First Hand — Should you ever take on unpaid internships? Student Daniella Chukwuezi shares her experience
You’ve been offered an internship, and it’s right up your street – but it’s unpaid*. Do you take it? This is the precise scenario LCC student Daniella Chukwuezi was faced with, later deciding to take on unpaid work with creative director Harris Elliott. Months later, both Daniella and Harris took to Instagram Live, along with Intern founder Alec Dudson, to speak about what remains a much-debated topic in industry. Here, you can watch back both conversations, and read more from Daniella who reflects on her learnings and talks about the importance of taking on internships based on your own values.
Some of Daniella’s work on her website
Firstly, can you tell us a bit about the internship itself and how you found the experience?
In January, I had an interview with a photographer that my uni tutor, Steph, suggested I reach out to. But that photographer actually recommended that I approach creative director Harris Elliott instead, saying that he was a better fit for me. After viewing Harris’ website and projects, I agreed.
We started working on a project of his that was influenced by Nigerian culture, which was perfect. I’m Nigerian, so I had a lot of cultural insight to offer. It was a reciprocal working partnership; I learnt a lot about design and the industry from Harris. I also got to do research for an exhibition, and the content was everything I’m into. I may have not been paid as an assistant, but I gained a lot of invaluable skills. It definitely would have been better if I was paid, however.
What made you decide to have this conversation with Harris?
The topic of unpaid internships has been widely discussed, especially now in these precarious times. We were also taught about getting paid fairly for work on DPS (Diploma in Professional Studies at LCC). So when the New Agency project [a student-run publication and conference in September 2020] began, it just seemed a natural fit, as I was the only one who had done unpaid work, and we wanted to have a discussion about exploitative internships.
What were your biggest learnings about internships after talking to Harris?
I learnt that the creative industry – at every level – is made up of artists taking on projects or creating projects for themselves. Each one comes with with different levels of experience, networks and budgets. You’re either making work for yourself or for other people. Talking to Harris definitely demystified this hierarchical system – something I already assumed the industry was made up of.
“Take internships based on values, above any other criteria.”
Harris Elliot’s website
What were your biggest learnings about internships after talking to Alec Dudson at Intern?
Most of all, it’s given me a ‘I never want to work for anyone ever again’ attitude, with a new confidence to match. Secondly, it’s taught me to take extra care when negotiating work and contracts. I don’t know if it’s just me, but as a creative, the business side of things can appear dull and ‘not my thing’ but I’ve now learnt the importance of viewing my practice as a business.
Moving forward, do you see yourself doing more internships?
The internship was an amazing and much-needed learning experience, more so than uni. However, in this social climate I’m leaning more towards freelancing and setting up my own hustle. I’m currently at a confusing time in my life, where I could put effort into looking for a ‘normal’ job, and the job hunt is a job itself. Or I could focus that time and energy on building my personal projects.
Any final advice for others looking for and taking on internships at the moment?
Take internships based on values, above any other criteria. Obviously don’t work unpaid! But from my experience of doing an unpaid internship, at least I had a shared value system with Harris to fall back on, rather than breaking my back for a company that couldn’t care less about me. Being able to talk openly and honestly with Harris is a testament to that value and friendship.
Watch Daniella’s conversation with Harris Elliot:
As part of the New Agency conference, Daniella discuss the nature of unpaid work as both an artist and an intern, and what both of them took from the experience.
Daniella’s conversation with creative director Harris Elliot, with insight from Intern founder, Alec Dudson
Watch Daniella’s conversation with Alec Dudson:
Daniella and Alec explore the damaging nature of unpaid internships, as Alec shares how his own experiences led to starting his platform, Intern.
Insight from Intern founder, Alec Dudson, in the run up to Dani and Harris’ conversation