Yesterday I wrote a post titled “Should You Work For Free?” It sparked a wide range of emotional comments from anger to confusion. Today I wanted to follow up with a story to place it in context and to explain how one free project changed my life.

In early 2012 I accepted a project by Andrew Maynard called the Hill House. At the time I was an amateur photographer and while I did have a growing portfolio of buildings from around the world, I was not a professional and completely “green” when it came to the business and operations of architectural photography.

When Andrew gave me this chance he was actually taking a risk. As an architect you don’t get many opportunities to get access to your projects, especially residential projects. There are only so many times someone wants a photo crew tramping through their house. So the risk is whether a young photographer will be able to capture the building in that time frame. Now if I had gone back to Andrew and tried to charge a fee I would have been escalating that risk and I may have lost that opportunity.

I didn’t know it then, but that one project would have a huge impact on my photography career. The Hill House ended up winning an award in the 2012 Victorian Architecture Awards and along the way it was published by newspapers, magazines and TV stations. I gained contacts with these organisations, but I also gained new clients who were either connected to Andrew, or had seen this project. From that point on I never needed to accept a free residential project again. I hadn’t devalued my services, quite the opposite. I was now being approached by more people than I had ever imagined, and they were offering serious fees in exchange for my services. I had in essence traded one afternoon of my life for an opportunity that would change my life.

The moral of this story however is not about the virtues of working for free, we all know it’s a mixed bag with equally as many negatives, it’s the story of being involved with the most amazing projects you can. It’s about following your passion and finding the “the exceptional project” that will drive your career. And it’s about knowing that securing great projects (and experience) is about building your long term value. We do that when we take on an apprenticeship, go to university, or any other endeavour where we dedicate ourselves without initial reward. We also do it when we spend time blogging and sharing our ideas. The reward is never immediate, but in time it comes back ten fold.