Beware the Unpaid!

Alex Prepping

If you’re in or just starting your journey in the creative industries I’m sure you are more than familiar with the wonderful task of scouring the internet for even the slightest whiff of potential employment. Equally, you are accustomed to the feelings of frustration when finding what appears to be the perfect job only to have that notion crushed with – Salary : Unpaid.

The unpaid internship is, at it’s core, a terrific and noble concept that when used correctly is the perfect way to transition from study to ongoing work. However, within the creative industries it has spread like a plague and it’s polluting the entire network of job providers and job seekers alike with the idea that creative talents aren’t worth paying/charging for. In my early days as a freelancer I bought into the idea that I had to work my arse off for free in order to reap the rewards later on, in many ways I was right. But in most ways I was absolutely wrong as I was also being indoctrinated with a dangerous mindset of undervaluing my skill and worth. It’s a strain of thought that took literally years to shake and it’s residual effects can still be felt even now.

For nearly two years I worked in around half a dozen roles as an unpaid intern, there were some that were genuinely creatively rewarding and have proved to be terrific networking opportunities to make friends and contacts within my field. However, there were more than a few in which, upon reflection, were straight up exploitation of a naive young man who was too eager to impress and get a foot in the door. Sadly, I’m not an isolated case.

“While we can’t offer you any fiduciary compensation, we can provide you with a great opportunity for industry experience and the chance for fantastic exposure within the field”

I was ensnared by the promise of ‘exposure’ and ‘industry experience’…like a moth to the flame i fluttered with hapless optimism towards the yawning trap that had been set for me. Looking back on it, it’s almost like dropping a scoop of ice cream on a blazing slab of concrete in the middle of January and watching the ants swarm to consume the precious sugars. Job providers knew that If they dangled the carrot they would attract talented suitors from whom they could harvest creative assets that would drive their business and their branding to new heights – and they could do it for free!!

There was one particular role that left an incredibly bitter but nevertheless inedible mark on my career aspirations. It was for an internship that was advertised as ‘Video Production assistant’ for a film distribution company. Of course it was unpaid but they could offer the tantalising yet completely intangible incentive of industry exposure. I was unquestionably excited to get started. What started off as filming and editing content for their Youtube web series, deteriorated into demeaning office chores such as unpacking posters and shredding documents. I would work two days a week, on Mondays from 8am – 5pm, during which time I would film an episode of the web series and complete a slew of mundane tasks that should be reserved for a petulant child. I would get the bus home at 5pm and then be expected to have an edited episode ready for the following day – effectively i would work 18 hour days at the behest of a company that continually promised me exciting opportunities but never delivered on them.

Why was I doing this? I looked at the whole experience through very naive eyes, I couldn’t see that there was no pathway here, there was no chance of any real exposure and I was getting no industry experience that would enable me to achieve my ultimate goal. Yet, I stayed there for near on 12 months because I thought that’s what had to be done. It’s not true, if you’re good enough and work hard enough (and smart enough) you will find the right position for you – but the key is to know when something isn’t right.

Then one day i woke up to the fact that I was being used to perform jobs the employees didn’t want to do and the bosses didn’t want to pay for. They cloaked the ‘internship’ with dressings of industry allure and a pathway into the fast lane of the Australian film circuit. Instead I was actively working against myself by being drawn into the notion that my value was non existent in a monetary sense. It goes so far as it devalues you as a person and this can be devastating. As I mentioned previously, it’s the mindset that this kind of work promotes that can be most dangerous of all, it can seep into your fabric without you even knowing it. This is but one of many examples I could have used to illustrate the depth of the bullshit I had to endure during my time on the unpaid scene.

While I’m not saying that we should abolish the internship, I am suggesting that for anyone who is looking to do some unpaid work for a client whether it be a one off or ongoing that you establish clear lines of communication from the very start – don’t be afraid to question things. Clarify exactly what the benefits are that they are offering you instead of money, whether it be exposure (exactly how will this get me exposure? Where will my work be seen and how will I be credited accordingly?) or industry experience (exactly HOW will this experience benefit me in the future and how can I harness it to get myself closer to the ultimate goal of paid employment in the field). I know from experience that it can be hard to stand up for yourself in these situations when you are fresh to the field, but if you don’t value yourself then why should anyone else.

So, while these experiences weren’t positive ones, they are key steps in the journey I’ve taken to where I am now. While I did spin my wheels in the mud for too long looking for traction that was never going to come, it has now allowed me to enjoy a clarity which I now harness to get the most out of myself and my business. Value yourself first and foremost, no matter what you get paid nothing and no one should change that.

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