Why I don’t give my photos away for free. (A harsh lesson in the business side of photography)

*Edit #2*   So in less than 24 hours this story has been seen, commented on and shared by about 10,000 people. I received what seemed to be a genuine apology from the person that wrote me originally, and a personal apology from the owner of the magazine. I accepted both and felt like they meant it. I’m definitely not getting hired by them in the future… But even so, this seems to have made a small difference. Thank you all so much for the incredible support, kind words and for standing up for not only me but all artists. I believe this is an important issue that we need to stay vigilant about.

*Edit* I have gotten a ton of very supportive kind and thoughtful responses to this post. THANK YOU! As it turns out this is a universal experience for artists of all kinds… I have also had quite a few people asking me to publish the name, email address and publication that I am referring to. But I’m not going to do that, I don’t want to hurt the publication, or get anyone fired, I DO want to take this experience and use it to make a positive instead. Please share this blog post around on social media. I have already had many thousands of people see it. Wouldn’t it be something if this message could reach 150,000 people? This is the number that they were using to try to make me give up my work for free, in order to be exposed to… Let’s use the power of the internet to spread this message around. Maybe just maybe we can do it!

As a photographer I get TONS of requests for free work. It is an unfortunate part of doing what I do. Today after the 3rd email of its type this week (and its thursday),

I snapped…  It is SO HARD to be a small business owner. Some days it feels like I am floating in the sea by myself on a small life-raft constructed from only my ability to create nice photos.

I got approached by a large local magazine for free work, and according to their website, the publication goes out to 150,000 people a year. Now the back story here is that I already do work for a number of publications and they pay me well for my work. Here is a link to some of the covers I have made 

And for those of you that don’t already know, a magazine works like this:    They create interesting things for folks to look at and read, this is called “content” and then hopefully people will want to look at the magazine and read it. The tourism publication in question was asking for “content” from me. That means the actual magazine part, because without “content” all they have to print is Ads and who wants to read a magazine of only Ads?  Depending on how many people it gets distributed to the magazine then sells ad space with varying prices.  So in short they are willing to accept payment for the ad space but not pay the content creators of the substance for what the magazine actually is.

If you are a photographer and are reading this now, PLEASE, PLEASE don’t give away your photos for free. No one can eat “exposure” you can’t pay your rent with “exposure”  it undermines not only you, but the other professional photographers out there. They stated in an email to me that they have some “extraordinarily talented photographers who are willing to let us use their work for free” and when I said that I wouldn’t give them my photos for free, they responded like this.

“I will happily oblige your request to bow out.
And I will be sure to pass along this response to the other three art directors on our staff, not including myself, to let them know—paid or unpaid—your attitude does not warrant consideration for any future work here. They will be copied on this email.
Further more, if someone ever asks me for a reference of a local photographer—which surprise, surprise, happens in a small state with a burgeoning art community—who shoots anything related to people, landscapes, still-lifes, editorial, or any other form of photography, I’ll make sure to let them know the same. There’s your long e-mail explanation on how we do things here at this large organization.

Now to be clear, I understand when an organization like The Matty Fund or The Domestic Violence Resource Center, or The Jimmy Fund, or Camp Carefree, or Butler Hospital  come to me and ask for donations. I have, over the years donated tens of thousands of dollars worth of photography to these very organizations, and will continue to do so. But this organization in question is a for profit (and doing quite well I might add) business.

I will end by saying this. While I do get discouraged by interactions like this, I have had the opportunity to photograph thousands of grateful, kind and generous people who have kept me in business since 1999. THANK YOU to these folks. Tomorrow is another day.

About Seth Jacobson Photography

Living in Rhode Island and a bit obsessive about photography!!!

Posted on February 20, 2014, in behind the curtain, educational, Grace Magazine and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. Who treats professionals/artists like that???
    How disgusting is that? Tell me who it was and I will take them to task.


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  2. If that email came from a state employee you have to turn them into the ethics commission.

    Remember want happened to Gov Christy and the bridge it is exactly the same thing.

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  3. thank you for not hurting us ALL by giving away free work. it slays me when i see people advertising for literally nothing, then clients scoff at {what i condsider} my measly creative fee, because their cousin’s best friend can shoot their headshots for free. i really hope the world of fotography turns around and we start putting more emphasis on the artist and not on the app.
    *off my soapbox now*

  4. What an ^$$*&%!
    I’m trying not to swear on your sweet blog. But I’m having a hard time.

  5. all artists are thought to be enjoying themselves–so, why not ask them…in music, fine art, photography and would you believe in mindfulness in psychoanalysis–there is a thought that since we practice an art that we enjoy we might be a good target to give stuff away….

    people always talk to me for free…they think, well, he would be talking any way so why not make use of his words. Like you, I give away a lot and feel generous about it–but if I am asked to speak, “BECAUSE IT WILL GIVE ME EXPOSURE,” I do not like it and I do not do it.

    Imagine asking version for a free phone because the make phones anyways…..youhave
    raised a very important issue for all practitioners of art..

