AIArt InquisitionPhotography

Art Inquisition: Do You Give Your Art Away for Free?

Hey Mad Art Lab! I’m Jamie. I usually write over at Skepchick Prime about statistics and politics and stuff like that, but I recently had a bit of an art quandary and Amy invited me to write a guest post about it over here at the cool kids’ corner of the Skepchick Network.

As some of you may know, when I’m not spending my time playing with numbers or dating Jon Hamm*, I am taking photos. I’ve only started learning photography around two years ago, so I’m still more of an amateur photographer but I’m getting a lot better and every once in awhile I end up with a pretty good photo or two.

* By “dating Jon Hamm” I mean I met him one time and hung out for a couple minutes in which he seemed more interested in playing Words with Friends than chatting with me. I did touch his shoulder though so that should count for something.

Photo of a dragon at the 2013 Chinese New Year Parade in Chicago

This could have been in a glossy magazine!

So, you can imagine my excitement when I was recently contacted by a reporter with the Chicago Sun Times asking if he could use one of my photos from last year’s Chicago Chinese New Year Parade in his print article on the parade for the Sun Time’s Lifestyle magazine SPLASH. He was offering no pay but promised attribution. Now, I’m not a professional photographer and have a day job as a data scientist, so I do not need to worry about selling my photography for money. Although I have been paid for my photography in the past, I’ve also done volunteer photography for various events around Chicago and even taken photos of hot dogs and strangely decorated cars for NPR.  I have never, though, had one of my photos printed in a beautiful, glossy magazine, so my first instinct was to jump on the opportunity.

After a couple minutes though, I realized that something seemed a little off. I mean, doesn’t the Sun Times have their own photographers on payroll? That’s when I remembered that last May the Sun Times laid off their entire photography department including one Pulitzer prize winning photographer, opting instead to give their non-photographer journalists lessons in iPhone photography. This switch from professional photojournalists to writers with iPhones has resulted in declining photo quality in the Sun Times.

It appears from the message I received from the Sun Times journalist that when they need a photo better than what they can get on their iPhones, they troll Flickr until they find a photographer willing to let them use their photos for free. Now, to be fair, last year’s Chinese New Year parade took place prior to the firing of the Sun Times photography staff, so presumably they either have their own parade photos and just like mine better or they did not send photographers to the parade last year. Either way, my personal view is that the Sun Times is a for-profit new media organization and should not be garnering free content from local photographers. I sincerely doubt the Sun Times would ever consider asking a writer or journalist to write an article for them without pay, so why ask the same of a photographer?

fancy hot dog

One of my life’s great accomplishments was taking a photo so good it made a hot dog look appetizing.

When I brought up my dilemma on the Skepchick backchannel, Amy brought up another side of the matter, pointing out that even though photojournalism may be dying off due to the lack of monetary value placed on photos now that we can get so many free on the internet, so is print media. The same forces that are making it difficult to make a living as a photojournalist are also making it difficult for newspapers and magazines to remain profitable enough to survive in the internet age. The Sun Times has been in dire financial straights for many years. Frankly, it seems that the Sun Times cannot actually afford to pay photographers for all the photos they need, so if finding photographers willing to allow them use of their photos for free is the only way for them to keep their newspaper from filing for bankruptcy again, then that’s what they have to do. In fact, just the fact that they even bothered to ask my permission before using one of my photos is more than many media outlets would do.

I understand the financial problems print news media have been having, and had any other news outlet contacted me I probably would have let them use my photo. In the end though, I felt like letting the Sun Times use my photo for no pay was doing a disservice to the talented photographers that were fired last May. It just felt wrong to me, so I informed the Sun Times journalist who contacted me that I was unwilling to let them use my photo unless they considered paying me. I got back a “thanks anyways” and presumably they found another photo from a different photographer to use.

If you were put in the same situation as me, would you have let the Sun Times use your photo for free for their magazine? What if it were an online-only article? What if it were the Chicago Tribune? NPR? Do you think it was right for the Sun Times to fire their photography staff considering their financial difficulties? What do you think is the future of professional photojournalism and print media?

The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. It used to appear a couple times a week at 3pm EST. I’m not sure what happened to it, but I kind of miss it and wanted to take this guest post opportunity to revive it.  Comment Comment Comment!

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Jamie Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein

Jamie is a data, stats, policy and economics nerd who sometimes pretends she is a photographer. You can usually find her at skeptic events in Chicago or on Twitter or Flickr. She also blogs about music at Notes From Chicago Music Underground.


  1. February 4, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    I absolutely would have done the same thing! As you said, it’s not about whether or not you need the money, it’s the principle of the thing. Giving away photography (or music, or visual art, or writing) for free sets a bad precedent that makes it hard for other artists who *do* need the money when their time comes around. It also cheapens the art as a whole.

    And just in case it comes up, I’d like to point out that NPR (if they didn’t pay you, which I assume, and if they did they just went up a zillion points in my book) is different, since there’s a friendship there and you got to eat hot dogs and drink beer. Friends, beer, and delicious hot dogs = pro bono ok. Faceless reporter trolling your Flickr page: pro bono not ok.

