An Open Return Letter For Unpaid Portfolio Review Invitations

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This is a response based on an actual request and my return correspondence regarding free labor at a European portfolio review that I have been asked to be involved with this week. Please feel free to tender a copy and paste version of the response to the next fair or festival that asks you for your free labor. You will find the original request underneath. I have omitted the name of the festival as I do not feel this is worthy of shame culture. It should also be noted that this is not an isolated case. If you want to see the culture of exploitation within the portfolio review systems change, you should assume some responsibility in denying the culture by your exclusion.

 

“We are all working in the arts and if we continue this culture of low-balling or non-payment going forward, we are simply going to be carrying out the larger problems of wage slavery already implicit in the inequalities that our present society conforms to”

 

 

Return Response:

 

 

 

Hello Xxxxx,

Thank your for reaching out to me regarding the Xxxxxx portfolio review.
 I have been to Kxxxxx previously and love your city! However, I have made the decision this year that I will no longer be able to take on free work such as portfolio reviews, etc. I am aware that these reviews happen under varying circumstances, some of which include not charging the reviewee a fee in an act of civic kindness and I think that is great. I know that some festivals charge reviewees a fee as well which is then used to pay the reviewers for their service. I have a family and am the sole earner, so giving over free days of labor is not something I can afford at present. I cannot take the time off my normal work to join this equation.
Further, though the inclusion of travel and accommodation is well-meaning and appreciated, I do not believe that my work or the work of other reviewers should be left unpaid. Also, in future emails for those who may want to accept your offer, I would ask that you consider making clear the unpaid hours that the reviewer is supposed to work for those two days. You have given the session lengths, but you have not made it clear how many reviews or hours are to be worked.
If your festival cannot cover an honorarium at the least for a professional to do your portfolio reviews, then the festival should consider either charging for the reviews to pay the professional or abandoning them altogether. My feeling is that “free labor” is part of the problem with our culture-specific jobs. We are expected to do these things “for the good” and to pretend that nobody else is benefiting from our unpaid labor within the hierarchy of such an event. This is unfair at best and if I am frank, I think it lacks ethical considerations.
For example, though you may be giving reviewees free entrance to the reviews through application or other (if you are not charging) means, these acts still work in the interest of the festival and in the eyes of the public and grant-providing governmental agencies/sponsors who will look over annual reports for your festival to see the inclusion/visibility of public service as part of the overall good will of said festival. This means that the agency may release grant money, which is used to support the festival and the staff who work tirelessly to promote it all year round based on these results. This at its very base suggests that someone is being paid, but not the professionals whom you have enlisted to add value to your festival through their reviews and years of paid for professional experience.

“This means that the agency may release grant money, which is used to support the festival and the staff who work tirelessly to promote it all year round based on these results. This at its very base suggests that someone is being paid, but not the professionals whom you have enlisted to add value to your festival through their reviews and years of paid for professional experience”

 

The public also attend these festivals and their footfall is monitored, which is then also included in governmental reports to show the effectiveness of governmental money in the arts and public sphere. If part of that footfall is the result of unpaid portfolio reviewers whom the fair has advertised and with whom people may want instruction from, then the fair is again making subsidiary profit in their grant writing proposals based off of footfall that in part has something to do with our unpaid labor. This is not acceptable. Nor would it be acceptable for a festival or fair to make money from the portfolio reviews to pay on other aspects of the festival that remain in deficit. That should be a given, but sadly it is not. This has to stop. It is unfair for festival officials and workers to secure their annual jobs and payment through funding made possible by the free work  of another unpaid arts laborer whose efforts are used to pad annual reports or footfall numbers etc. If reviewers are part of the attractiveness of your festival, either in grant-writing or in additive measure to sponsorship, then you must pay the laborer.
I would  like to challenge your board, grant-writers, and staff to re-consider the system that you are perpetuating with unpaid review work. If the budget will not be agreeable to paying reviewers a fee of some sort, please consider that you should not relay that deficit to a professional in the industry who has given their time over decades (generally-speaking) to be in the place that they are professionally, from which you are drawing energy, economy, advertising and skill from.
Please also note that in not paying the reviewer a wage, even if minimal, you are encouraging a poor performance by the reviewer, who like it or not will not effectively give in-depth or concerned feedback to the reviewee as they are not being paid to do so. I have seen this in person before. No reviewer I know has ever left an unpaid review session at a festival with kind words. Have you ever sat with a group of unpaid reviewers for lunch at a festival? I have. Its semi-miserable. The same discussion occurs every time about the work of poor reviewees (non-vetted or poorly vetted) and the unpaid labor of efforts. I have watched mid-career professionals glaze over with a 1000 yard stare while eating their canteen lunches. The ennui is palpable.
With unpaid work you will get half-measures, which does not help the reviewees either. Please also bear in mind that although Kxxxxxx is a wonderful place, its not easy to see it when you are working all day and drained from the experience after the final unpaid review. If you decide to do anything after at all, from dinner forward, that is also on your dime as it were. An honorarium by the very least that covers a decent dinner each night would be a symbolic gesture and in turn will give you better results. Imagine what proper pay gets you. A correctly paid reviewer will not only work hard, but will also be on hand to spread the good news about your festival for years after he or she has attended assuring that you always have a pool of professionals to choose from and trust me, we discuss very openly who does not pay. You will also get the same professionals to spread the word of your open calls and so on readily if you ask them if they felt that their time was remunerated. Without paying the worker, you are in effect cancelling your own international visibility by the circumstances that surround your choice not to pay the reviewer.

“You will also get the same professionals to spread the word of your open calls and so on readily if you ask them if they felt that their time was remunerated. Without paying the worker, you are in effect cancelling your own international visibility by the circumstances that surround your choice not to pay the reviewer”.

Again, this is not specific to Kxxxxx, but you should value our labor and see the intrinsic problems of not being able to offer a wage or honorarium to reviewers. We are all working in the arts and if we continue this culture of low-balling or non-payment going forward, we are simply going to be carrying out the larger problems of wage slavery already implicit in the inequalities that our present society conforms to. Part of the reason people are involved in the arts is to buck mainstream trends like this and activate their voices while cultivating change and equality. It is a shame that we have to fight amongst ourselves for the right to be paid for our efforts and futures and the futures of those we are seeking to instruct.
I wish you the best of luck. Please consider my/our thoughts.
Kind Regards,
Bxxx

 

 

Original Request:

 

 

Dear Bxxx,
I am writing to you on behalf of XXXXXX XXXXXXXXXX Festival and Foundation for Visual Arts. We are organising Xth Portfolio Review as a part of this year’s festival programme. The event will take place on Xxx xx 2020 in Kxxxxx during the opening weekend which will run between XX-XX Xxx.
We would be highly honoured if you wish to be guest of our festival as well as participate and join this year’s event as a reviewer during Portfolio Review. We guarantee our guests being provided with two days’ accommodation during the opening weekend (xx-xx Xxx) and the reimbursement of all travel expenses to XXXXXX and back.
Some more information about the Portfolio Review:
Portfolio Review creates an opportunity for the ambitious artists both debuting and those more experienced to be critically reviewed by the professionals of all fields – publishers, photographers, journalists, festival directors and curators. We particularly address the open invitation to Portfolio to students from art schools as well as ambitious creators and photographers who already have some experience in the presentation of their creative output (exhibitions, publications, competitions etc.)
During the event each participant has the opportunity for a personal interview about their photography and work with few selected reviewers. Each single meeting lasts around 20-25 minutes.
In case of any further questions do not hesitate to contact me. Looking forward to hearing from you.
Kind regards,
Bxxx Kxxxxxx

 

 

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