Bil Zelman contacted me recently about some pro bono work he’s been shooting and in particular how rewarding it is for him. Ultimately it ends up benefiting his business too with genuine interest in the work from Art Directors and nice press placement. Here’s what we talked about:

Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you arrived at a successful commercial photography career.

In art school I developed a particular style of hard-flash, in your face, street photography that landed me some museum shows. This was a handful of years ago when 6×6 transparency film and a tripod were standard for the commercial world, but things were just beginning to change. After sending out a few hundred ridiculously inexpensive promo pieces, I gained the trust of a local agency who hired me to shoot a campaign for Virgin Megastores. I took the campaign to the street with no assistants, very little experience and it turned out stellar. The work won a bunch of awards and suddenly the kid with two cameras and four lenses was getting calls. I suppose my confidence and naiveté mixed with my shooting style was something people were ready for.

I’ve always tried to bring something fresh and innovative to the table, and the believability of my shots has been well received and rewarded.

How do you determine what is pro bono and what should be paid, how do you know it’s not something the client should be paying for?

I don’t have any steadfast rules except that they have to be non-profit and preferably a charity. There are plenty of large non-profits which can clearly pay a fee for their photography. Also, many trade and lobbying organizations are nonprofit groups, but not charities so you do need to be careful.

I’ve chosen to work with non-profits which are local, for the most part, whose only budgeted alternative would be to have someone on their staff shoot stuff with a digital point and shoot. And who, after a little research, could clearly benefit from my help. I will also admit that I generally only accept projects where artistic excellence is appreciated and encouraged. Something you’re not going to find everywhere.

Also, when the entity is small and local, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between the budget of your local “keep kids off the streets program” and someone who can probably afford you like say Greenpeace. Beyond that it’s all about researching them and trusting your gut.

Pro-bono projects I’ve worked on recently would include:

My local Sudanese Center, which clearly operates on a tiny budget. They covered $380 of my expenses and my assistants and I donated time/equipment. When the children and families found out that they were getting their photos taken for free, 80 people showed up dressed in their finest at sunset in a field I had scouted (they were bussed from the center). It was an amazing feeling…and scary, as I had imagined 8-10 would actually make it.

The the International Pediatric Neurological Society. Sound fancy? It’s two doctors I know who donate time and resources in their spare time. They could never have afforded to fly a photographer to Kiev, and Peru, but really needed the help. Because of the two trips, on which they covered about half of the cost, they now have a fantastic presentation with which they can seek out funding and raise awareness to their cause. And I ended up feeling really good about it and landing three pages in Archive.

A local, neighborhood outreach program came up with just enough money for me to shoot 30 rolls of grainy b/w on their project; A well designed, oversize brochure to raise funds and awareness. Beautiful.

Anymore it seems like the big commercial guys are not shooting as much editorial and I would suspect that at times shooting commercial can seem tedious and un-fulfilling. Does this serve as an antidote to that?

Absolutely, I manage to shoot about a five or six good editorial pieces a year and crave more, but San Diego isn’t the best place to be for that kind of work. While I’m blessed with great commercial assignments, those projects are usually confined to product placement first and artistry second.

The charity assignments I’ve done have given me grounds to test new ideas and ways of working, are usually not collaborative (Yes, it can try your patience to have someone else edit, crop and manipulate your work all the time- No matter how well it’s done, or how good the intentions).

I feel so empowered to be able to use my camera as a tool for social change, large or small. Nothing has felt more satisfying, and nothing has garnered a greater response for me than this type of work. From simple thank you letters from complete strangers to Art Buyers skipping over ad campaigns and
celeb work and asking “where where the photo’s of those children taken.” It still amazes me.

It’s also a sad fact that no matter how good that cover shot or ad campaign is, there’s a shelf life before it’s thrown out with all of the other magazines. It kills me. Hopefully people will be able to use the images I create for their causes to raise awareness and even funding for years to come. A longevity we rarely see in other media applications.

You mentioned that photographers are missing out on a opportunity by not taking on these kinds of projects. Can you explain?

The positives to taking on these types of projects are endless. To improve the lives of others, to better your community, to art direct your own piece and have total creative freedom, to travel, to see and experience things you may have never thought possible, to be reminded that not everyone is middle class.

And even the self-serving part; to draw attention to your own work and your own vision and be noticed by others in a fantastically positive light. Images from my last trip to Kiev ended up being printed in both Archive and the PDN Photo Annual. One week of shooting with no production work at all ended up getting noticed just as much if not more than my bigger budget shoots for the year.

