Personal and Pro Bono Projects Can Prove Profitable

"Hope in the Dark"
"Hope in the Dark" cover photo by Jeremy Cowart

Can you say that title ten times fast?!

When you earn a living as a photographer or filmmaker, it’s easy to get into the trap of feeling like unless you’re getting paid for a gig, you won’t do a gig. I speak from experience because I know at times that’s how I feel. But the truth is, the gigs you do for free, whether it’s a personal project you do because you love the topic (like my Mixed in America documentary) or if it’s a pro bono gig you do for a worthy cause, those projects can prove very profitable. Both financially and “spiritually” (and by spiritually, I don’t necessarily mean in a religious sense. Just the fulfillment your spirit gets from this kind of work, regardless of your faith). Some of the most fulfilling projects I’ve done have been the ones where I was not paid. But don’t just take my word for it:

  • Zack Arias made this video for and the result was that he blew up like a 20-mega ton bomb (Zack, not Scott).
  • With no video experience, Vincent Laforet spent $5,000 of his own money to make this “cologne commercial” and 2 millon+ views later, well, you know the story.
  • Jeremy Cowart’s “Hope in the Dark” photo book led to him being hired by E! Television (now a consistent client).
  • Some of Chase Jarvis’s best gigs developed not from commercial shoots, but his personal work with the iPhone or his photos of Seattle.
  • Celebrity photographer Joe Buissink is emphatic about personal work like his “Autism Heroes” book keeping him excited about his craft.

You may be tempted to say right about now, “Well, all those guys are super stars! Of course they’re going to get attention for their work they do.” Well, you know what? Chase Jarvis wasn’t always “Chase Jarvis.” Well his was but…anyway, you know what I mean. He wasn’t always the “star” he is today. All of these guys at some point were nobody’s. Zero Twitter followers. Not one friend on Facebook. But I hazard to guess that it was the same kind of mindset to pursue this kind of work in the first place that attributed to their success today.


But there are other examples of people not as widely known as these guys who prove this point. Jesse Rosten’s iPad+Velcro video (made just for fun) actually was put on Apple website. (That’s huge). Sean Dunne‘s short film doc “The Archive” has become a Vimeo favorite and has since garnered over 345,000 views and led to more gigs.  Drea Cooper is the co-creator of the “California is a Place” series which collectively has over 1 million views and led to some pretty high profile commercial work. “Beyond the Still” film contestants Scott Brignac and Kenny Mosher each got commercial work from the exposure they got for their film submissions. Do I need to go on?

I’ve been really inspired by filmmakers like these, and I think you will too. That’s why Jesse, Sean, Drea, Scott, and Kenny were all interviewed for my podcast, Crossing the 180. Sean’s episode aired a couple of weeks ago. Tomorrow you can hear Scott’s. Then in the following weeks I’ll have Kenny, Jesse, Drea, and many more filmmakers whose stories will inspire and inform. Also, each of them gives an awesome answer to my signature question: “At the end of Inception, does the top fall or not?”

So, you have two choices. Follow the example of these guys, are continue making excuses about why you don’t have any time? It’s up to you. Are you serious about your craft or aren’t you?

Here’s a conversation between Chase Jarvis and Jeremy Cowart and this topic comes up.

7 thoughts on “Personal and Pro Bono Projects Can Prove Profitable

  1. Ron. Good Article, Great Advice.
    As an owner of a start up production company in my first 12 months, I find posts like this very inspirational. I’ve always had the same philosophy and its encouraging to know others have achieved personal and commercial success by following their passion.

    Thank You.

  2. I’m in this situation right now. I’m a “nobody”.

    I’m donating and volunteering my time because that’s all I have right now.

    I’m helping out at my church (Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Mountain View) and I’m doing many non profits’ videos to meet their pressing needs.

    I’m planting the seeds so these organizations will succeed because of the impact of my videos.

    I pray someday and somewhere someone will pay me to do a video…

    1. Hey Jaime. I used to attend that church when we lived in Silicon Valley. Their head video guy Matt used to work for me. He’s a great guy.

      I applaud what you’re doing. Keep it up and it will be paid back. I promise.

      1. Thanks for the encouragement! Sometimes it’s just plain crazy that God is orchestrating everything behind the scenes. Anyways, this is my passion AND my calling to help others.

        I’m the one who has to wait for patience in God’s timing.

        Thanks for allowing to air out my feelings here on this blog!

Comments are closed.