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August 20th, 2009

Why shooting for free almost always pays off

Posted by Lou Lesko

One of Gustavo's photos from his Hogs for Kids tour. ©Gustavo Fernandez

One of Gustavo's photos from his Hogs for Kids tour. ©Gustavo Fernandez

No one has more power to change the world than photographers. Yes, yes, doctors are regarded as the human deities of the world, but with few exceptions photographers are embraced with open arms everywhere they go. Because whatever your photographic discipline, and no matter where you travel, you can barter your talent as a shooter for just about anything. Including the well being of children in a far away country.

A week and a half ago photographer Gustavo Fernandez packed up his Harley Davidson to be shipped back to California from New York. He had successfully concluded his second annual “Hog for Kids” motorcycle ride across the United States in a bid to raise money for impoverished children in the Dominican Republic, where Fernandez was born.

In his first career, as a pharmaceutical rep, Gustavo frequently contributed to Children International, a Kansas City-based organization that aids needy children around the world. When he left that steady paycheck last year and plunged into a new career as a photographer, Gustavo (like most making that transition) was watching his bank account with a frugal eye. His budget wouldn’t accommodate his annual donation to his favorite charity.

Gustavo Fernandez

Gustavo Fernandez ©Michele Celentano

Unwilling to abandon the kids of the Dominican Republic, Gustavo went on a motorcycle ride to conjure a creative solution. He was sitting on the answer. He loves riding his Harley and he loves making pictures. Thus emerged Hog for Kids.

As he rode east to New York, Gustavo shot portraits of the children along the way — in exchange, the families contributed his room, board, and a $264 annual ($22 monthly) sponsorship of a child through Children International. This year’s successful trip took 28 days and received international attention. Gustavo says he is looking forward to riding again next year — provided he gets the feeling back in ass by then.

There is no other art form that is so versatile in it’s adaptability and portability for aiding others than photography. As Gustavo demonstrated, all that’s required is the will and the application. Your efforts don’t need to be as grand as a motorcycle ride across the country, but I do urge you to try and find a charitable application of your talent at least once a year. Not only is it good for your soul, it’s good for your career.

As Gustavo discovered, any experience with a camera in your hand, paid or charitable, will always make you a better shooter than you were the day before. He returned from his first Hog for Kids ride a markedly better shooter than before he left. When you place yourself in photographic situations that are unfamiliar and require you to adapt quickly, you’ll be improving by a significant factor. If those situations are charitable in nature, you have more latitude for mistakes, which will ultimately prepare you for the times when mistakes are less tolerable.

Photography is a unique profession that is a golden key to the world. Don’t keep it all for yourself.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: There are so many great examples out there of photographers bartering their time and work for good causes. What projects like this have you participated in or heard about?


  1. August 20th, 2009 at 10:14 am

    John Lee Pictures

    maybe… but i wouldn’t make it a habit of shooting regularly for free. yes, pick a charitable organization and donate your time (good fringe benefit tax-wise as an in-kind donation as well). but i don’t completely subscribe to the whole chris anderson, give everything away for free crowdsourcing model. when you start giving too much away, you cheapen what it is that you’re giving away.

  2. August 20th, 2009 at 10:35 am


    I think it’s a great idea, full of benefits for everyone. Dominican children and their families get support. The charity gets attention. Families get an outstanding photographer for a lot less than it would cost them normally, allowing families on low incomes to have high quality photos they could otherwise not afford – all for a few hundred dollars a year, and letting the photographer stay with you. Gustavo gets press, a trip across the US, improving his skills even more and a warm fuzzy feeling from helping a charity.

    Call me Pollyanna if you will, but I can’t see a single bad thing there. I bet he’ll be even busier with bookings now, as a result of the airtime. Remember the saying you have to spend money to make money? He spent time doing this, and it’ll attract even more people – another benefit.

  3. August 20th, 2009 at 10:42 am


    May I plug my project, Phases + Faces: The Kids of Connecticut. Essentially, these are portrait sessions to benefit Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. For more info, check out this link –

    It’s a great way to connect with people in the community, get your business known AND of course help a hospital raise much needed funds for their various projects.

  4. August 20th, 2009 at 11:03 am

    kristina gill

    dont think you can deduct “time” (billable hours) on taxes, but i think you can do the market value for the photographs you donate.

    Im not sure I disagree with doing “free” photography for charitable reasons you believe in. Maybe you wouldn’t do a commercial shoot for free. But if you pick the cause closest to you and develop a relationship and are involved… What’s the problem??? I’d think it *worse* to _discount_ your prices than to donate for a worthy cause that you are involved with.

  5. August 20th, 2009 at 11:28 am


    I wanted to bring to your attention the most amazing organization. “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” Our family had the misfortune to need their services last Friday when my daughter’s baby was still born. They came with pure grace and compassion to give the family visual memories for ever. Maybe think of them with a donations or service or just let other photographers know of them. Read More; Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep

  6. August 20th, 2009 at 11:38 am

    Gustavo Fernandez

    Thanks Lou for a wonderful write up! You rock!

  7. August 20th, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    Greg Phipps

    Some people just have a completely different philosophy on life than others. Who cares about business models, tax write-offs, and good publicity. Why not just use your abilities to give back and do something nice for people in need because you can? Thanks to Gustavo for doing something to make a difference in the world.

    Another good organization is called Flashes of Hope. It’s centered around free portraits for children with terminal illness and life threatening diseases.
    I would also encourage photographers to find something that fits your personality as a way to give back in a unique way. I give away a wedding a year to couples in hardship, give a percentage of each session to a charity of my clients choosing, and various other things. Find a way you enjoy and try to give back seeking no reward.

  8. August 21st, 2009 at 4:01 am

    Richard Baker

    The picture is really piece of art the baby girl looks so cute in the image moreover the color contact is excellent.
    Richard Baker
    HR Manager
    Recovery Bull

  9. August 23rd, 2009 at 2:33 pm


    When I started my full-time photo business a few years ago, I got involved with shooting for local animal shelters and rescues for free. This led to a few shows, and lots of referrals. It also led to a paying gig with the shelter.

    The animal rescue world is very small; everyone knows everyone else. So, in just a little over two years I’ve built great name recognition, and a big fan base.

    On the commercial side, I’m currently doing a few shoots for free for a local musician. She’s well connected and I’m pretty sure this will lead to paying gigs.

    I think it’s a great idea. Too many photographers are focused on just making money. my volunteering came from a desire to help these organizations (and people). Since that was genuine, i think other people picked up on it and word grew from that.

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