mayo 4, 2010

Why We should not do Pro-bono work

© Heber Vega All Rights Reserved | "Iraqi Dinars..."

[May 4, 2010]

Since I started to play with the idea of becoming a photographer, the question of doing pro-bono work has been an issue that I haven’t been able to address. For long time I didn’t have a concrete opinion, or let’s say, I didn’t pick a side. Now, through the Internet, I’ve found people defending pro-bono work, with good reasons, and others opposed to it, also with really interesting thoughts.

After having some time to chew on this issue, and after having done my research as well, I have come to my own conclusions that I want to share in a trilogy of articles. Today I have posted “Why we should not do pro-bono work.” In a couple of days I will post “The advantages of working pro-bono,” and probably next week, I want to share my personal conclusions as to what I’ve learned in this process and also some links where you can continue exploring this idea.

Before giving you reasons for not working pro-bono, I have to add that, as humanitarian photographers, we have to be ready to respond to this question. Be sure, non-profits will come your way asking you to work pro-bono. What’s your answer going to be? What are the pros and cons of working pro-bono? Am I helping to bring down the market? Am I harming the full-time photographers? Do I need a contract in cases like this? Are all the non-profits a charity as well? These are some questions that we’ll discuss during this trilogy.

Today, for no apparent reason ;-), I want to share the disadvantages or cons of working pro-bono. The list is not in any specific order of importance:

1. Pro-bono work brings down the value of the industry; it harms the marketplace.

This is probably the number-one reason for the opponents of pro-bono work. Their argument is simple.  if you give the option to a non-profit organization whose resources are limited, to choose between a paid photographer or one that’s for free (on their end) then most of the time, unless they value quality over price, they’re going to end up accepting the photographer for free.

With time, these organizations get used to it and they only look for free photographs, even though this could mean, mediocre images.

The people in this side of the fence says that the market is going down, among other things, to people that charge little or nothing.

2. Pro-bono devalues the importance of photography for non-profit organizations.

Let me put it this way, not all the non-profit organizations are charities. They work as a business, with the difference being that they cannot as a finance balance, go to profit. They have employees to pay, cars, rent, phone, Internet, website, airfare, consulting companies, etc. So why do these other topics deserve a budget but not photography? People see in this behavior, a “devaluation” for good images. If they value it, why is it not part of their budget?

Working pro-bono maintains this tendency among NGOs.

Matt Brandon gave us this example in his 10.Q Interview: “If I have a costly camera and have no earthy idea how to use it and just keep it on my shelf, then I don’t value it for what it can do. If I truly valued the camera I would read up on how to use it and make it pay for itself. But the reality is if while going into it, I don’t know how to use it, not see it’s potential, then I don’t value it and would never buy it in the first place”.

In the last 50 years or so, we’ve had several examples of how images have made a difference, raised awareness of a situation, or simply raised millions of dollars in donations. Images are powerful, but non-profit organizations need to be educated in this.

3. Pro-bono work sometimes promotes mediocre images.

While this depends very much on the photographer that’s working on the assignment, we can say that, most of the time, pro-bono work is seen as a favor, not as a contract.  More often than not, this affects the “severity” or “professionalism” of the job. It’s hard, from the employer’s side, to be demanding on the “volunteer”.  At the same time, volunteers, sometimes, are not fully committed to the job, because they are not paid to be.

On the other side of the coin, if you’re being paid to do a job, your reputation, career, and income depends on your performance.

In the end, we come to, “You get what you pay for”.

4. Pro-bono sometimes decrease the quality of images

This point is directly related to points 2 and 3. Most of the photographers doing pro-bono work today are photographers only starting in this business. They haven’t been around situations and experiences as the seasoned professional photographers have. Most of the time they don’t know how to address the needs of the NGOs, or simply don’t know how to tell the story behind the cause of the organization.

When you pay for someone that has been working in the industry for a while, you can be sure he/she knows how to do the job.

5. Pro-bono can harm your business plan

Usually when people speak about pro-bono, they automatically refer to it as working for free. But, as others have said before, this is an illusion, because “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Someone always has to pay the cost of it.  In this case, not the organization, but you, the photographer. You are giving time, expenses, materials, photos, etc. So, before you start taking pro-bono work, think about it and see if you have the resources to pay for it.