  6. Thank you, Seth, for taking a stand and bringing light to this important issue.

  7. Wow, Seth – I was somewhat shocked to see the response to your declining to give away your work product – threatening reprisals if you don’t submit to their request. Unbelievable! Your work is beautiful again and again. And it’s how you make your living. This person obviously thinks they wield more power of persuasion than they do – thanks for sharing! They come off as totally unprofessional.

  8. I hope you have a chance to complain to her supervisor about her unprofessional response.

  9. If there’s any justice, it won’t be easy for a certain Rhode Island Travel Guide editor to get a decent reference in this small state when word gets around that he or she treats extraordinarily talented photographers so rudely. As you point out, photographers, artists, and writers are the lifeblood of the publishing industry. The good ones are cherished by editors who know what they’re doing

  10. Sorry you had to go through that! I’m glad you blogged about this to show the hypocrisy of the publication. But the whole situation is pretty sad, when you remember that most magazines and newspapers in this country are also struggling to stay in business and be paid for their content. Most have not figured out how to stay relevant in the age of web publishing. The response you got only points to the magazine’s desperation.
    Just keep doing what you are doing, and take pride in your successes. You have great wedding photography, by the way.

  11. As a fine artist – stained glass and watercolorist ~ same thing. Organizations are always asking for donations to auction off artwork for fundraising gigs. None of the proceeds go to the artist. Yes. Same selling point. “You get free exposure.”

    And as a reiki master and yoga instructor ~ again, organizations want free reiki at hospitals and other health fair events. And how about, some yoga centers take most of the proceeds and give the instructor a nominal amount for instructing. Hmmm, if they didnt have an instructor, they wouldnt have yoga.

    Let me see will the hospital see me in the ER for free because I’m an artist with very little money because I’m giving away all my art for free? Or will the grocer or wine store give me free product for my art event? Or the glass and frame shops, will they give me product for free? “They will all get FREE PUBLICITY!” Or better yet, how about the bank. Will they give me free money? They’ll get lots of exposure, I promise!

    If anyone asks you to do something for free, a magazine for example, in exchange, they need to give you a one page spread advertising you for free, for every issue that your free work is published in.

    Even my own mother doesnt want my art for free. She understands the value of my craft. She knows that I’ve invested many hours in the development of my art as well as the products to make it.

    This is about self-value and exchange of energy. If an exchange is not adequate for you to feel fantastic on giving the art, then adjust the exchange and do NOT feel ashamed, guilty or angry. This is a world where currency is our exchange. They dont understand that. They have one goal in mind and they will find someone who’s self-worth is less or someone who really doesnt have any need or desire to exchange.

    Also, exchanging something for something has always been in play as humans. Let’s look at indigenous people for example. If I needed a warm coat for winter, I’d exchange with woven blankets that I make. Or if I needed a cooking pot, I might offer up a live hen. Exchange something… depends on what the other side needs, wants or values.

    This applies in relationships too. If a person has a certain ideal, need or expectation from a partner, do not settle for less. In most cases, the relationship will NOT last or will be tumultuous at best. Resentment usually remains as a darkness in the relationship. Do not settle. You are better off being alone than imposing your expectation or unmet desire on to someone else. If it isn’t right for you, then it isnt right for the other person either. Be true to oneself, this is the most important. If you do not embrace and live by your own virtues, then who are you? (I’m laughing at myself for including relationships in this discussion. But it’s the same principle. Do not settle for less than what you define as your self-worth ever and it all depends on how YOU define it for yourself – no one else’s ideals. Yours!). Each one of us are responsible to ourselves to know our self-value and stand true to that. There is no reason to waiver except if you are not sure, then test it. And then find you truth.

    However, I still would like the bank to give me money for free!


  12. I’m disgusted by the response you received. I agree with the previous commenter and I’d STRONGLY suggest that you forward the email to the Governors office as well as the State Ethics commission. At the very least forward it to the ProJo reporter who was most critical of the RI Economic development corp as this will def generate press. This person is representing the state economic development office which already had its fair share of idiot moves over the past few years. If you don’t do something with this it means that this a-hole can pull it again with others. I have contacts in the Governors office if you’d like to forward the email to me I’ll make sure it gets into the right hands.

    • I certainly don’t want to use this as a tool to get anyone fired or hurt them back, but I would love to unify us as artists and practitioners together to say we won’t hand out our work for free. We need to eat food and have shelter, and this is how we do it… Please do share the blog post around! Thank you!

  13. For clarity, Seth and in the interest of full disclosure – South County Tourism Council has always appreciated your generosity of sharing photography in years gone by. And understand your concerns with the response you received from the publishers of the RI Travel Guide which is RI Monthly. On more than one occasion have wrestled with them and their belief of being sovereign. RI monthly is indeed a for profit magazine.

