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Thoughts

Know Your Worth

October 14, 2019

As always, this time of year has me focusing on all my career resolutions. I’ve been reflecting on all that I’ve achieved thus far and all that I wish to achieve. The list of goals is endless – but that is what keeps me going.

“Once you reach something you have to find something else. It’s the process that is stimulating, not the achievement. Everything is about starting again.” – Karl Lagerfeld, 1999

There are several reasons I looked up to Lagerfeld, despite his old-fashioned opinions that just could not survive in today’s politically correct world. I’ve flipped through so many of his quotes, I even have a book full of them sitting on one of my bookshelves. His blunt, unapologetic and tough stance on life is what I have always admired, and I could say I agree with the vast majority of the things he wrote. But that quote above is certainly one of my favourite – because isn’t it true? Once we achieve one thing, those of us who aim high move on to the next goal. You could say we’re never satisfied, perhaps this is simply a trait perfectionists share, but truthfully? I think the recipe to success is continuously setting new barriers to surpass. Settling and comfort… Now that’s a recipe for failure!

I have long believed in the above. It is what drives me to set new goals, every day. It is exhausting, admittedly, to never give yourself a pat on the back for your accomplishments – instead moving on to bigger and better things. But that’s exactly what I chose to write about today – that although aiming to produce better work is fantastic, you should never forget your work’s value.

I bully myself for most of what I create. At times, I’ll compare my creations to those of accomplished experts in the industry, who are ten or twenty years older than myself and have been involved in the sector for far, far longer. It is, in a way, mental torture – but also enables me to push further. I remember being fifteen or so and proudly telling my father that I had been praised for ranking first in my art course, to which he responded, “Well, what’s the use in competing with low standards? Surround yourself with people who are far better artists than you are, and then you can be proud of yourself!” And these words, as frustrating as they felt back then, could not be greater advice.

As a young creative, I have definitely come across a fair share of condescending remarks. You name it, I’ve heard it. I still remember the time I sat across a renowned Maltese photographer for a job interview, a couple of years ago. He requested that I manage his social media in entirety, creating enough visual content to post 2/3x a day on his channels, all while marketing it incessantly. Prior to explaining the role, he asked whether I was just a typical millennial who quit easily. I shrugged off the usual assumption, despite feeling bothered by the idea. In the next two days, I devised a detailed plan on how his targets could be achieved, explaining just what kind of content I would produce and in what order, while requesting a salary that was just above Malta’s minimum wage. He responded by thanking me, but added that he would not be able to afford my services. A couple of months later, I came across this man’s social media – only to find that he had made use of my exact content strategy, replicated the shots I had explained in the best way he could. Us creatives with no big name in the industry? Many of us know this all too well. What exactly do you do when a powerful individual has stolen your ideas, when you are no more than a newcomer to the industry? Nonetheless, my frustration did not last too long, for he had copied my ideas but not executed them to par, and his page was closed down shortly afterwards.

I know copyright issues are common among creatives – but I do hear an alarming number of stories surrounding stolen content, specifically here in Malta. I’ve experienced it with this blog in the past too. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’ll be very flattered to inspire the creations of another. I know many writers, artists, bloggers and photographers have inspired me and helped form my aesthetic. But turning to a creator for inspiration is so, so different from stealing their work.

Emerging into the Maltese creative industry as a freelancer has introduced me to all kinds of copyright issues. I cannot address the exact scenarios my friends and colleagues have shared with me because it is not my place to, but I’ve seen some of Malta’s biggest businesses eagerly steal a freelancer’s work – and let’s face it, powerful individuals on the island can get away with it all. I still remember hearing about an art student having his final year’s project failed at university, only for the project’s unique theme to be stolen and made use of for the teacher’s own personal art exhibition.

There is no denying that this could, and probably does, happen everywhere outside of the island too. What I do find to be shocking, however, is that every freelancer I speak to here seems to have a myriad of similar experiences to share. Just far, far too many!

Another massive problem surrounding the arts in Malta is payment. Despite Malta boasting a lot of cultural beauty and historical art, I find that the vast majority of individuals on the island have very little appreciation for the arts. I am often approached for freelance work, only to be ghosted when I request to be paid for the (very time-consuming) service they demand. Yep, there seem to be many individuals who expect free work or collaborations and refuse to pay even the smallest amount – let alone what our art, time and ideas are worth. And let me just clarify – I am not simply referring to the everyday individual; but specifically renowned people, including successful artistic directors, photographers, editors and business owners who can very well afford to pay while profiting from another’s work.

I also recall sharing a similar experience in yet another job interview with a magazine editor here in Malta, around two years ago. Following a few unnecessary and unprovoked remarks regarding my choice to leave Paris, which were mocked by comparing his wealthy daughter’s success, he proceeded to request my pay expectations for the job at hand. Upon requesting a figure that was far below the job’s value, I was told: “We do not even pay our accountants this figure. Who do you think you are?”

Still new to the industry, and still naively nodding along to every high-ranking individual on the island, I also brushed that off. Nonetheless, he contacted me a couple of weeks later to request my services, however stating I would not be remunerated for the first two months. I politely declined, as I had just landed a job that offered to pay that same figure I’d requested the magazine editor, without even needing to have plucked up the courage to ask for that amount again.

Nowadays, I am far pickier on whom I choose to work with. When I first started writing for brands and website owners, I would accept €20 in payment for a lengthy written piece including my own photography, and the occasional interviews – just because I’d opt for anything I could land. At the time, it made sense – but now? That is simply preposterous.

My career is still at its very early stages, and yet it has skyrocketed since those days. I still find myself struggling with the same issues – both as a freelancer, and just generally as a young artist. But it really is only now, that I find myself working in creative environments and having my efforts acknowledged, that I realise just how undervalued I had been in previous roles.

As a young female having previously worked in male-dominated sectors, I know all too well what work harassment and condescending remarks are all about. To frequently be portrayed as small, cute, inexperienced – despite your work boasting far better quality than that of those older and more experienced in your team – it is repulsive, and just not something I have the patience for nowadays.

The truth is, there is absolutely nothing of interest about working with people who do not value creativity and your efforts. If somebody really wants your work, they will pay.

Far too many freelancers and creative individuals shy away from demanding the right payment for their work. The more fellow artists accept peanuts for payment, the longer this epidemic drags on for. Freelancers have a life to lead and bills to pay, just like any other person. So creatives, freelancers, and young female artists – know your worth.

Natalya Vukovic