How to Stop Working for Exposure aka 'Free'


There's been a lot of buzz around artists/creatives doing work for 'exposure' versus getting paid especially after Wil Wheaton wrote about his recent conversations with a Huffington Post editor. The Internet responded with a roar with divided opinions either a yay or a nay each with their own fairly convincing arguments, but the solution isn't so black & white, at least that's been the case in my experience. 

First of all, what gives me the right to talk about it? Full disclosure; I have never had a 'real job' in my life, I have always found ways to do the work that I'm passionate about and get paid for it, but it was not always the case and that's why I feel I have something critical to add to the conversation. 

Graduating with a master's degree in cultural studies does not in any way automatically guarantee you a job, trust me I've been there. It sounds prestigious and probably makes me look smarter than I actually am but in fact it's a sure shot way to growing bitter and living in poverty. Having said that, I am not bitter in any way and am nowhere close to being 'poor' and am immensely grateful for the numerous opportunities that have come my way. Whenever I read articles that talk about 'luck' or passionate writings which are clearly ramifications of a naive mind, I feel the need to set things straight, not always but this is one of those things. 

I am not a proponent of free labor or even zero hour contracts in fact, they make my blood boil. Especially when it comes to the world of the arts, whether you're an artist or a graduate from the arts (as I am) somehow there's an unspoken rule that you will work for free before you're given a paid gig. But how do you know when something is worth getting the 'exposure' or the 'experience' and when you seriously need to be paid? 

I was no different, I volunteered and gained experience in galleries, theatres & art spaces but only for six months after I graduated -- was I really smart or just very lucky? A bit of both I would argue, however, my definition of luck is how you orchestrate your own life so it might not agree with popular opinions. 

It was only a couple of years ago when I decided I was going to stop working for free and this included 'helping out a friend because (s)he couldn't afford someone better' which can drain up a lot of energy. But this was not always the case and there are three parameters if you will, that help me decide when/if I should do something for free. I see them as three different types of decisions that are necessary and critical in determining the progression of my career. 

Strategic Decisions:

The question I ask myself, how does this make a difference to my career in the long run? Of course, this evolves continuously, there are some people/organizations that I would've killed to work with even two years ago but I literally can't afford to anymore. 

Strategic decisions, not only help me map myself and the journey I want to take but also lay out the big picture in front of me so I never feel like I'm being taken advantage of when/if I agree to 'volunteer' my services. 

Conscious Decisions:

This is a tricky one, I consciously evaluate the pros and cons and sometimes choose to take up the job if it pays the bills knowing all along that it's temporary, yet something within my field of interest so I don't feel like I'm betraying myself. Just because you're a writer or an artist doesn't mean you can't proofread for someone or sit-in on an artistic project even if you are not physically making work. 

We get too caught up in wanting to be paid to only do what we're passionate about at the price of ignoring everything else around it. No one wants someone who can only do one specific thing, if you can show your prospective employer that you're capable of taking on additional responsibilities and have an all-round knowledge of your field that makes you even more attractive. 

Mindful Decisions: 

This is almost a combination of strategic & conscious decisions; I ask myself how important is this project/organization to me? You could almost align this with philanthropic work. All of us need a sense of purpose and aligning your artistic practice with something bigger can only increase your worth. 

Every week I get about five emails on average asking me for an intro to someone else that I know, it's a bit funny because no one wants to do the work and get to know people anymore. Intros are great, when they are natural. And most of the people I get asked to make intros to are the ones I've met through mindful decisions. 

Serendipity can be a wonderful thing, if you allow it to take place mindfully. 

There you have it, those are the three filters through which I process everything before deciding if something/someone is worth my time and energy. Every single time I have filtered my decision through the process, I always end up receiving more than I have given therefore never having to apply for a job again. 

I hope this provides some clarity in a black & white saturated landscape that has been surfacing lately, thereby allowing you to make fruitful decisions for a better future. 

Bhavani Esapathi is a Writer & Speaker on Digital Innovation within the Cultural Sector. Previously, she has worked for The British Council, The V&A and The Goethe Institut. She also runs The Secret Community of Creatives; a space where artists can gain an insight into the creative sector. An RSA Fellow and the Founder of Chronically Driven; a social innovation organisation focussed on invisible disability.