stipend. This is where the arts become nothing more than just a hobby industry. It’s never going to be taken seriously. It’s always going to be something on the side. No one’s life (except for the artist’s) depends on art.

I mean, have you ever heard a medical doctor or a nurse or a pilot being offered a job but there’s no payment but a guarantee of exposure, networking opportunities, and potential employment?

Ugly bruises after a nurse took my blood. Thank goodness it was covered by Medi-Cal.

Ugly bruises after a nurse took my blood. Thank goodness it was covered by Medi-Cal.

The thing that most people don’t get time and again is that art is not cheap. First of all, there are the basic needs that have to be met: food, shelter, clothes, and in some cases, student loans. A lot of new people in the profession struggle to stay alive and offer something extra in the competition, even if it means undercutting the standard price.

Then there are the tools and equipment. For a writer or a journalist, this means the Internet, a laptop, electricity, books and other research sources. For a make-up artist, this means hundreds of dollars worth of face paint and high-quality brushes. For a photographer, this means expensive DSLR camera(s), expensive lenses, lighting equipment, and a computer with photo processing software. Adobe no longer sells its programs. Everything is now subscription-based with $10 a month for Photoshop and LightRoom in the Photography bundle and $20 a month for individual software such as Illustrator. I can’t even afford to Photoshop the hideous bruises on my arm.

Good writers, good photographers, good art workers of any kind invest in training. They may be talented, but they also need some sort of schooling to sharpen their skills. This training may come in workshops or certification programs or community college or two-year programs or books, but it won’t be free.

You may have read, heard, or even written this kind of complaint before, but here’s another side of the story.

Like millions of other people, especially in Los Angeles, I’m a budding photographer. I have a Nikon DSLR, lenses that are made for low-light conditions because I’m focusing more on performance and social events photography, and photography equipment. I started photographing inanimate objects like my doll and flowers. Then I moved on to animals. Then I started taking pictures of performances and people on the streets. Then I began experimenting with artificial lighting and I had no one to photograph except myself. And that was time consuming, what with setting up the lights, putting on make-up, framing, setting up the timer, posing, then running back to the camera to check if everything was in order, repeat, repeat, repeat.

I realized that I needed a model so I could focus on just being a photographer. So I asked around. I asked my classmates, I asked my dance friends, and some of them were gracious enough to lend their beauty in exchange for the photos that they can use however, whenever, and whichever way the want.

The gorgeous Christine Honer of Whittier Tribal Belly Dance. Click on the photo to see more portraits I’ve done.

Some of my friends declined for whatever reason, which was also not a big deal.

Meanwhile, I’m also teaching English writing skills to immigrants. This is a weekly volunteer job at the Adult Literacy Center at LA Central Library. I don’t get paid for it, but it feels great to share whatever knowledge I have about writing (and English) to these people and of course to hear their stories and give them a chance to write (and speak).

So, here’s the thing: if you want to do free work, it’s totally up to you, but (as a photographer or writer) you have to remember these things:

  1. Undercutting (be it offering free work or for a significantly lower amount of money than competitors) hurts the industry. That’s right. If you want to make money, you have to remember that art is an industry.
  2. Find free work that gives you something else besides money. Volunteer for a local charity group or for a local animal shelter. Take photos of people whom you trust and love. But don’t bully them into giving you work. If they decline, move on.
  3. Know who’s giving the work. Is it a reputable company or organization? Find out why they’re not paying. If you’re sure that “working” there may increase your chance of having a career, go for it. But remember that, again, you’re also hurting the industry. I once did a free work as a copy editor for a start-up online publication that folded after three months. I didn’t get new connections, and the website went offline and took my writing portfolio with it.
  4. Decline if you think it’s not worth it. Maybe the gig is way out there and gas and travel expenses are just not worth it. Maybe the hours are inhumane. Maybe you have something better to do that day. Like sleeping.

I know. You have to start somewhere. We have to start somewhere. That doesn’t mean you need to be a doormat to a company or organization or a person who obviously has the means to pay you but is too cheap to do that, right?

Choose your battles wisely, and remember, we’re in this together.

lambda literary reading

It was an absolute honor to be selected as one of the Fellowship recipients at this year’s Lambda Literary Foundations Writers Retreat. Here’s a piece about why we need gay clubs in Indonesia.