Writer Interview #5: Jerry Nelson

***Jerry Nelson has offered to answer any questions you all have in the comments below for the next week!  After you’re done reading through this interview, feel free to post your questions, and Jerry will answer them as he sees them!  This is a great opportunity to get answers from a successful photojournalist!  This offer is good from now until February 6th.  ***

This is the fifth interview in my series, and this one is with photojournalist Jerry Nelson.  Jerry is an incredibly accomplished photographer, writer and general adventurer.  He has been published in a variety of well-known locations including CNN, Huffington Post, The New York Times and many others.  When he contacted me to do an interview, I looked into some of his work and was impressed at the scope of the assignments he has taken on.  You can learn more about him on his website, http://www.journeyamerica.org/.   The following is a quick video with some of Jerry’s pictures, as well as some other information about him.  If you’re interested in getting to know him a little before the interview, take a minute to watch it, otherwise scroll down to get to the interview questions.

The Interview:

Q) How did you get your start in photojournalism?

Jerry: I started when I was in the Navy.  Low ranks don’t make much money, so I had to find a part-time gig doing something.  Since I had always messed a little with photography I applied for, and was accepted, as a “stringer” for a paper in the town where I was stationed.  It was a decent paying part-time job that allowed me to pretty much set my own hours.  As I was transferred, I continued to string for media outlets and progressively moved up the “food chain” from small, local weeklies, to larger dailies.

Q) What has been your favorite assignment or experience with photojournalism?

Jerry: Wow.  Too many to mention.  It sounds clichéd, but they’re all my ‘favorite’.  Whenever I’m on assignment and someone asks me this, I always tell them “this one.”  Whatever assignment I’m currently working on is always my favorite.  Even if the question were what’s the most memorable, that’s still hard to answer.  Some of the ones that drift through my brain when I’m sitting on the balcony late at night here in Buenos Aires, include.

  • Six weeks along the Mexican/US border in Arizona as I was embedded with ‘militia’ that were looking for immigrants and the drug cartels
  • I got caught in a buffalo stampede in Washington State once.  Nothing to hide behind and nowhere to run.  I just stood there and keep taking images.
  • Or how about being in Plaza de Mayo with hundreds of thousands of Argentines as we watched the first Latin American Pope getting installed?
  • Probably, the photo shoot I remember most was when I got the assignment to cover a Cherokee Powwow in Tennessee.  My wife, then fiance, traveled to America to spend the week with me as we camped with the Indians.  I asked Ale to marry me, she said yes and the Cherokee gave us a traditional Indian wedding! 

Q) What came first for you, photography or writing?

Jerry:  Photography.  A few years ago I was complaining to an editor, and also friend, at CNN about how everyone in America thinks they’re a photographer and it’s just killing the job market.  He had seen some of my work from my blog, liked it and suggested I polish my writing skills so that I could be more marketable.  I’m not sure my writing has improved, but I’m glad I listened to his suggestion.

Q) My audience is mostly writers.  Do you think adding a photography or graphics service could help some of them take their business to the next level?

Jerry: Definitely.  If done properly, photography and writing complement and enrich each other.  Of course, it’s more work for the journalist, but the rewards are greater.

Q) Please name 3 places where you find new clients.

Jerry:  I’m fortunate.  I’ve been doing this long enough, and have gotten well enough known, that my clients usually find me.  I’m active in social media and continue to engage people there.  If you add up all the places where my pieces and images are seen, it totals 7 million people a day.  I make sure to include my website, JourneyAmerica.org, and email, jerry@journeyamerica.org, with everything piece I do.  When I’m not traveling, I’m the chief photographer for Buenos Tours, the largest, private tour company in South America.  Through them, I work with visitors and tourists teaching them how to maximize their camera skills.  These connections have also led to some gigs.

Q) Please share one or two tricks you use to stay motivated and productive.

Jerry: Well, it’s not the money.  The money is nice, don’t get me wrong.  I’m just not motivated by money.  I’m motivated by making a difference, however small, in this world.  In America there are some iconic photographs.  The young girl at Kent State, the mother during the dust-bowl era trying to figure out how to feed her children, the protester sticking the daisy into the muzzle of the National Guardman’s rifle.  All of these shots and images made a difference in society.  I want to find that next shot.  I want a shot of mine to still be around one hundred years from now and have people point to it and say, “This image made a difference.”  I don’t care if my name is remembered or not, just let my images live long after I’m gone.