  14. Hello folks, this is John Palumbo the owner of Rhode Island Monthly. I have been made aware of the exchange between one of our art directors and Mr. Jacobson.. First let me clarify as Myrna George and South County tourism are well aware.;the state tourism office and budgets for projects like this are non existent. We have published the travel guide for over ten years and I am proud to say we were the first to completely eliminate all costs to the tourism department freeing up money to be deployed elsewhere. The nature of contract publishing is that the client is responsible for for content meaning verbiage and photography. In an effort to refresh photography without financial resources state tourism ( and we with their encouragement). have reached out to amateur photographers and organizations of amateurs to showcase their work. Mr Jacobson as a professional should never had been contacted in that scenario -and my colleague has extended an apology which Seth accepted.
    Yes we are a small for profit locally owned business that does a lot for not for profits and tourism efforts in the state ( we design invitations and signs for free for tourism) We support organizations like Crossroads Rhode Island, Roger Williams Park Zoo, and Trinity Rep out of our spirit of community. Myrna I am glad we are for profit so we can continue that work as well.

  15. People always want free music from musicians, too. I can relate. That person is a piece of trash!

  16. John, thank you for your prompt reply. It is unfortunate that such a response was made to Seth Jacobson.
    However, as I have personally had conversations with your art director, regarding the use of photography delivered to you, for the sole purpose of tourism promotion, we have seen that same photography used in RI Monthly. When this has been brought to the attention of your staff we have been summarily dismissed in much the same tone as Seth Jacobson has experienced. SCTC respects the creativity of local photographers and rely on their goodwill.
    As I have mentioned, we ‘rights manage’ all the photography provided to us by local photographers and are flabbergasted to see it used without our authorization or that of the photographer in for profit publications. We rely on our photo contest to portray South County in the best light possible. And indeed it with the help of our local photographer friends that it is possible. We give them our word that we will use their photography only to promote South County and with photographer credit – never do we give permission for any other use. We always refer those inquiries for SCTC photography directly to the photographer. We trust this clarifies all of our individual organizations function. -Myrna

  17. Thanks Myrna- the support of all the tourism organizations including Providence Warwick CVB which I know you know I am past volunteer chair and current volunteer board member is appreciated. I will make sure that any SCTC photos are not used for other purposes without permission ( candidly we have not had issue with the other regions as they are usually supportive and thrilled with the additional exposure) but I understand the relationship with your generous photography benefactors. If you can give me a specific example where it was used contrary to the mission to promote South County I will use it as a learning example. I know we have not been as vigilant with credits and I will rectify. I do take offense in your previous post about us being profitable ( which is paying our bills and surviving). I can assure you it is not because of the modestly profitable state map or the state travel guide that would not exist without our efforts . As a former elected official you should know how difficult the state’s economy and regulatory issues are as detriment to survival. I know I see you frequently at tourism events and you have my email and phone number – happy to discuss these issues at anytime- as this is the first time in a decade i have heard any of it.

    • Aside from the content of these comments, accusations, etc., it seems Mr. Palumbo’s only response should have been profuse apologizes for the absolutely disgraceful emails his staff are responsible for. Justifications just make this situation worse. Incivility and lack of professionalism should not be tolerated. It’s my experience that employees adopt the culture from the top, so perhaps Mr. Palumbo — budget woes aside — should give some hard consideration to the culture he is tolerating or promoting. As a manager, I would seriously consider terminating that employee. (RI Monthly’s attitude personifies the worst of nepotistic RI.) It might go a long way to increase the magazine’s exposure simply by improving customer service. It’s not about Seth accepting the apology: It’s about RI Monthly bullying and strong-arming emerging artists. Mr. Palumbo’s response implies that this email was only unacceptable because Seth is a professional. Shame on RI Monthly.

  18. Hi Erin you are entitled to your opinion. I accept the responsibility for the 29 professionals that work for my company. I don’t monitor their emails, correct grammar, listen to their phone conversations, or are aware of every minute of every day. If you contact me directly I will given the names of scores of artists a photographers which we do support and make up a good part of their income. I will also give you the names of dozens of emerging artisans that have received publicity on the pages of the magazine.and met with favorable results
    I need to point out it was one email not emails. It was from one individual not my staff. It is not about customer service….one misguided email from one person. Your post paints us with a broad brush which is unfair but the nature of a pile on since I put my name out there.
    The employee is question is mortified, as are many of his colleagues- which will add to the remorse he is already feeling.
    I have been directly in touch with Seth several times- while the nature of my personal emails are my business in no way did I condone the language tone or message of the email he was sent. Multiple apologies have been extended for all. That grave concern has also been shared with the employee.

  19. Fish stink from the head, baby.

  20. go Myrna! go Erin! Call it like it is.Apologies from Mr.Palumbo aside for what they’re worth-this patronizing and bullying attitude by his staff only reflects upon him and the integrity of his publication.

  21. A UK musician named Whitey printed an open letter to a TV company, “Betty”, a few months ago that you might find interesting, as you’re fighting the same battle he is. In short this TV company asked him to donate his hard work for “exposure” and his scathing response is very entertaining. I am a Boston-area videographer and I can absolutely identify with your frustration too.

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