I recently hired an former colleage, artist and ace photographer to take pictures of all my old hacker t-shirts. Hired, as in I offered her money in exchange for her labor to produce pictures I need in order to market these shirts online.

I’m not saying I’m a hero or a great guy. Admittedly, the deal I struck with her was probably less than market rate for the quality of the work she’ll provide and I’m guessing that overall, the job may not even end up netting her minimum wage. She is photographing the bulk of a nearly 20 year old collection of hacker memorabilia I’m going to put up for sale  to help fund some new projects…and pay off a ridiculous pile of debt I have incurred from some old ones. However, I asked her what she’d charge, she quoted me a price and I accepted it.

I won’t get in to the specifics, but I had a separate conversation about this project with someone I’d consider an unofficial consultant on selling things over the internet. To paraphrase, they were rather shocked I’d be paying someone to assist on a project that’s essentially funneling money to charitable aims. While this “Schwag for Snowden” project may end up gaining a fair amount of attention and exposure, it’s exceptionally unlikely that any of that will lead to paid work or marketable exposure for the skilled workers contributing to it.

It’s unfortunately becoming more possible than ever for folks like me to command good, skilled work for free just “for the exposure”. While it’s not nearly as much as others, I do command a certain amount of market power (i.e. privilege if I were trollbaiting). It might not even be hard for me to command a favor just based on a karmic sense of returning other favors people have witnessed me doing.

However, herein lies the problem with unpaid skilled work: Once I get you to work for free, why would I pay you? Why would anyone I refer to you pay a market rate?  Why would anyone pay a market rate knowing they could get similar quality work for free?

In the case of photography, you might call this a problem with everything going digital. There isn’t the cost of film or developing involved anymore. There isn’t material to mark up. The cost of materials for 2,800 photos on digital is still less than a roll of 28. Without materials to mark up, it’s sometimes hard to charge a friend for the value of your services, especially when a favor is easily commanded.

The problem is when we get stuck in a cycle of devaluing real labor. Frankly, it’s cheaper for me to pay a good photographer $2/shirt for a web-ready photograph than it is for me to spend a frustrating 15 minutes snapping and editing a picture with the point-and-shoots I have available to me.

But let’s say I saved this $2 and got the same quality of work for free, even if this is going towards a good cause. This depresses prices everywhere else in the marketplace. Not just for photographers, but also for web designers, copywriters and many other “creative” fields where it’s impossible to get paid work without a strong portfolio or a solid list of clients/references.

To those of you more powerful than me who can command this kind of work for free: Stop. The “exposure” you’re giving the creatives is almost never worth nearly as much as what you could afford to pay them. Not only is it ethically wrong to profit from those doing work for free, it destroys the very trade you’re claiming to help.

Skilled workers giving up labor for free are inherently devaluing their work and the work of everyone else in their trade. Even paying a relative pittance, a stipend or working in trade restores value to creative skills encourages talented folk to stick with and develop their craft.

To those creatives out there who still need to build up a portfolio and don’t feel comfortable or able to charge, I offer you this guideline: If they demand it, give a lead the first batch of work as “business development”. Figure out the cost of your materials and the amount of time spent on the project. If you get a repeat customer, or a referral from a “business development” job, charge them at at least minimum wage based on the time you spent on a similar project. Even if you “lose clients”, you’re still placing a real value to your work and others will see that. If you ever end up collecting the equivalent of a 40 hour minimum wage paycheck from your labor (not including materials) in a given week, never sell your work for free again and double your prices. Others will value your work even more and pay you the rate you command.

Granted, if you’ve read this far, I can probably safely disclose to you that this whole thing came about because I personally funded the lion’s share of the trip that Time magazine says was funded by Dutch computer hackers. While a good chunk of it was from donations collected at OHM, the vast bulk of it came out of my pocket…and I’m selling off my hacker memorabilia to pay that particular bill off.

While I’ll probably never recover close to the amount I spent on that trip, that’s still no reason to regret doing it and still no reason to stiff Becky or expect she (or anyone else) will do real skilled work on my behalf for free.

Got a comment? I’ll let you know a flame war you can jump into when it happens.

(Thanks to Melissa Gira Grant for licensing her image May Day, 2012 / Union Square / Unpaid Interns under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license, thus allowing me to use it as the featured image for this post. If she notices, I’d be glad to pay her for it.)