6. This is where you chime in… I want to leave space to comments. Feel free to comment on this issue and make your respective questions. In a couple of days we’ll talk about  “The Advantages of working pro-bono,”  and next week my own impressions and decision. (Plus links to keep reading)


[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lane Davis, heber vega. heber vega said: Blogged! "Why We should not do Pro-bono Work" | First post as part of a trilogy on the topic #pro-bono [...]
Serge Van Cauwenbergh 23:57 mayo 4, 2010 Responder
Heber, my point of view would rather fit as a comment to your second upcoming post? I do agree completely although I have the following issues when I look at my own business and future plans: how can I make my portfolio grow and in the future get paid for NGO assignments if I can't show them some work? I'm still looking for my own path into humanitarian photography and therefor I recently offered my pro-bono services as a photographer to a small humanitarian organisation that supports a local school in Gambia. They really don't have the funds to pay for staff, every volunteer pays his/her own flight and hotel, so did I. I committed to them because I do believe in their project, I will give them advice how to use my pictures to obtain more funds. On the other hand, I now have a new photo essay that I can add into my portfolio. Don't get me wrong. I don't support pro-bono completely, but as a starter in humanitarian photography, like myself, where do you begin to grow your portfolio before you knock on the door of the bigger NGO's? They won't knock on my door, that's for sure.
    heber vega 20:17 mayo 5, 2010 Responder
    Thanks Serge for your comment! My answer is... read the rest of the posts... the post about advantages or pros is coming soon... ;-). I will post about my own conclusions and decisions on this issue probably next week.
Stephen Sidlo 02:55 mayo 5, 2010 Responder
As someone starting out in humanitarian age does play a factor with pro-bono. Only 24 and regardless of the work I have done already its assumed 'off the cuff' I'll work for free for a byline or the famous 'it will give you a good portfolio' line. In response to Serge above, I don't have the means of taking off to Africa I am approaching charities and NGO's locally with proposals, ideas and styles they can use. I can then dictate what I need to go in my portfolio. For example I am lacking multimedia work I approach a very local NGO and produce something pro-bono in exchange for access to the problem. Lets be honest I don't enjoy not being paid..especially now I've moved to London, and time is a problem...yet I am my own manager, the NGO won't complain about it being late. Very rarely I have been phoned up when doing pro-bono work for the said NGO and asked to cover one of their events...and if they do I ask what they can give to me in return for the favour.
    Serge Van Cauwenbergh 12:03 mayo 5, 2010 Responder
    Stephen, the past two or three years I also contacted some local charities and NGO’s with proposals and ideas but none of them ever responded. Maybe because of my lack of experience with such organisations because my portfolio was empty in these fields? Maybe my proposal or idea wasn't good enough? This year I unexpectedly had the chance to travel with a small group to Gambia so I offered them my services and they agreed. I also want to work more with local NGO's because I can't and I won't always finance such trips from my personal budget.
Tim Cowley 11:42 mayo 5, 2010 Responder
All good points and thanks for posting this. I'm sure there are other reasons that could be added here as well. I feel like I'm in the same camp as Serge. As someone trying to start out in this field, I feel that I need to practice on real organizations. I also happen to be one of those really nice guys who has trouble asking someone to pay for something. Perhaps it is the curse of doing community development? We expect people to be unable to pay for something.
    heber vega 20:25 mayo 5, 2010 Responder
    "I’m sure there are other reasons that could be added here as well." (many others my friend!) You also said: "I also happen to be one of those really nice guys who has trouble asking someone to pay for something". I have a hint for you. Maybe you should ask for something else in return, not money. I really believe that wether we go pro-bono or not, we have to EDUCATE NGOs about the value of images and the work of photographers! that's not an exemption even if you decide to go pro-bono. Thanks Tim for your comment, Heber.
Stephen Sidlo 19:39 mayo 5, 2010 Responder
