Writer and film director Jon Spira recently wrote a piece on his blog about a spat he had on Twitter with Guardian columnist Emma Kennedy. He disagreed with her statement that young writers should not, under any circumstances, do unpaid work for clients who could afford to pay. An escalating row ensued. His post (linked here) focuses mainly on the manner in which the argument played out, and though that side of it doesn't interest me, I am interested in the underlying ethical dilemma.
In my experience there are few illustrators who weren’t asked, early in their career, to work for free by major publishers. My story is probably very common. I graduated to find myself in a blind panic at the sea of talent I was now forced to compete with, and ethics were furthest from my mind in the early days of my career.
I was particularly enamoured of a certain international fashion magazine (I’ll call them ‘Mag A’) - who went straight to the top of my hit list. I dearly wanted my work to grace their pages, I needed their name on my CV. I bombarded them with lovely handmade books and finally the art director called me.
“Hey, we love your stuff! It’s absolutely great! And guess what, we’ve got a full page for you to illustrate.”
Brilliant news. I waited for him to mention the inevitable massive fee I expected from a magazine of this stature.
“One little thing, we’re actually a bit overspent on this issue – you know how it is, we’re all up to the wire so we were hoping to come to an arrangement. Maybe if we give you a really big credit line, including your website address, you’d do this one pro bono? We’ll definitely pay you next time, and it’ll stand you in good stead for future issues.”
Green and recently graduated though I was, I knew this to be unpasteurized bullshit – yet after thinking about it for a while I still took the job. There are no excuses. It didn’t feel right, but I was desparate enough to go for it.
Soon afterwards a fellow illustrator pointed out that by taking that job I had breached an ethical code, and that I had actually helped make things worse in an already tough industry. By giving non-payment my tacit seal of approval, I had ensured that future generations of young graduates would be asked the same question. And, worse, when other magazines learnt that this publication didn’t pay for illustration, this reprehensible practice would spread through the industry like cancer. By taking the job I’d not only devalued myself – I’d shat on other illustrators too.
This is the logic Emma Kennedy quite reasonably espouses in her argument with Jon Spira: creatives must stand united with a zero tolerance attitude towards people with access to budgets who still ask for unpaid work. The only way to uphold this view is to allow no exceptions. She explained to Spira that if he, as an educator, told his students otherwise then he was doing them a disservice.
…Except, of course, to anyone who’s ever tried to get a break in the creative industry this thinking doesn’t exactly describe the real terrain. The world does not, and will not ever, work in this rather wonderful utopian way. There will never be a magic moment when creatives all unite to renounce unpaid work. There’ll always be someone who’s willing to nip in there and take the free job. I take the point about ethics on board and feel guilty about what I did – but still there’s a lingering voice in my head which says, someone was always going to do that job for nowt, why shouldn’t it have been me….?
Shortly after this, I had another, more instructive, insight into the world of professional ethics. It doesn’t involve unpaid work, but it’s an example of what can happen when you are brave enough to take an ethical stand...
It was a year or so later and, ashamed by my previous acceptance of unpaid work, I was determined to make matters right by exercising a more responsible stance. I joined the Association of Illustrators and took delivery of their glossy magazine, featuring a 6 page illustrated feature on a senior member (I’ll call him Illustrator A) whose work was a constant source of delight and influence.
The back pages of the same magazine, focussing on ethics, counselled that a certain national magazine (I’ll call them Mag B) had recently introduced a new and punitive clause in their commissioning document. For no extra money, illustrators who had previously granted a ‘one use, UK only’ licence for their images, would now be forced to surrender entire copyright for no extra money.
Wow. This was a big one. The AOI understandably urged all illustrators to stand shoulder to shoulder and resolutely refuse to work for Mag B under these terms.
I, having completed paying jobs for Mag B six times already, knew a difficult choice lay ahead. I was struggling to buy food and cover the rent, so I was secretly hoping they’d get in touch. But I didn’t want the potential nastiness a confrontation would bring to my door.
Two weeks later, sure enough, Mag B commissioned me. I explained to their picture editor that their new contract was not to my taste – and appealed to their better judgement. Surely a regular contributor like me could be permitted to waive certain clauses? I explained that I’d been advised by the AOI to not sign their new contract, but begged them to negotiate.
“Yes, I can see your point of view” they said kindly, “Let me just talk to the art director and we’ll call you back within the hour.”
Four hours went by and finally I e-mailed to ask their progress.
“We’re sorry you didn’t like our contract” came the response, “but we did find another illustrator who was willing to sign it.”
So I’d lost the job. I could easily picture a recent graduate, someone more desparate even than myself, being prevailed upon to sign this punitive contract which would grant them copyright and allow them to alter and sell the original artwork without consent in image libraries for the ensuing decades. The following week I waited to see Mag B hit the shelves and find out who had taken my job.
It was Illustrator A. The well-known illustrator, a generation above me, swathed in accolades and lucrative ad agency commissions whose work had headlined the same issue of the magazine that had entreated us to ignore the new contracts from that magazine. And I couldn’t afford to buy food that month. Did I do the right thing in turning that job down? I certainly took an ethical stance, but you can’t eat your principles. It sucks.
The moral of my tale is not “Illustrator A is a c***” – far from it. (I can't say that nowadays I wouldn't do the same thing myself). At a certain point, we wake up and realize that we really are sole traders. That’s it.
Returning to the Spira/Kennedy argument… Do I think it’s bad for a teacher to tell students that working for free is actually an option? Actually I think it's a bit irresponsible to do the opposite and paint a picture of a rose-tinted world where creatives all unite in the same instant and everyone triumphs over The Man. Paths into the industry are many and varied - and anyone giving you absolute rules to live by is probably foisting their own biography onto you. Free work for big companies isn’t ethical and I would never ever do it nowadays, but I certainly can’t get on my high horse about it.
Let me once again emphasize here; I don’t actively advocate working for free, and I have nothing but contempt for organizations who don’t value what we do. I would never encourage students I lecture to work for free. But like Jon Spira I would never propagate the ‘if you work for free you’re a disgrace’ line either, that’s all I’m saying.
I do consider that the free job I took early on (which looked great in print and definitely, with no shadow of a doubt, lead to other paid work) helped me on the road to the eventual point where I was able to make a living from illustration. Obviously this is a vile, unpleasant fact I can never feel proud of - and I have even found it tough to publicly admit on this blog. Luckily I am (for now) in the situation where I can tell people who do have budgets, but who still ask me to work for nothing, to go and fuck themselves.Or, as my friend Mr. Bingo phrases it on his website (under a button labelled ‘Does Mr. Bingo work for free?’):