Why Models & Creatives Should Not Complain About Free Work: When & How To Do Unpaid Work


It’s 2015, and there is a slight wedge in the fashion industry here in Ghana. As always, many events and activities do not pay models but continue to promise them experience and exposure. Whilst that is the situation of many, there are always the few that will fork out funds for the right price and then there is everything in between.

Believe it or not, this is not only in Ghana, its also in many parts of Africa, America, Europe and more. And it doesn’t only apply to models, it applies to photographers, make up artists, designers, and technically anyone looking to do any kind of contracted/non employed work.


Not to blow my trumpet, but I myself was blogging on FashionGHANA.com for two years for less than nothing, meaning it was costing myself and losing money, placing adverts, publishing articles 2/3 articles a day non stop (including weekends), updating social media and sponsoring events for free. It was only in the past 4/5 month we got our financial break in various directions which was so great and gave the leeway to employing others.

Engaging in free work when you are building your own empire as a model, photographer, blogger or director is inevitable. 9 times out of 10, the people using you in this manner are also starter ups themselves or people who don’t feel you have reached a value.


There is a prime difference between free work and unpaid work. You can have unpaid work but extract many other benefits from the client or the activity, it usually comes with an agreement, I do this, you do that. And then there is free work, where there is no defining benefits you get from it. It’s masked with the famous two words, experience and exposure. In all honesty it’s true in some cases, but very few.

What counts is what free work you chose to do. And if so, you need to ask, How that work affects your public image (does everyone know you are doing it for free), what you benefit from it and more over and most importantly, my favourite saying ‘Who Needs Who’. What might be bad for the branding of a top photographer, might be a compliment for you to take part in. For example, a young photographer can brag at the opportunity of shooting red carpet prestige award show, but a pro photographer would feel doing so undermines his status. Or a Ghanaian designer might brag to their peers at their mere fact of showcasing in Paris, but top designers in Paris may be looking down at that particular show.

If you are a model with hardly any images in your portfolio, do not complain about a photographer wanting to shoot you for free. It doesn’t matter so much who else he is paying. Your initial thought should be, will these images project me in a good light, will it give me what I need in my portfolio and/or will it take my brand further.

As a start up model looking for a good portfolio, it even makes sense to fork out money for the right portfolio. Bouncing around on free shoots might even undermine yourself as a brand and put out horrible pictures about yourself.


This goes the same for photographers. Let’s face it, an upcoming model will usually pay a photographer for a shoot, but you would be crazy to think you can shoot Naomi Campbell for free, or technically any model that has enough in her book to reject your concept, or actually any model that is not so excited about modeling enough to work for you unpaid.

The truth is there are no rules to payments and prices amongst creatives anywhere especially here in Ghana. It falls back to who needs who. There are no model associations here unlike Cote d’Ivoire where there is a standard price for models and even model ID cards for all the decent models. However, that has been disolving recently.

When you are offered free work, there are only 3 options you have.
1/ Accept it for where you find your benefit. Be it happiness, a chance to show off to your friends you did a fashion show, portfolio building, helping out a friend, something to further push your name out there or whatever other reason you feel you gain from the act. But my advice is when you do it, do it without the expectation of no favours in return, human beings are human beings and they can and will let you down.

2/ You can bargain something out of it. Come to an agreement how money can be made from the collaboration, maybe request if you do the look book you are given a dress for free, or that the photographer gives something in return, or that you get a percentage of picture sales, or that if you walk for the event your image is used for promotion, OR the famous one that never really happens, when they get money next time they will promise to hire you (yeh right). But you bargain what suites you. You will be surprised that some free or low paid offers can even be bargained to more than what you would have expected.

3/ Reject the offer. It is usually the simplest and best option to do if the money nor the benefits are right. Do not fall for sympathy and do not fall for begging. Even more so than 2. You see the problem with #2 (bargaining) is from experience, what happens is it leaves a large grey area, therefore you are going into something where you do not feel you are getting your worth, but yet the client is making extraordinary demands. At which point their arguement is we are doing such and such in return for you. Simply rejecting the offer is less stressful, and in fact, the time spent doing the task could even be used for your own career development or promotion. You will be shocked of the benefits. Some clients you reject for unpaid will actually respect you more and hire you when they have money. Sometimes you also save yourself from something poorly set up.


But what you do not do is continue with the free job and then complain about it. Because first and foremost, no matter who you complain to, you have automatically given them permission to discredit you as a model. Secondly, most times your complaints will get back to the person you worked with which might cause more of a rift not only between you and her/him, but possibly all of her/his associates. And technically it just sounds stupid on the part of the person who worked for free going around and complaining they did it. I can’t explain why, it just does. It makes you seem miserable and hopeless that you are doing something you do not like.