Q)  How long did it take for you to get to the point where you were making your ‘goal amount’ with photojournalism (if you have)?

Jerry: “Goal Amount”?  You mean did I have a weekly/monthly/annual amount I wanted to make?  No.  Seriously, I’m not driven by money.  I’m driven by the story I’m currently on.  When I’m on the next story, I’ll be driven by that.  I’ve never had to “worry”, in the traditional sense about financial goals, because, well, I don’t have any.  I live simply.  From October 2011 until December 2012, for example, everything I owned could be put into one small duffel bag and a (camera) gear bag.  I didn’t have to worry about who will watch the apartment, who will pay the cable bill or any of the things that keep people from enjoying the freedom they could have to follow their passion.

Q) Do you do any writing besides freelance & photojournalism? (books, kindle publishing, your own website(s))?

Jerry: Yes.  I’ve got eight — or is it nine — books published.  I still provide content to blogs and the websites of friends who were there for me in the “early days” — kind of paying back favors and support — and I also have my own website.  However, my website is strictly photography, so there’s not much writing to be done on it.

Q) Is photojournalism your only source of income, or do you also work in a ‘traditional’ job?

Jerry:  No, photojournalism is what I do.  Nothing else.  I get a kick out of the emails I get from people who tell me that they feel they are living vicariously through my writings and photography.  Having a “traditional” job just wouldn’t mesh with that very well.  Also, I think a reason that many photographers that want to go full-time are held back by their own resumes.  Take a look at some LinkedIn profiles of “photographers” for example.  I just noticed a headline this morning that said, “Professional photographer.  Accountant. Mechanic.”  If I’m a potential client and I see that on someone’s resume, how am I to know what they do?  People that aspire to be pro photogs need to keep that goal and passion front and center.  If you’ve ever been to Hollywood and Los Angeles, EVERYONE is an actor.  Oh sure, they might be waiting tables or working valet to put food on the table, but ask any of them what do they for a living, and they’ll tell you they’re an actor.  That’s not lying.  That’s keeping their passion front and center.

Q) What type of photography equipment do you use for your work?

Jerry: A Nikon D300 with a kit lens.  I don’t carry a lot of gear because I don’t want the extra hassle of lenses, filters and all that other crap.  People that want to be a photographer professionally need to understand that it is literally NOT the gear that makes a great image, but rather, the person behind the camera.

Q) Looking through your online profile, it looks like you’ve met some very interesting people through your work.  Who are some of your favorites, and why?

Jerry: I’m met both interesting and famous people.  I have found that the interesting people aren’t necessarily famous, and the famous people aren’t necessarily interesting.  Two people whose stories I often share are Omar and Ms Mamie.  Omar was a 12-year old in Dallas, TX.  I met Omar when he was playing stickball in the ghetto one night.  He and his family invited me to stay a few days with them, and while there, I got the chance to hear Omar tell me about his dream of one day going to medical school and returning to provide healthcare to people in the ghetto.  Ms. Mamie was a 79-year old African-American whom I met in Jackson, Tennessee.  Her dream had always been to go back to school and complete the education she was denied by Jim Crow law as a little girl.  I spent two nights with her and her husband and encouraged her to follow her passion.  Eight months later, I got an email from Ms Mamie telling me she had signed up and would start classes in a week.

Q) You seem to do a lot of work covering protests, movements and events of this nature. What was the most interesting one you’ve covered, and why?

Jerry:  All of the shoots are interesting.  There are different elements in each story that raises its own level of interest.  I particularly enjoy the stories though where I can get in and spend time learning about the issues involved.  Unlike many photojournalists that will “pop-in and pop-out” on a story, I like to spend time with the story letting it wrap itself around my mind.  One story that fits this is when I was embedded with Occupy. I spent four months camping in the parks and plazas with the protesters, getting to know many of them personally.

One of the “NATO 3”, now on trial in Chicago, is a friend of mine whom I met during OccupyDC.  I had my own one-man tent and lived with the Occupiers as they camped in McPherson Square three blocks from The White House.  Because they knew me, they came to trust me, and would often give me a heads up about an action that would be taking place.  They knew that I would be fair and accurate in my coverage.  That’s a benefit that would not have happened if I had just shown up for a couple of days.  The downside of that is that I was so identified with Occupy by law enforcement, I was picked up and held for several days when they raided the encampment in D.C. On February 4, 2012

I’ve spent about two months covering coal mining in West Virginia and got arrested there as well.  Not for protesting, just being there covering the story.  I also got to meet many of the coal industry opposition people and learned the story well, from the inside out.


