Rwandan coffee farmer by Rwanda photographer Laura Elizabeth Pohl for Catholic Relief Services

Rwandan coffee farmer. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl for Catholic Relief Services.


I’m going to say this straight: please don’t photograph for free just because you want to see Malawi or Cambodia or Haiti.

“But the client will pay for my plane ticket and hotels and meals so it’s worth it for me,” you’re thinking. “And when other potential clients see these pictures, they’ll pay me to go back. That’s practically like getting paid!”

No. It isn’t.

I can think of a lot of reasons not to take assignments like this but there are three I want to highlight.

  • If a potential client wants you to photograph for them, it means they see value in your work. That should include financial value. So negotiate with them. Ask them about their budget. Does everyone else at their organization work for free? No? Then you shouldn’t either. My guess is working for free does not factor well into your cost of doing business. Charging money is a cornerstone of being a financially successful photographer.
  • You’re hurting the industry by working free. When you work without compensation, the client learns that good photographers work for free. The client will continue believing this and keep trying to get photographers to work for free until something happens that changes their mind. Like you starting a discussion about compensation.
  • You’re hurting photographers in those countries who could be working for the potential clients. I live in Rwanda, and I know of other photographers living in Africa who have been asked to lower their rates to below what it would cost the client to fly a photographer to Africa from the United States or Europe – a photographer who’s willing to work for just that plane ticket.

It’s possible to convince a client to pay you to work overseas. I know from experience.

About eight six years ago, I was freelancing in Washington, D.C., when a potential non-profit client contacted me about working for them in Laos. They wanted me to write and photograph some stories. They had “no money,” they said, but would be happy to pay for my air ticket, hotel, meals and in-country transportation.

This was the first time a potential client asked me to travel overseas. I was flattered and excited. I was tempted to say yes right away. But I had almost no money myself, and I just couldn’t. (Hurting the industry didn’t factor into my thought processes just yet.)

I told the potential client that I couldn’t work for free, but I’d like to meet them in person and talk about my 10 years of journalism experience, what I could do for them and why I would charge them. The next day I dressed up, bicycled down to their office and pulled out my presentation: a print portfolio, a video I’d produced and edited, and some print stories I’d written and designed into nice layouts with photos. I talked about the different ways they could use content on their blog, website and in their marketing materials and presentations. At the end I gave them a breakdown of my fees.

The potential client thanked me and said they’d call soon. I didn’t have a good feeling.

A week later, I was out eating pasta with friends when they called. I was surprised and nervous, sure they would say “no thanks” and I’d be disappointed. But instead, they accepted my charges. They saw the value in what I could provide them. Within two weeks I was in Laos.

It might be nerve-wracking to negotiate back and forth with a potential client. It can be disappointing when you turn down a cool gig because the client says they don’t have money. But think of how great it would feel to get paid to photograph overseas. Think of the good you’ll be doing for the photography industry. Value your photography enough to fight to get paid for it.