And, oh yeah, did I mention that you’ll feel really, really good about it?

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  1. Rob- great interview- thanks.

  2. Nice work Bil.

  3. What timing, I just got back from shooting in Africa for a non-profit/charity dealing with rural water resources. They wouldn’t have been able to have anything solid image wise to show before but now, we are going to self publish a small book to sell to benefactors to help fund the program. I agree fully with this interview.

  4. Nice post Rob,

    Doing this kind of work is a win/win for everyone involved. I started my project ( with no funding and no idea where it would go, if anywhere. In fact, other than selling a few prints, I haven’t made a nickel. But, I had the good fortune to come across something that was politically (and morally) relevant and it has exceeded my expectations.


  5. It’ll be interviews like these that’ll change the marketplace around and is just the level of social awareness others are looking for.

    Thanks APE, Bil.

  6. I can’t get that image of the woman laying her hands on the sick child out of my mind.

  7. I can’t agree more with the last line “you feel really really good about it”. I give my time to Soulumination ( to photograph terminally ill children for their families. For the patients’ privacy, I don’t get to show the work at all, but honestly, who cares? A smile from a grieving parent, with a tear-filled thank you, what is that worth?

    It’s not all about money, and I can assure you, one of my shoots for a baby girl changed my life. I don’t think any commercial work has. The founder of Soul was very happy with the photographs, and she wrote me:

    “You were just the right guy for the job!”

    “No,” I replied, hiding tears from behind the monitor, “it was the right job for the guy.”

    Thank you for a great story, Rob.

  8. Very interesting post and what an amazing opporunity to be able to do it pro bono.

    Also very interesting timing on the post. Was it in response to the recent “free” discussion over at Strobist and Chase Jarvis? Or just a happy coincidence to expose all different angles of free?

  9. great post, thank you Bill for your honest and informative views.

  10. Great Post!!
    From reading the post and the comments, I feel that more Photographers will/should be doing this. As a assistant, I went twice to India for a Charity. As a Photographer, I just finished my first Charity Project, were I also filmed a 26 minute Documentary on Injuried Veterans. I have already started planning a few other projects, for next year. At least one will get a Documentary Film. I felt more satisfied, from my Charity work, than my Commercial work and I plan top continue this thru my career.

  11. When I was a kid, my little brother had a tumor. We were all very worried. Doctors told us that it was likely to be a fatal type of cancer. We went to a Christmas program at Primary Children’s Medical Center called “Festival of the Trees,” where Christmas trees are decorated in memory of children who died of cancer.

    Since that time, I’ve seen friends wither and die of cancer. One of my best friends from childhood is currently battling cancer that has been in and out of remission for years.

    When I heard that I could donate CPU cycles to cancer research projects, I did. I put together a network of six computers, and I ran them all for years, donating in total about 18 years of CPU processing time.

    When I started doing photography, one of the first things I did was photograph cancer research fund raising events pro-bono.

    To every photographer who tells me I’m taking a paying gig from a professional photographer: No, I’m not. I am a professional photographer donating my most valuable skill to a cause that I believe is worth sacrificing for. Try it. Helping people in need is its own reward.

    – Eric

  12. Since 1999, I’ve been involved with a group that help run a small hospital in North-Central Haiti. Initially, I went to Haiti to shoot and create a report on the work for my Presbytery.

    In 2000, I became a member of the board and now am very active within the organization. I shoot every time I return to Haiti, I help with the web site, my sales of prints to donors has raised significant money. One donor was given a 20×24 print and he liked the image so much, he wrote a check for 40K,. That money was used to purchase new equipment for the hospital, medical supplies and food for an orphanage.

    Over the years, I’ve purchased some incredible domain names as bank of sorts. I am giving many of them to my group to use as a fundraiser for purchasing seeds for haitian farmers. The hurricanes of this year wiped out the crops in Northern Haiti. Three hurricanes in the row with massive floods. For a country with little to no topsoil, that was too much. So far, we have raised about 30K for purchasing seeds. We were given 100K in seeds by an American Seed company. My goal with the auctioning of the domain names is to raise about 20K for seeds and a feeding program for two orphanages.

    I get incredible joy form the work I’ve done in Haiti. Two years ago, I had a great location portrait shoot that came specifically from the work in Haiti. The Creative Director for the project felt that if I could pull warm portraits from the streets of Haiti that I could get union workers to be real and warm for their campaign.