I don't think I have ever wrote a letter or heard anything back from a local NGO/Charity if I sent them a proposal email. It would be interesting to know what is better accepted in terms of contact. Some charities dont have picture desks or editors in media. On my projects I have just 'turned up' or its from a 3rd party i.e My neighbours friend who has given me access, access only to ask the big boss if its possible. Sometimes these people will ask on my behalf and thus will come with a reference from them about me. I am just starting out and I know the bigger you go the more difficult this will get, plus media managers will ask for portfolios and I feel I'll join a long list of others banging on the door. But would be interesting to know the more effective ways of approaching NGO's from local level through to INGO's. I too have problems with asking for money..if my neighbours friend has kindly got me in the NGO to document, how do I turn that around without upsetting everyone?
    heber vega 20:32 mayo 5, 2010 Responder
    "Some charities dont have picture desks or editors in media." (NO, we don't Stephen!) "But would be interesting to know the more effective ways of approaching NGO’s from local level through to INGO’s." Stephen, I'm preparing a post on this, so far I'm collecting opinions from other humanitarian photographers, once I feel that I have enough to write about it, I will post it! If you know any photographer that may have some answers to this, send him to this post in Facebook that I have to comment on the very same issue: Thanks again Stephen, Heber.
Krista Photography 19:53 mayo 6, 2010 Responder
great topic, Heber! I totally agree with all of the points you made, especially the last one. Most people don't realize just how much money they can lose by doing pro-bono work (frequently). If I have to leave my regular wedding business for a week to go shoot in Haiti, and then I spend all the time editing the images and preparing them for the client, that puts me a few weeks behind with my clients who actually pay my rent. Plus, if humanitarian photography is your passion, the calling on your life - you can't be fully pursuing it if you aren't getting paid. This is coming from someone who has never been paid for a shoot like this except for travel expenses. I haven't had the chance to really invest in making this a reality because I spend most of my time investing in my wedding business, the part that actually pays for the rest. On my last job (Haiti), I assumed that they wouldn't pay me, so I told them I'd donate my time and they needed to cover my travel. Their response was "oh great! that will save us so much in the website budget!" boo! I totally didn't even try to get paid, and they were actually going to pay me! So, even if you're ok with doing pro bono work - tell them what you charge and only THEN offer your services for less/nothing. Even that will ensure they at least understand the value of what they're getting. now, I do have reasons why I think pro-bono work can be good under certain circumstances (new photographers, your home church, etc.) - but I'll comment on the next post ;)
    hotdotdd 10:49 mayo 7, 2010 Responder
    GREAT point Krista!! I like your idea about the fact that at least they'll understand the value of what you've offered up to them!!
    Sean 19:05 mayo 7, 2010 Responder
    I'm in the same boat as you. Much of my income is from weddings, so I know what my value is as a photographer. Should it be any less for *every* NGO out there? I don't think so. But to get started in humanitarian photojournalism with virtually no portfolio is so very daunting. Our skills as photographers, especially those who already have a photojournalism slant, should be respected, regardless of the breadth of the portfolio behind it.
Sean 19:17 mayo 7, 2010 Responder
I think the problem with working pro-bono is that it devalues us as tradespeople. Granted there are NGOs whose workforce is almost entirely volunteer, and if you choose to offer your services to those NGOs, then you have to accept that there will probably be no payment involved. But as Heber mentioned in point #2, if there is a budget for other things like carpenters, teachers, and doctors, then how is photography exempt? Is our work less important? We're the method by how an NGO will inform and raise awareness. Without powerful images, an organizations' work and achievements won't have the effect they're meant to have. Then no one succeeds, most particularly the very ones we're trying to help in the first place with medication, education, shelter, and ultimately world exposure. We deserve our dues for services rendered, like anyone else involved in humanitarian relief. Remember, we're not billing the people we ultimately want to help, we're billing the organization that requires a budget to function.
    heber vega 10:36 mayo 8, 2010 Responder
