To TFP or not TFP... that is the question.

This is a touchy subject. I know this, because whenever the topic comes up amongst creatives of all types... PASSIONS are IGNITED like an Italian lovers quarrel! 

For those who dont know what TFP means... it means Trade For Print or in other words - work for free in trade for images/experience. The reality of TFP can often be some low res images 8 months down the track... sometimes nothing...sometimes a disappointing collection of bad photography; yet, if chosen wisely... Magic happens!

It's for the magic moments that have creatives around the world getting lured in to TFP for the romantic notion that some magic will happen for everyone involved... and like a sordid addiction... have no awareness of when to stop... or even that stopping is a choice at any moment.

How do I know this? I have been teaching MUA Bootcamp for 3 years and it's a discussion that comes up in nearly every class.

The fear of saying NO to a TFP opportunity has gifted many creatives sleepless nights or at least, that extra glass of wine to calm the nerves. What if saying no to that opportunity means I miss out on the breakout moment in my career I have been searching for?

 Now that we are in the times of a major feature film having a $250 makeup budget in which had Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews go on to win the Oscar for... it feels like a good time to share my thoughts. (Dallas Buyers Club)

 

You would have seen this floating around social media.

Some artists have a strict NO to free work.

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT TO SAY YES OR NO TO?

I went through phases of thinking this way... In and out of complete stubbornness...  however I dont think the question of saying yes or no is a simple black and white answer and here lies the problem.

I definitely think it's a case by case scenario and you should always at least CONSIDER the opportunity before you say no and slam the door. I also think the quality of TFP for your career evolves over time and possibly gets more valuable as your career progresses. Now, everyone will have their individual opinion on this... but this is what I have learnt over the past 14 years:

Why work for free?

Sometimes that hardest part of TFP, especially when you are in your first few years of your career, is explaining to your friends and family whom cant get their head around the fact that you would 'work for free'. This is a crazy industry and its hard enough sometimes for us to wrap our heads around whats going on... let alone people who aren't in it. So give them some slack.

The trick for achieving others understanding, and your peace, is education. I am often saying "hey remember when I went and did that ____ for free? Well from that, I met _____ and I picked up this ____ job and now have a new client who pays well". Over time, if you are consistent in explaining our career moves... there will come some sort of understanding. You have to understand... I am the Makeup Artist who, after 15 years of 'get a real job' comments or underlying notions... won ABIAs Makeup Artist of the Year 2014 and it wasn't until then that my Dad stood in the kitchen and said to me " I suppose you can have your 'I told you so' moment now". It's never easy... but maintaining your communication instead of complaining 'they just don't get it' is worth it.

I feel like I am now well practiced in choosing my TFP so I can say that more often... but I did have to 'kiss quite a few frogs' to learn the ropes.

When you start in the industry, the benefits of TFP can be great. You get new images for your portfolio, you get to meet new industry people, you also get to experiment and refine your craft under real working conditions. That in itself cant be bought.

The catch is, no one can tell you what will be a good TFP and what will be a waste of your time and makeup. Your job is to to develop your inner compass. You will make mistakes along the way but you will soon get a good feel for it.

One of my favourite TFP stories is a few years ago...standing backstage at Sydney Fashion Week after just directing makeup for Miss Unkon... I realised that the whole reason I was in that position was because I one day said yes to a TFP through Model Mayhem... the photographer and stylist from that shoot went on to start the fashion label Miss Unkon who took me along for the ride.

Jemma Baines for Miss Unkon

Jemma Baines for Miss Unkon

Say yes to everything? Wait...Think about it first.

When you are a new artist... its easy to frantically say yes to everything that comes your way. Regardless of your experience... you should still do your homework. I like to consider TFP as relationship builders... not just an opportunity for a new folio picture that, lets face it, you will probably stop using the image in 6 months time as you will have better examples of your work as you refine your craft.

Here are some mantras I find useful - 

"Will this HONESTLY move my portfolio forward?"

"Do I have a good feeling about this job? Yes? Do it. No? Dont EVER be afraid to say no."

(no ones career has stopped because they said no)

"Do I like the photographers work?"

"Am I willing to give away this time and product for free even if nothing comes of this work?"

"Is this a working relationship I want to invest in?"

Do your homework... you can soon tell photographers who do the rounds of new artists and dont build upon relationships.  This may be a clue into seeing that may not be a long term working relationship. If you like their work... then go ahead and do something for your portfolio but dont get upset if its a brief working relationship.

Research the model and stylist.

Regardless of your experience... I always say...  think before you say yes.

The art of good investing in TFP is recognising the VALUE for your career.

Transition well

After a non specific period of time... (and you will instinctively know when this is happening)... your TFP starts to transition into something new. It actually NEEDS to to benefit your career. It goes from photo shoots with strangers where you just have your fingers crossed something will look great... to testing, where you as a team collaborate to create folio shots. The difference is only subtle... but it does strangely feel like you are at the next level of the computer game we are all playing.

It's during this time you should start saying no more often... not to your collaborations with other creatives you are testing with... but no to the TFPs you were saying yes to at the start. Basically say no to anything that isn't going to elevate your portfolio... or more to the point, start letting go the grip of the idea that every single offer of TFP is an amazing opportunity. You have already invested the time building your folio from scratch... the time now is to build UP on that... not sideways.

This can be the most difficult part... and for a lot of people this is the time they get righteous and say no to every single unpaid job. They start building momentum and that's it... no more free work. "How DARE you ask me to work for free!"  I think there is certainly a time to cut it down dramatically... however, you should always keep an open mind to testing with your favourite professionals and you could be creating fresh new images for your folio that fills the gaps. There are always gaps to be filled in. Your working life isn't going to magically provide you with the perfect recipe of examples of your work that will have the clients calling in.  Sometimes you need to boost you body of work with a test to show your versatility as an artist. Also sometimes a test with someone higher up in their careers is worth its weight in gold.

