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Artists and Writers Dying of "Exposure"

Updated on May 23, 2014

Interns Aren't Alone

Just do what you would do if you were paid...just do it for nothing. You should feel grateful for this opportunity.
Just do what you would do if you were paid...just do it for nothing. You should feel grateful for this opportunity. | Source

Exposure Writing

Anyone who graduated with the mind that they were going to do what they love and write for a living has likely already come across someone who has asked them to give them something - an essay, a sample, an article, or a few paragraphs of retail content - for free. But they offer that instead of pay they could give them "great exposure", as if this makes the deal as much if not more enticing.

This happens to artists who take photographs, who paint, who do graphic design. It happens to people spanning all across what we call The Arts, and it isn't fair. Sure, it's true according to New York Times publisher Tim Kreider that when these offers are made, it's most often by someone who does not have a budget with which to pay because they are just starting out. But the fact that you can't, as Kreider says, ask for "a haircut or a can of soda" with the same result shows a strange dichotomy showing up. So what's going on?

Distribution of Pay to Writers

A graph depicting how much writers are paid based on author type and experience.
A graph depicting how much writers are paid based on author type and experience. | Source

Writing While Exposed

It doesn't feel right to write for nothing, because it's common sense that in a capitalist economy where work = pay = lifestyle, that you should be paid for producing a writing sample (or photos, or a logo, or an illustration). It's your job, so you expect to be compensated. But not being able to take back a physical paycheck is not necessarily bad. It's not always as criminal as it sounds, demeaning though it may be. Professional Blogger and Personal Finance writer Miranda Marquit makes a compelling argument as to when an exchange of writing for exposure can be practical - even profitable (in a different sense of course) in her blog titled "Confessions of a Professional Blogger" .

In her article "Freelance Writing: Should You Work For Exposure?" Marquit brings up a few compelling points shared by Kreider, such as the lack of pay being unfair, and that after a certain point, giving while receiving nothing (Kreider refers to the early 20s of a writer's age as 'gift' years for that exact reason) doesn't cut it anymore. After a certain point, exposure plateaus and is no longer worth what it was, and that while great for someone starting, it doesn't pay any bills.

However, Marquit's argument as to when freelance writing can be appropriate in exchange for exposure can be summarized thusly: in the early stages of your career, you need credibility and an audience, and freelance writing for exposure can give you both. It counts as a sort of foundation. Once you've started and have a footing somewhere, whether it be under a specific website (such as Hubpages!) or for a newspaper or even under a company, you have somewhere to start. You have a place from which you can be referred. Best of all, you can start building a reputation, kind of how leasing a car can improve your credit.

Is It Going To Last Forever?

The best news of all is that it won't...or at least it shouldn't. It's assumed that when you take an internship you're putting your name in the jar (though unlike Hunger Games, you aren't almost assuredly killed if you're picked).

The reason why this has become such a prevalent problem is that many businesses have been deeply affected by the economy. That exposure is becoming a more common way to compensate contributing artists is a harbinger for much larger problems. Feeling worthless because something you made isn't paid for is certainly one of them, but it's a symptom, not the cause. The fact that Arts programs are being cut from Universities is not a sign that what you do is worthless either. It's another symptom. Neither of these problems indicates that the country has a surplus of artists and writers, and that we don't need any more, despite what SOME people tell you. The rules of economy are overall the same, but behavior is what's changing, because it needs to adapt to the recession that we've been living in for the past seven years. And it's not always good.

Did anyone ever tell Banksy that his work was "worthless"? Probably. But more importantly, did he ever listen? Considering he's been quoted saying "The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules...", I would imagine the answer is 'no'.

The real problem here is that there isn't enough money circulating around to businesses to allow for compensating their contributors. Kreider says that the Internet can be a factor in this problem, as it is a "self-destructing doomsday device" for a lot of businesses. Content is so available and freely passed via Internet (but for how much longer is debatable, see Lauren Rabaino's HubPages article for Net Neutrality!) that they, the business people, can get away with asking for things for free since that's what the writer/artist is competing with. Which sounds downright criminal because it kind of is. That's how competitive capitalism has been working for decades; with more people competing for fewer jobs, the pay can be less and less (ever read Grapes of Wrath in high school?) However, the Internet's not really the enemy. It's the largest pool for reference materials and the easiest, fastest way to gather an audience, credibility and to pass your work around. So it's a two-headed coin. It's an excuse for many businesses to try to take advantage of a starting writer/artist, but it also can be that same writer/artist's jumpstart.

So in conclusion, the most helpful thing you can do is to pick and choose your battles. Pick businesses or sites that are popular, ones that truly give what you deem as "good exposure", and if you're starting out, gravitate towards them. If you need somewhere to start, exposure can be rewarding...as can sending your applications with writing samples everywhere afterwards. But if you've established yourself already, exposure becomes a poor substitute, and you have a right to voice your opinion and ask for paid compensation. We're not plants, we can't run on hot air and kind words with a little sprinkle of water (oftentimes tears). So don't lose your passion, and keep going!

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