    (If you are interested in purchasing some killer photographer related domain names with the money going to Community Coalition for Haiti – let me know – the auction will start next week. A few of the names are:,,, etc, etc.)

  13. I usually work in special project about documentation tha is no anymore possible to sell to magazine.
    Here an extract:

    I usually ask for a coverage of the expenses and sometimes there is the opportunity to pubblish book.
    I don’t like the idea of working for free on commercial assignements and so I simply don’t.

  14. I wrote a blog post discussing the financial realities of what “free” really costs you. Here’s the important stuff:

    BEFORE you do anything for free, decide how much money you want to earn per year, and work up a serious Cost of Doing Business calculation. Factor in replacing your camera bodies every two years (shutters wear out when you’re working full-time), a budget for glass and flashes, insurance (individual medical insurance is very expensive), liability coverage, transportation costs, client entertainment, contingencies… Did I mention your salary? Better not forget that one.

    If you do this realistically your annual CODB should fall somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000+ / year. If it’s much lower, and you’re just getting started in your photography career, do it again, and ask an established pro to look over your numbers for you. You’ve missed something important, I guarantee it. It took me several months to come to grips with my true cost of doing business.

    Now recognize that you might need time off for illness, that there will be slow weeks, or even slow months… consider that you may only work 40 weeks per year. How many gigs can you really squeeze out per week, factoring in processing time, client discussions, delivery, and your marketing and business activities? Keep in mind, many photographers cite 80% business, 20% shooting.

    Multiply the number of gigs per week by the number of weeks you can shoot per year (~40).

    Average charge per gig = annual costs / gigs per year. Let’s call that Average charge per gig number The Big Sacrifice.

    Now, when somebody asks you to shoot for free, ask yourself, “is this opportunity worth $The Big Sacrifice? Am I willing to pay that much money to work for these people?”

    The sooner you realize that free isn’t free, the better. It sure is easy to forget all those numbers in the spreadsheet — until the bills come due, that is.

    Every time a “free” gig comes up, imagine that the “client” is a pair of Girl Scouts at your door. Are those cookies really worth $The Big Sacrifice? If it’s a great project, or a great cause, and you really think it’ll help your career, go for it. But don’t pass out those freebies without seeing $The Big Sacrifice flash in your head, really big, in red.

  15. I run into Bill at a local café every once in a while, and he is genuinely one of the nice guys in the business. He is proof that a good attitude can get get you far.

    I agree with his take on low budget work for appropriate entities. There was a local alcoholic recovery house that I use to donate time to shoot their annual fundraiser. Some of the images were great, and the people were a pleasure to be around. Overall it was a great experience.

    Obviously one is not going to make a living from this, but it is still worth doing every once in a while. I feel we should give back a bit, or help out, when we can.

  16. I stopped to take a couple pictures, the “REVOKE 8 MARCH” was passing through my town… Tracie Jones and Valerie Paget are walking from West Hollywod to the California Supreme court in San Francisco, raising awareness and getting signatures to repeal the ban on same sex marriage in California…

    When I got out of the car, I had the intention of blogging and posting the pics I took, “my two cents worth,” so this past Monday it felt serendipitous to find this post which is very much in this same spirit of giving…

    Thank you.


  17. Great story and I think many people fail to see this side of humanity in the world. Thank you for exposing it, so we all can gain by it.
    Myself, I have done some giving back as well. As a 100% disabled veteran, I am not allowed to earn a dine or I lose my disability rating with the Veteran Affairs Dept. Agent orange and other injuries keep me from full time employment and instead of just waiting to die. I choose to give of myself and my knowledge of photography. For the past 2 years, I have shooting people and their service dogs for free. I been trying to keep it going, but can’t earn money or I lose my compensation pension from The Va. The government just doesn’t understand the importance of doing something over just waiting to die. So I do ,all my shooting for free now. When I am shooting it gives me freedom in the moment from my own suffering. Most people don’t want a disabled person around them, much less hire one as a photographer. So I found my place in doing non-profit work for groups that can’t afford to pay someone to do the job. Making it a win-win for all involed. The only drawback is I can’t upgrade equipment or add to what I have on just my disability pay alone. So far my reward, has been the thank you’s from the people who I film. One just can’t put a price tag on that and I should have done this years ago.

  18. […] was introduced to Bil’s work through an excellent interview in A Photo Editor. In it, he talks about why he engages in pro bono work for selected charities, and what he gets out […]

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