Working “for exposure”

Every professional artist I know, defined as people who bring in most of their income from their good, whether that’s dress-making, makeup, or painting, has been asked to work “for exposure.”  I’m frequently asked to make things for sorority girls to wear to parties, payment being exposure, and their friends will see and want my stuff.  I’ve been asked to make things for magazine concept shoots, payment being exposure, where credit is alway in tiny, faint print in the very middle, where it’s obvious we aren’t actually supposed to see it.  I’ve been asked to make things for kids’ birthdays, payment being exposure, because “Little Darling’s friends will want it and beg their parents for it” (these parties aren’t in the same group as parties for children who aren’t going to see their next birthday–I  absolutely will do what I can for terminally ill children).  I’ve been asked can I pretty please make this elaborate costume for a Halloween party, payment being exposure, since everyone will see it?  The bonus kick there was the time I was asked if I could make something that could be tossed in the washer in case someone got too drunk and threw up on it.  Um…I won’t share the thoughts I had.

Exposure doesn’t pay the costs of fabrics, and in fact, it’s one of the worst insults an artist can receive.  It’s not an honor to be asked to work for free, especially when that free also includes expecting us to foot the bills.  It’s worse than…


That’s a popular meme in the sewing world, but it’s a step up from being asked to work for exposure.  See, when artists are asked to make things for exposure, we are told that what we make isn’t even worth the cost of the supplies.

Now, like my post about the cost of fabrics and having to weed out which suppliers lie, something very public spurred me to write about this touchy topic.  Donald Trump’s ex-wife and still-friend, Marla Maples, is trying to get cosmetology services for herself and their daughter, Tiffany, for free, “for exposure.”  Now this is par for the course for Trump himself, with his record of not paying bills and stiffing those he owed.  But what makes Marla and Tiffany’s brazen attempt at “paying” in “exposure” is that they aren’t even pretending to be interested in paying.  They aren’t ordering something under the guise of payment, then not following through.  They’re doing what so many others do and are openly saying that services aren’t worth anything.   Expecting services or good for free is entitlement of the highest order.  Stylist Tricia Kelly received a veiled threat to her business for refusing.

This is one dark side of being in any artistic field.  If artistic people give in, our reputation as someone who doesn’t value our work enough to charge spreads, and if we don’t, we are sometimes told that others will hear about how mean and selfish we are.  For the sake of professionalism, we are expected to stay quiet about it.  After all, divulging information about personal conversations is a major no-no in any industry.  Confidentiality in conversations is taken as a given.

At least Veruca Salt expected someone to pay. When Veruca Salt is a step up, you’re doing something wrong.

I’m not sure why people see wealthy people are worthy of being paid.  No one would think of asking a celebrity to appear at an event or give a performance for free, on their own dime, “for the exposure.”  So why do so many people think that we small-timers should expect to do things for free?  We are the ones less likely to have the funds to buy supplies like that.  No, it doesn’t work to say that we have the free time, so may as well get exposure.

For one, we aren’t sitting around staring at the wall wishing to be making things for free.  We have family and friends we spend time with, maybe some good books, or we’re using that time honing our skills.  Working, whether for pay or for free, takes away from those things.

Second, unless someone is a personal friend, that person doesn’t know how much time we have available.  I personally usually have a little time to be online during the day because I’m often up until 6am working.  So being able to reach me at 4pm doesn’t mean I’m doing nothing.  Chance are you caught me taking a brief break from homeschooling my daughter, doing some house cleaning, or maybe I’m actually standing in line at the grocery store or am behind the wheel at a red light.  Right now, I’m eating a very late lunch while typing, and then I need to go get my sewing room in order to continue working.

And third, saying we may as well work for exposure than sit there twiddling our thumbs completely glosses over how we’re being asked not only to work for free, but to dig into our pockets to buy what’s needed to do what you want.

Sometimes we’ll work for the cost of supplies if the proposed item is something we really want to add to our portfolios, or if it involves skills we’d like to get to work at on someone else’s dime (i.e. someone else paying for the supplies for us to hone new skills), but this needs to be our offer to make.  We’re the ones who know what will bolster our portfolios, or what we’d like to work on doing better.

Now I know there’s this idea that something costing a lot of money means we’re…

The reality is that a lot of what’s charged goes to supplies.  People in some artistic fields do tend to make decent livings pretty easily.  The seamstresses I know who make the most make a lot of costume-quality things because they need to turn things out fast enough to make $200 for a dress worth their time.  A lot of seamstresses have other sources of income or a spouse who covers most of the household bills (like me).  Cosmetology does tend to be one of the more reliable fields, but that doesn’t mean it’s right to ask for them, or any of us, to give and do things “for exposure.”  There are still supplies to be bought, taxes to be paid, time away from our families and friends.

Asking us to work for exposure is like someone asking you to do whatever it is you do for work for, say, a positive Yelp review.  That’s exposure.  But is it going to pay your bills?  How likely is it going to bring in business you wouldn’t have otherwise had?  Let’s say there’s a chance you might get one new person paying you for business six months down the road since that review tipped the scales.  Is that going to be worth the free goods and services you provided?  Unless you are sincerely willing to work for 100% free, please, don’t ask artists of any kind to work “for exposure.”

We love what we do.  Every artistic person is in it first and foremost for the love of it, but we can’t keep doing what we do when payment is “exposure.”  We simply can’t, just as you can’t work for the “exposure” of Yelp reviews.

Aside from the insult and our pockets rarely being deep enough, we know that exposure is likely to be to others who also want things for free, and they now have a lead on someone who will give things away.  If you still decide to ask someone to make something “for the exposure,” don’t be surprised to receive a curt response, or no response.  We work hard at what we do, and that’s worth at least…

…at least that $50.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *