It's a scary world out there, freelancer
When I think about freelance horror stories, two very specific instances come to mind. The first is the infamous Jameson Blake incident of 2018, an issue that started with a tweet asking for free graphic design work in exchange for, of all things, a shout out on social media. The second is a little more personal, a story that quickly comes to mind because it happened to a friend of mine. She was assisting at a shoot I was styling for, when she got a text message asking if she'd be up for designing a new logo. The client was a large-scale multinational, so naturally we got excited––until she discovered the rate they were willing to pay. The generous sum of a couple of thousands and a Starbucks drink.
These stories, they're different on the surface but all trace back to the same problem. In an industry––or no, a country––where people will pay as little as possibly needed to get any sort of job done, instances like these aren't difficult to come by. Time and time again, we see Facebook posts shared by thousands about how freelancers deserve respect and ample compensation, about how exposure (or god forbid, a shout out) won't pay the bills. Despite how badly we want these tales of difficult clients and delayed payment (or just a complete lack thereof!) to be stuff of freelance legend, as the industry in the present day has it, they're very, very real.
To get a taste of this, Wonder talked to three creatives who are, or once were, freelancers. Ahead, they discuss their respective crafts, tell their first-hand horror stories from the freelance realm and give some pretty damn good advice about making it out there.
Wonder: Hi! For the record, could you state your name and what you do?
Tarish: Hi, I’m Tarish Zamora. I’m a freelance Food/Portrait/Interior/Product Photographer based in Manila!
Ducky: My name is Ducky and I am a recent college graduate. Now, I'm working on my government IDs and documents before job hunting, but I do freelance design on the side.
Marj: I’m Marj, previously a freelance stylist and writer before working as an editor for Preview.ph.
W: How long have you been freelancing?
Tarish: I actually worked on film & TV Production first right after college. I tried it out for a year, then decided to apply under One Mega Group Inc. as a Photographer/Videographer. I worked there for a year and now, I’ve been freelancing as a photographer for two years.
Ducky: I started freelancing since my junior year in college, mostly working on design and illustration requests from friends and peers. I guess you can say, “WOM” or word-of-mouth from my peers to theirs. I never felt to be the type to show what I really do because I like working behind the scenes. There is always a part of me that fears that my work is the kind that isn't welcome when I know there are better artists outside that could better articulate their “illustrated voice” to a wider audience, who work full-time with agencies and have thousands of followers on social media, while I am just a hobbyist.
Marj: I used to be in a styling company, then I left and did freelance styling for about a year.
Tarish: One major project that I got that actually defined my “style” as a Photographer was when Viber hired me to collaborate with Photographers from all over the world. The peg was “Humans of New York”—we were told to take portraits of people from our respective countries and then post their stories on a public Viber group for everyone to see.
Ducky: Having my name referred by someone I know is in itself a milestone because, “Woah, really? They like what I do?” But the most notable one was when I first got paid to do brand identity for a food business, but it was also the one that depressed me the most because they decided to modify my output to the point I didn't recognize my own work!
Marj: I once styled a leading lady in a primetime teleserye and did several fashion editorials for a magazine.
Tarish: I’ve only had one bad experience as a freelancer that really stuck. I won’t namedrop the brand but it was a pretty big one. I wasn’t handling the finances personally and the agency that was handling it wasn’t able to note the 50% downpayment before the shoot started. Our shoot was done, all the creatives had done their parts, yet we still were not paid.
Ducky: A friend of mine asked me to create a logo for their food business. I obliged because it was an opportunity I couldn't pass and plus, they were willing to pay me for it. The catch was it was rushed, about two to three working days. I gave my friend sketches and some digital ones for choices and he chose only one to work on. He kept saying he loved it, even asked for me to add a background and a tagline when it wasn't discussed to begin with. When we reached beyond three revisions, he stopped me and paid like we discussed. A few days later he said they had to modify it because the logo doesn't fit in the banner where they will be placing it, so I told him I'd be willing redo it. He didn't get back to me. A few days later I saw the modified logo from an IG story and it looked HORRIBLE to the point where I didn't want to see it in person.
Marj: One of the first few articles I wrote as a freelancer was for a magazine—it was a celebrity profile feature. Three months after the piece was published (they allocated two pages in the magazine for it), I followed up on the payment and the editor told me there has been a misunderstanding. They thought I was willing to do it for free. She made it sound like it was my fault that I assumed I’d be paid for it.
Tarish: To build your portfolio: keep collaborating with different people, even if it means working without pay (at first). Once you’ve built your portfolio, share it to the world. Go out, meet new people, socialize. Tell them what you do and always have a business card ready. Keep posting about your work. To protect yourself, always have a contract ready. Never start on a project without a 50% down payment or a signed contract with a client.
Ducky: My advice is to listen first of all to what your clients want or what they are asking for. Ask them for the story behind what they're asking [you to make]––keep on asking. Ask other creatives how they would want to be charged knowing your position, experience and skill, but keep in mind your worth. Seek mentorship from a creative you've been following. Continue to elevate your style and innovate!
Marj: I know it tends to be embarrassing to bring it up, but don’t be shy to ask about your TF; it’s your right as the contributor. It’s okay to say no if you’re not on the same page. Don’t sell yourself short.
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Art Alexandra Lara