All the above applies for all creative, whether it is a photographers shooting for a magazine or a make up artist working for a photographer.

One would say, why is it that clients who continue to purge models and others for free work should not be called out by those who do so. Well the matter of the fact is, they did not hold a gun to your head, you always have the opportunity to refute the offer.

This is absolutely different from if they promised you pay at a particular point of your contact, and then subtracted from it later. In this scenario, they are legally liable to cover for your time and expenses, at which you can also set the rate in a court of law. In fact if you also can prove there were other jobs you turned down in the process, they can also be held liable for it. That is if you are prepared to make it a legal issue.

However, even more of a better truth, most times people that bounce on free work might enjoy the ability of not paying and getting away with it, but they are usually blind sided of their losses from working in such a manner. For example, event organizers will never know how much their events are undermined in public by not paying models. Most of them also undermine how word of mouth could benefit them tremendously and tarnish them in the worst way.

Most models decide to shoot with popular named photographers for free, as usual if the photographer is sleazy, he will demand a nude shoot, or even sex.


Many models do not know that various sectors of the industry are aware of these photographers and then chose to stay away from the model because they know what it takes to get such work from Mr A or Mr B, believe it or not. Or alternatively, it also becomes difficult for the model to grow but with a really horrible brand because of crappy images in her book based on taking chances with photographers. The fact that you did not go through the right channels, you will also find it difficult to demand what image the should and shouldn’t publish, which one can regret in future.

It works visa versa, photographers who try to build their portfolios with unprofessional models, usually end up losing money on studio time when they find it impossible to get the right shot, or from another perspective, what they think is good work, could have been better had they paid a professional. Some don’t know the images that pop up on google when their name is searched, a great insight to what attracts and turns away clients.


As written above, there is a certain karma to wanting free work that affects everyone no matter who you are and whether you are aware of it or not. An issue most professionals can spot it from a mile away. Does it benefit a designer to pay to showcase at a fashion show with 40 photographers where only one might publish the results? It technically means none were paid.

At the same time, photographers around can take advantage of the opportunity of covering an event, if they know it will draw attention of great audience to his work.

The bottom line is there are no rules to free work, the top of the ‘toppest’ fashion models in the west will still jump at the free opportunity to be on the cover of any international magazine. Nevertheless, that same magazine will probably fork out money to put a celebrity on the cover. It all boils down to who needs who.

The only thing that is best for creatives and models to do is to wiggle through what is worth doing for free and what should be paid, not according to what society says or what your friends are doing, but based upon your current status at a particular time and what is needed to progress. If you have done 4 standard A fashion shows for free what will the 5th standard A fashion show do for you? Ever single offer should be broken down and reviewed.

And the hard truth that many don’t want to accept, if you have been doing this for so long and you still aren’t getting paid in areas you wish to be paid in, don’t you go out in public complaining about the nature of what you are doing, it could only mean 3 things. Either 1/ You as a model, photographer, etc are not good enough to graduate to the level of payment and that maybe this isn’t the job for you, or 2/ There is no money in the industry you are embarking on. Or 3/ Both of the two.

In most cases, it’s usually one. And not always simply because you are not good, but most likely because you are not better than the ones getting the jobs, and that doesn’t go for talent only, that goes for your unique mixture of talent, branding, communication, client relations and more. All of which determines your position below and above who gets paid.

Hence why no matter whether you are a model or a creative, it is always best to work with an agency that has such experience to ensure your time is used efficiently. This has been specified to fashion creatives but it technically applies to all self managed businesses and career roles.


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  1. This article has two sides which is good. Photographers, designer’s, event organizers in Ghana use models for free even if they can afford to pay them. some photographers, event organizers add paying models to their budget but pocket the money instead. The most annoying part is giving these models the exposure speech, Sometimes these models use their own money for tnt, feeding and etc all in the name of long hours “rehearsals” or shoots. Even if these models are doing free work can tnt and feeding not be provided for them? For their effort and time used… as much as I can say I second the 3 options in this article it comes to doing free work…

  2. As much as I endorse both sides of the story, one problem with the Ghanaian mentality is as far as they can get things done for free, they do not care for professionalism. Event organizers use shabby “models” for event which could have been 10/10 if professional models were used and this is sad. Spending money that could pay home based models on their so called international models which are not even recognised anywhere…


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