Trust your gut instincts

I have had TFP jobs where something inside me said to do it... and even though I may have hated every minute of it... something good has come from it in the end. I have also had the opposite happen... I thought maybe it was going to be GREAT despite the niggling feeling deep down and the results were rubbish AND I never saw those people again. I clearly didn't trust my gut on those occasions.

Here is an example.

I had just moved to Sydney from QLD and one of my favourite clients had booked me for a paid campaign in Byron Bay. I was super excited as I LOVE this client and I always get to do beautiful work. A week prior... I had an overwhelming gut feeling that I should replace myself for the job. This went against ALL logic... financially and any other logic that applied. I mulled over it for a day and then  felt I had no choice but to have that awkward conversation with my client. I replaced myself with another artist who was amazing so I knew  she was in good hands.

The next day I woke up with one of those "What the hell have I done???"  **gasps. I couldn't change my mind back so went about my life.

The day I was supposed to be in QLD for the campaign... I was sitting in my studio when I received a phone call.  It was from the moving company who were  transporting my large furniture items and sentimental things down from QLD.

They were 3 days early.

Not only were they early... but the truck driver was irate that he couldn't get down my street... a long story short, I spent the afternoon calming him down so I didn't have all my stuff broken as well as finding a place to park the truck and borrowing a Ute so we could move my precious things to where they needed to be.

Had I been in QLD... he said  (in the most irate voice) that he would have dumped it all at a storage shed and  it would have cost another grand at least to them have it moved a second time. Not to mention I had a sneaking suspicion my things would have been damaged.

My campaign money would not have covered the cost.

Needless to say... I gave my gut instincts a high five and was grateful nothing got broken by the neanderthal who hated his job. I also still have a great working relationship with that client whom I still work with today.

 

BEWARE the CARROT DANGLER

If I ever hear the words "this will be excellent exposure for you", as a rule, I run away as fast as I can. Usually after a bit more investigation. Everything is considered.

I find this is a line fed to artists when the asking party needs to convince the artist to work for them because in fact, it is a better opportunity for the asker than the artist.

In other words... "this will be excellent exposure for you" translates to "I need you, but I can't pay you... and this is all I can think of to say to sound attractive to you"

Those TFPs that I have done where I have been fed that line... never works out the way it's promised it will. Never.

DIG DEEPER to find your own value.

You know what is great exposure? A shoot with Mario Testino. Is this job with Mario Testino? No? Dig deeper before you say yes.

There IS of course that exception to the rule... which is:

You independently see value in investing your time in this job.

Will this TFP job move my portfolio forward? Yes or no?

 

The "this will be great exposure for you" is rarely true and it is up to you to evaluate the VALUE of that shoot for yourself. Don't take any notice of the carrot being dangled.

Value = 

  1. It will fill in a gap in your portfolio.
  2. There are creatives you would like to form a working relationship with on this job.
  3. This is a client you would like to form a working relationship with.

 

 But for Pete's sake... do not keep saying yes to TFP for the fear of saying NO. Say yes only on occasions it is actually going to add value to your career.

In Conclusion...

The biggest lesson I have learnt about this whole debate is unless the job is with a group of excellent individuals all collectively getting together to create an image/s that will elevate everyone's portfolio... or if you personally see value in doing this TFP after long consideration... you should say no.

Now, of course for the newbies in the industry.. TFP is essential to create a circle of working relationships to also work on your own craft. It's your time for building a foundation of good people around you and this is an excellent way to do it. However, this period can't go on for ever. I know of artists 5 even 8 years into the career and still maintaining their fear of saying no. I also think that any job that isn't useful for your portfolio is probably taking advantage of you. Unless its a makeup for a face that is hugely popular on social media and you have an agreement that they will tag and promote you in a gorgeous post... why would you work for free? You wont die if you say no. The sooner you say no to TFP the sooner you attract paid work. It's a bit woo woo that way.

I think the key is communication. Saying things like "I am in a period where I am building my folio so I would love to say yes." or "I have come to the end of my initial folio build, so thank you for the offer, but I am currently transitioning into paid jobs"... or something along those lines ensure you are in control of your decisions. Develop your compass by checking out the final products of the tests you said no to... if you wish some you had said yes to... keep practicing your selections.

As your career grows... TFP turns into valuable test shoots with people you love also working with. The definition of TFP changes and you create great shoots to work on your folio. I STILL test all the time with much loved teams... knowing I can trust the outcome to be amazing every time.

Once you have your basic portfolio established, only say yes in special circumstances. The opportunities will keep coming if you are proactive. Commissioning your own tests for your folio is always a good alternative to TFP.  The other way to say that is "if there is no door of opportunity... build your own door."

Don't be afraid to creatively direct your own makeup shoot!

At the end of the day there is so much guessing involved in this topic.

 I think each opportunity should be evaluated case by case. If you think its a job that you should be getting paid for.. then say no. You wont ruin your career. You will be building your professional respect. Most experienced artists still test, however with people we know and love and are sure to get amazing results from. It's usually in the form of an editorial or submission. Its the best way to stay fresh, current and reinvent our folios to be current in the industry. So the notion to NO TFP FULL STOP is a bit restrictive to possibilities within your career.

I am sure the artists on Dallas Buyers Club saw the immense value in the extremely low budget job... and boy did it pay off.

But those offers dont come around all that often.

Listen to your instincts and get all the facts before you make a decision.

Use TFP as a tool for your career... dont let TFP use you.

If in doubt... watch this. Your doubt is probably your instincts telling you to not do it.