    Hi Sean, thank you for joining us... I really liked what you said here: "We deserve our dues for services rendered, like anyone else involved in humanitarian relief. Remember, we’re not billing the people we ultimately want to help, we’re billing the organization that requires a budget to function." I've been a humanitarian worker for a while, so by now, I know and I have experience working with non-profits. I know some INGOs, that get probably hundreds of thousands of dollars in projects every year, but until now they either have "point & shoot" type of photos, taken by its own workers or no photos at all in their websites... and that's been their situation for several years now. Why? I think in this issue, we have to understand that we are talking/dealing with different types of non-profits, each of them with a need for photography, that's granted, but each of them with a different financial reality. The type of INGO that I'm talking about, thinks this way... "if we've been able to operate for all these years, with great success, then why do I need better photography"... "point & shoot shots are ok". So what I want to say here, is... there are NGOs that they know their way around, and don't depend on photos... because they get contracts!!! to run those projects. But there are other NGOs financially based on donors, that they need photos to keep support coming from them. Do you see the difference and how that affects our work? But also we have charities, where most of the people are just volunteers. They all need photography, but some of them don't depend on "good photography" for their living... Thanks for your comment, stay tune during next week for the next two posts!
      Stephen Sidlo 17:51 mayo 12, 2010 Responder
      Someone must have an Excel spreadsheet with all the financially based donored NGO's that humanitarian photographers could use? All the world charities showing both if images are used - and money they get from donors. Clear columns on who needs media to get message on so forth. Huge task to do that...but needed. As someone getting into this, I used to be afraid of talking about trying to get money from NGO's for photography, as I believe it took the money away from what was needed. It's taken me this long to 'see' that my photography skills are needed and should be used to get the message out..I'm valuable.
The plan refined 20:47 marzo 9, 2011 Responder
[...] one, Why We should not do Pro-bono work, looks at the logical reasons why free photography services aren’t always helpful to an [...]
[...] ( has brought, as well as the new 3-part series ( you just introduced.  I’m continually brainstorming ways to approach this issue and NGO’s and [...]
[...] posting “Why we should not do pro-bono work,” and as the second part of this trilogy, today I’m going to promote pro-bono work, so I will [...]
[...] Why we should not do pro-bono work Advantages of working pro-bono [...]
Rod Reguez 15:26 abril 17, 2012 Responder
It makes us worthless./
    Heber Vega 17:27 abril 17, 2012 Responder
    Exactly. Thanks for your comment.
Rod Lewis 15:29 abril 17, 2012 Responder
Dear Mr Plumber. We love your work and have heard many great things about you. We are in fact looking for someone to re-fit a bathroom for us and you have been highly recommended to us. Unfortunately we don't have any budget, but we can make you as many cups of tea as you would like and you can even sign your logo under the lid of the toilet seat. We really love your work. Hope to hear from you.
Milo 22:20 junio 12, 2012 Responder
Thanks for letting me know about pro bono, I had to look it up for school. Does make me think twice when I get my photography business not to do it. I think I would like to do it to one kind of charity but not step in all the time. I would for sure what to stay around my home area so I have a better change of getting clients to stop by for a package or just a protrait :-)
    Heber Vega 21:20 junio 13, 2012 Responder
    Glad that this post is useful for you Milo. Thank you for leaving a comment. 
Crystaline Kline Randazzo 11:31 enero 30, 2014 Responder
Interesting article and I can't wait to read the follow-ups. I live abroad my primary clients are nonprofits. I've had to make my own rules for taking pro-bono projects. I limited myself to two pro bono projects a year. This makes me be selective. My requirements for working with organization is that they have zero marketing budget. I prefer that 90% of their staff be voluntary. I will only work with them on a single project. I must have creative control over what I create. I prefer to have a personal interest in the project. I tend to target projects that revolve around the portfolios I most want to build (i.e. agriculture, education, women's issues). I also try to build on an educational component at the end of the project where I talk to the organization about the importance of photography in terms of donors and the future. I still don't think I've worked out an ideal scenario because as you say doing work for free leads to dependance. But I do want to give back in some capacity and I find having these limits in place helps me to make better choices.
[…] Why photographers should not do pro-bono work – by Heber Vega […]
Charles L. Gray, Jr. 18:44 enero 15, 2015 Responder
My thoughts are that pro-bono is a great way to get your foot in the door. And this is important. Yes there are those that need to have a steady income doing this...but my argument is that this is a great way to get your foot in the door, and establish a good reputation. And besides you might want to it for free. A way to go to weddings, concerts, graduations...etc. Yes I do shed a tear for those that do this for a living...but this is a dog eat dog world...and beside I work for food! lol

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