Jerry Nelson’s Journey as a Photojournalist
When and how did you get into freelance writing and photography?
Photography came first. My mother was the family shutterbug with her camera out at every family event and holiday. I guess it was just a natural progression that I would pick it up as well.
Journalism came later, although not much later. My first taste was in Mr. Pauley’s fifth grade class at Ashwood Elementary in Hot Springs, Virginia. A classmate, Joey Gram, started a one “school newspaper” that we sold for a nickel.
How did you get started as a freelance photojournalist?
Following my divorce in 2005, I went full-time. I was in Washington DC, planning a cross-country, solo, unsupported bicycle trip. National Geographic and other media had heard of my planned trip. They put a camera in my hands and Rails-to-Trails put a GPS on my bicycle. For the next year I was a “roving reporter” just filing pieces and images about places and people I encountered.
How did you build up your portfolio?
I build my portfolio one image, and article, at a time. I go through my portfolio frequently, weeding and replacing with newer ones — or ones better show my skill set and interest range. Building a portfolio never ends.
What does it take to be a successful freelance photographer and writer?
Marketing. Many people contact me wanting to know how to do what I do. The travel, the adventures, and the stories I cover. Sometimes it seems people believe my life is going from adventure to adventure.
My work is 80% behind the computer and 20% in the field. I stay busy on the computer, writing up the stories, following up with clients, answering emails from potential clients and seeking out new markets.
A person can be the best photographer or writer, but without the ability to market their work, their essays will never be seen.
If you could leave our readers with one last piece of business advice, what would it be?
Value your own work. There are plenty of editors who are willing to pay pennies per word for an article or a couple of dollars for an image — if they don’t try the old, “Do it for the exposure,” scam.
There are too many people who are willing to sell their work for a few cents as well. What these individuals don’t realize is they are sabotaging their own career. Once a person has become “typecast” as someone who will accept slave wages, then it’s hard to break out.
Not only are they setting themselves up for failure, but they’re helping the market to devolve. Instead of raising the bar in terms of producing better work for better money, they are driving down prices in a mad race to the bottom.
In their rush for peanuts, they fail to realize that the bottom is filled with hundreds of thousands of other people just like them — scrabbling for a few cents. At the other end, where writers and photographers get paid a decent living, there’s more room to move around and more opportunities for the larger gigs.