Wow..Thank you Jerry for taking the time to do this interview.  Your story is absolutely fascinating, and I’m sure it will motivate my audience to keep reaching for their dreams of being full-time writers (and maybe photographers too).

I hope you all enjoyed reading through this interview, and got as much out of it as I did.  Please take some time to visit Jerry’s site, JourneyAmerica.org to learn even more about him. If you’re interested in being interviewed for my site, please shoot me an email at Michael@WriteForMoneyOnline.com.

Thank you.

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  1. Ale Gianetti Nelson says

    Wow! This was a wonderful interview! I learned so much about take interesting photos! Sometimes we take a photo walkj and is so funny! My husband is a Great person and a great professional! Thank you,

  2. Lisa says

    Great interview Michael. Thank you.

    Jerry, I had one question if you are still checking this thread. I’m one of those amateur photographers that dreams of someday turning it into a career. Do you have any recommendations on what I can or should be doing to help achieve that goal? Specifically, any tips on how to improve my pictures and any tips on where I should be looking to try to sell them or get hired to freelance.

    Thank you


    • says

      Do you have any recommendations on what I can or should be doing to help achieve that goal? Specifically, any tips on how to improve my pictures and any tips on where I should be looking to try to sell them or get hired to freelance.

      Thank you


      Great question Lisa! I get asked that question often, and I haven’t been able to come up with a succinct answer that doesn’t sound like a cliche.

      My first suggestion is to determine what kind of photography you want to do. Portraits? Weddings? Photojournalism? Landscapes? There’s a lot of different options and while you can do all of them, you can’t do all of them well, at least when you’re staring out. It’s no fun shooting breaking news stories if your heart is in landscapes. If you’re not sure in what genre your passion lies, dabble a little in each and see which you prefer. Then pursue that genre 100%. Once you have found out what direction you want to shoot, then do some research and find other photogs, both famous and unknown, and follow their work. Take a look at their images and ask yourself “Why does this image attract me.” Then go out and try to replicate what they’ve done. You’re not really copying their work, but by mimicking what they’ve done, you’re training your brain to think like them.

      Secondly, to improve your own shots, in addition to what I suggested, make sure you take A LOT of images. I don’t mean tens, or even dozens, of images a week. I mean hundreds! Always keep your camera with you, even if just going to the convenience store for a quick trip. Slowly your brain will be trained to “see” images in places that you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. In conjunction with taking LOTS of photos, make sure you DELETE lots of photos too. For every hundred images I shoot, I MIGHT keep two. One of the differences between a pro photog and amateur is an amateur will take 100 pictures and show them all. A pro will take a hundred and keep just one or two.

      On your final question, learn marketing. Regardless of how great your shots are, if no one will see them, then they’re worthless as far as putting food on your table. Learn how to market your images, and yourself. Get your name and images out there. Starting sending your very, very best work to decision makers. Sit up late at nights reading the internet and watching YouTube videos about marketing. Much of what you will learn may not apply directly to photography, but much of what you will learn WILL!

      If I were starting over today, but knew what I know now, I’d approach every non-profit organization in town. Contacting the non-profit director, I’d offer to do a photoessay about their mission. Then when I had about a dozen images that fit the criteria of being THE BEST, I’d approach the local media (they all have online presence now) and provide them with the photo essay. All but the most jaded local media will jump at the chance to have a great looking photo essay to post on their site. The non-profit gets free publicity, the media gets great content and you get your name (remember marketing?) out their again. PLUS, now you have a great piece for your portfolio. Also, non-profits have volunteers. Many of those volunteers have a few bucks. Who knows…maybe a volunteer will see your images and want to buy a couple in which they are included. Or even better, a volunteer might see your work and hire you to be the next photog at an event.

      The possibilities are endless.

      Thanks for asking such a great question, and if you, or anyone else, has anymore questions, I’ll be monitoring these comments for about another week.

  3. says

    I love this interview. Most photographers I know who are at his level are not motivated by money. Yes, they are glad to have it, but sales have never been the motivating factor. I feel the same way about our books. Glad and proud to have them out there (and with some great reviews), but not completely sales motivated.
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