Dying from Exposure -- Is "Working For Exposure" An Opportunity or Exploitation?

Susan Macdonald

Working for exposure -- is it an opportunity for an artist, or pure exploitation?

It's a question every musician, writer, and artist faces on a regular basis. Someone likes your work. Someone wants you to perform, or write for them, or design a website, or draw a poster. Flattered, the artist says "yes," and asks how much the fee will be. The someone in question is then taken aback. Someone has no intention of paying the artist. The artist ought to be willing, indeed, grateful for the opportunity to "work for exposure."

Actor and blogger Wil Wheaton has spoken out vehemently on working for exposure. Salon explains how Wheaton had been asked by Huffington Post to allow them to reprint a blog of his. When he asked how much they would pay for this, a Huffington Post editor responded thusly.

"Unfortunately, we're unable to financially compensate our bloggers at this time. Most bloggers find value in the unique platform and reach our site provides, but we completely understand if that makes blogging with us impossible."

Wil Wheaton was unhappy with Huffington Post's response, and shared his dismay with his Twitter followers. All three million of them.

Author Kristen Lamb takes it even further, referring to Huffington Post's expectations of writers working for free as a "literary booty call" in a recent blog post. Lamb is CEO of WANA International and a leader of the #PayTheWriter and the #BoycottHuffPo movements. She was offended when Stephen Hull, editor of Huffington Post UK, said he was proud of their writers working for free because that meant their writing was "real" and "authentic." Author Chuck Wendig has also posted a blog on this topic. (Be warned: Wendig uses strong language that may be considered NSFW.)

Selena Rezvani pointed out in Forbes that it's especially common, and especially dangerous, for women to be expected to provide skills and expertise without being compensated. Women are already paid less than men on average. She argued that being willing to do work for free damages careers and leads not to a better future career, but to disrespect and being taken for granted.

"If you have a problem asking for compensation, realize that the effect of not getting paid extends beyond you. If I give a speech to a student-run college club of women for example, and I tell them my expertise costs nothing, what am I teaching them about themselves? What am I saying about how they should conduct themselves in the future or estimate their own worth? Of course, I'm not talking about charity and pro bono type work, which is an exception; I am talking about freely giving away our expertise that we've worked hard to build."

Oprah Winfrey asked Revolva to perform at a side stage for her "The Life You Want" Tour. When Revolva found out that Winfrey was charging hundreds of dollars for tickets, but expected local artists to work for exposure, she wrote an open letter to Winfrey explaining why she could not accept the privilege.

Kristen Lamb has discussed the danger to the creative arts of audiences expecting art to be free. The New York Times published an opinion column where Tim Kreider explained how often he was asked to work for exposure. Payment for goods or services received is a traditional method of proving that those goods or services have merit. Stephen King was once asked how you could tell if a writer had talent.

"If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented."

As author Kate Pavelle said, "People have died of *exposure.* Naked, penniless, hungry, and freezing in the snow."

[Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images]