  2. February 4, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    My rule is that photos of my other artwork/jewelry I’m more than happy for people to publish with just attribution because it’s free publicity. Anything else you need to pay me.

  3. February 4, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    Plus, NPR is not a for profit institution and photos I took were for NPR blogs, which feels different to me than an article.

    I didn’t really get a chance to mention the fact that giving away photos for free sets a bad precedent for photographers who do photography as a career, but that was another serious concern. In fact, in the moments before I remembered the Sun Times firing of their photography staff, that was my main concern. I asked photographer friends if it was normal for a magazine to request use of a photo for free, and they all said that was crazy and magazines almost always pay for photos. So, what the Sun Times seemed to be asking of me was unusual for that type of institution. My guess is that their dire financial situation has led them to experiment asking for free photos from photographers. I really hope this is not something that catches on in the rest of the print media community.

  4. February 4, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    Also, the offer of hot dogs and beer could be considered an in-kind exchange, and particularly since it was agreed upon by all parties involved before the exchange of photography for beer-and-hot-dogs it’s probably pretty ok. (Also, NPR is a nonprofit and the Sun-Times… ain’t.)

    An artist’s work is always worth something… it’s up to you to determine how much. (Correct answer is usually “something.”)

  5. February 4, 2014 at 8:25 pm

    You did the right thing, and the exposure argument is bullshit.
    But in a larger context, it’s also worth asking questions about whether or not writers get paid – for instance, on sites like this one. If NO ONE is getting paid here, including the “publishers” and editors, fine. But if a few people are in fact making money off the unpaid work of writers like you, then madartlab is part of the same problem. Again, it’s great that you did keep the fired photographers in mind, but in a lot of print/online outlets, writers (like academics and professionals) who have day jobs are, in essence, scabbing by working for free for publications, which means that working writers like me are left struggling or told to work for little/nothing. Actually a lot of publications in print/online media exploit their writers by either paying them peanuts or not at all, with the excuse that there simply isn’t enough money, they’re in it for “social justice,” or whatever fiction comes to mind that particular day. The whole “online pieces don’t need payment” rationale makes very little sense, since those require just as much work, unless they’re just flip little pieces of fluff in which case, who needs them anyway, free or not? That should be reserved for Buzzfeed. Mostly, the “tradition” of not paying for online pieces is just that, a tradition that makes no sense, and which should, like many traditions, be abolished.
    I’ll also add that non-profits are not all made the same – NPR is not a “non-profit” in the way, say, your local print/art lab for neighbourhood youth (if such should exist) might be a non-profit. It has a robust budget, and can afford to pay all its contributors, should.
    The problem with these conversations comes about when the only people having them are in fact people who don’t actually need to write or photograph for a living. I hope folks can continue to think outside their own circumstances, where they have the privilege of writing for free and start to, perhaps, calculate how many free/$10/$50 photos/articles they would have to produce in order to make even a month’s rent. And in how many places.
    This doesn’t even get at the issue of unpaid internships, and there has been plenty written on that. Although, there, there’s more sympathy and outrage for young interns than for writers. All of this is the reality for those of us who try to earn our living *as* writers, and for whom none of this is a hobby.
    I’ve written about this some, and will be writing more, but here’s a piece that includes links to most of what I’ve produced and some others’ work on the matter:

  6. February 4, 2014 at 10:07 pm

    I would have done the same in your situation, Jamie. Setting a precedent in how artists can / will be treated by companies such as The Sun Times is important in situations like yours.

    The rest of the MAL gang know about this (because I asked their advice) but last Summer I was contacted by a someone from the TV show “The Carrie Diaries” about using a mural that I painted on a building in a shot for an episode of their show. They were willing to pay me (but I had no idea what to ask for, hence I asked the gang here). I thought it was nice of them to even ask, since I assumed it would just be in the background anyway. So we settled on a small fee and I signed a contract and… that was the last I heard. Not only have I not received payment but they never even followed up after I sent back the contract, like, to get my address or anything. I emailed the production again the other day just to see if they even filmed it in the end or whatever, but still have not heard back. At this point I’d just settle for them telling me which episode it was in so I could see it on TV, but… we’ll see.

    I regularly donate artwork for causes or organizations I work with or am sympathetic to. But those are special situations where I know who’s asking and what the money raised will be used for.

  7. February 6, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    Always get paid. Always, always, always get paid. One thing I learned from playwriting is always get paid. It doesn’t have to be cash, but it should be something you feel is fair. I’ve written things for gratitude. I’ve written things for money. I’ve written things for a dinner. I’ve written things to get them on stage (actors, techs, stage managers, and directors aren’t free, either). I have learned to always get paid. Your work is always worth something. And money is nice.

    Now, what’s interesting about this, apart from the paper’s history, is that it was for work you had already made and distributed online. So, it wasn’t prospective contract about what you will do, but work that was already done. That someone finds enough value in your work after you had already distributed it means it absolutely is worth something, and that means you should get paid. Exposure is nothing. You already had it on Flickr, and the paper saw it. You had the exposure already on your own. Get paid for use.

    I’ve seen maybe a half-dozen good write ups (particularly from comics artists) in as many months on tumble about this very thing. If I can both remember to look for them and find one (the authors were consistently smarter than I am about this stuff), I’ll link it.

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