When Clients “Forget” to Pay

As creatives, we might be the only professionals who are asked, expected even, to work for free. Nobody would ever dare ask a doctor or a lawyer or a technician to work for free, no matter their seniority. And so, why is it that people (most people anyway) consider that it’s OK to ask creatives–photographers, writers, and the like–to work for free?

Actually, they don’t use the word ‘free,’ they tell you that you’d work for “exposure” and that they’ll make sure you’ll be given credit for your work.

Handwriting with inkpen. ©Alina Oswald.
Hand holding an ink pen, writing on paper.

Really? I have two questions for these kinds of…”clients”:

  • who else would otherwise be credited for my work?
  • how can I pay my bills with exposure?

That being said, there are times when creatives can consider–and maybe should consider–working for free. There are a few good reads online on when, why, and if to work for free as a photographer, for example.

My own two cents:

  • Work for free, for A VERY LIMITED TIME only, when you’re just starting out and need work samples for your website or portfolio. Make sure that the client understands that this is only a limited-time offer. I learned that the hard way many years ago, the “limited time offer” part. I needed photo samples and ended up photographing annual events for free for a nonprofit. Yes, my name was on the event schedule. Yes, I connected and reconnected with a few people. But, there is one proverbial “but.” Year after year I would photograph a particular event free of charge. It was expected of me to work for free, no matter what. To add to that, every time I would run into that person from that nonprofit, I would be asked for free work. When I finally declined the “offer” to photograph for free, I was the one to feel bad about it. Looking back, I’m glad I made that decision.
  • Work for free when you get to learn new things and get promoted and support a good cause while at it! That’s not really “free” but rather a matter of helping someone who in turn supports and helps you.
  • Work for free or trade services when you need to test out new gear or ideas or work on personal projects, and you need models. Ask a friend to pose for you, and/or to work on the particular project with you. Or work together with other photographers or writers. This is a good thing! Cherish those kinds of projects/assignments! Offer those you’re working with a few images from the photo shoot. Take them out for a cup of coffee (or something stronger). It’s always great to have a go-to friend or fellow creative to test out ideas and experiment. That’s how you learn!
  • Work for free if, say, you get a dream job and the only way to do it is for no money. You can then include those images in your portfolio. Think about it this way: Who would be your favorite subject to photograph or interview or even meet, if you had the chance? Don’t let anything limit your choices.

Dollar-sign, dragon-like wet leaves stuck on trees in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Photo © Alina Oswald.

All that being said, working for free has an advantage. At least you know what you’re getting.

Working for money and having to constantly deal with clients who never ever pay on time is another story. There are also a few good articles about that, too. But how should creatives deal with clients who have what I call “a selective memory” and always need to be reminded to pay what they owe?

Some might say that creatives should not deal with these kinds of clients or get their money and run as soon as possible. But that kind of puts the burden (and maybe blame?) still on the creatives. Why not try to look at this issue from a different perspective? Why not try to get clients to understand what actually happens when they repeatedly don’t pay on time?

What happens to the creatives and their work when their payments are constantly put on the back burner?

I personally believe that, at its core and at least in part, dealing with clients that never pay on time is a game of cat and mouse. That is sad in itself. Remember, we’re talking about money for work that was already submitted to and accepted by the client. This is not asking for a bonus or a free ride of any kind.

It is a depressing, damaging, disappointing, and often times devastating process that, in the end, erodes the creative work and almost everything that’s needed to create great work–motivation, muse, passion. Maybe clients who never pay on time never really think of the damaging results of their actions.

Having to always follow up on payment can become an unwanted, full-time job. It can end up being toxic. It kills the muse. It forces creatives to re-prioritize their work, not necessarily by the deadline, but by who pays them first. It’s only common sense.

To those who stubbornly (it seems) do not pay on time, I hope they realize the damage that they inflict on those who work for them and, although they might not realize it, on themselves.

As always, thanks for stopping by!

Alina Oswald


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