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August 10th, 2009

AFTER STAFF – A Closer Look: Sol Neelman, diversifying to support a ‘weird sports’ personal project

Posted by liveBooks

Photographer Sol Neelman left a staff job at The Oregonian in 2007 after ten years as a newspaper photojournalist. Although he’s won a Pulitzer and been honored twice by POYi, Sol does not claim to be an expert at the “After Staff” transition — and that’s exactly why I wanted to share his story. Burnt out on low-paid editorial, exploring commercial and wedding, and pursuing the personal project he’s passionate about, Sol echoes the experiences of almost every photographer I talked to for this project.
©Sol Neelman

One of Sol's Redneck Games images, which ran in National Geographic. ©Sol Neelman

Miki Johnson: So tell me what you’ve been working on now.

Sol Neelman: I’ve been working on a long-term project, photographing weird sports and the culture of sports around the world. Recently, I photographed dog surfing in San Diego, pro wrestling in Mexico, the Lumberjack World Champs in Wisconsin, and bike polo in Seattle. Up next is a prison rodeo in Oklahoma.

I try to keep myself busy with fun sporting events. It’s an excuse to travel, which is one of my addictions. Along the way I’ll do some traditional sports, such as The Beijing Olympics and college football. I just went to my first Cubs game at Wrigley and photographed the fans in the bleachers. That was fun.

My goal is to get this work published in a book. Ideally it would encompass everything in sports – not just weird sports. It doesn’t need to be the Redneck Games to be good. But the Redneck Games were pretty good.

As far as work, last year I did a commission piece for a developer for whom I photographed downtown Portland for a year. They hung my photographs in the lobby and on each floor of their new building, which ironically is located right across the street from The Oregonian. I’ve also been doing work for Nike and a local bank, plus some weddings. Things are kind of hit or miss, so I try to stay busy with my own project to fill the time.

I’m still trying to figure out how to expose myself to more advertising firms. I recently signed up with Adbase and plan to contact firms that seem like a good fit. At the same time, I’m really trying hard to steer away from editorial clients, just because their rates are so low.

“When the New York Times is paying $200 day rates, you can’t make a living off that.”

I think one mistake a lot of newspaper photographers make is that they’re still trying to work for editorial clients. It’s very rewarding, but when The New York Times is paying $200 day rates, you can’t make a living off that. So I think the more important avenues are commercial, advertising and corporate clients.

MJ: And how have you found it to be trying to get into those? Did you consider finding a rep?

SN: I work with a couple people in LA, but I would love to find a nationwide rep. I wish there were more photo reps who were looking to take on new clients. That would make it a lot easier for me to do what I do best — take pictures.

Most of the photographers I know are not talented business people. It’s not an intuitive skill for photographers, I think, to be on top of it financially. They’re happy to make pictures, and they’re happy to be paid for it. Unfortunately, they’re not always diligent about being paid appropriately.

And it’s a tough thing to do. It’s tough to walk up to a client and say, I’m worth $2,000 a day or $5,000 a day or whatever. Ideally, if you have a good photo rep, he or she would be better at negotiating and – more importantly – finding you quality clients.

One of Sol's wedding images. ©Sol Neelman

One of Sol's wedding images. ©Sol Neelman

MJ: Talk to me a little bit about weddings and how those are going.

SN: It’s supplemental income, one part of the puzzle for me. I have not booked as many as I would like this year. Last year was a little busier. I think it’s harder for people to drop adult wages for a wedding right now when there are so many photographers out there willing to work for less.

Generally I find clients through word of mouth. I signed up for WPJA, and I get some traffic to my wedding website from that. But I’ve only booked one or two weddings from them. What I really need to do better is to hit the streets and talk with local wedding coordinators and event planners directly.

MJ: What was the hardest or the scariest thing when you left the paper?

SN: Well, I think the scary part is the lack of stability. Newspapers have always been a safety net, a security blanket for photographers, a way to make a living taking pictures. When you’re freelance, you’re in charge of earning money and that task can be pretty daunting.

On the flip side, you become your own assignment editor, and how cool is that? There’s a lot of freedom working for yourself. And a lot more fun.

©Sol Neelman

Lucha Libra fans. ©Sol Neelman

I say embrace your strengths. I love shooting sports. There was a certain point where instead of trying to be all things to all people, I just embraced sports photography and said, “I’m gonna own this. This is gonna be me.” It doesn’t mean I can’t do other things, but sports photography is my passion.

MJ: So are there big questions that you are still trying to figure out?

SN: I want to know how to find a full time photo rep. That world is so intimidating. I’m very fortunate to have some friends who are in the advertising world, and that’s how I cracked the code a little bit. But I’m not doing as much as I want to. I really feel that having some form of manager is key, to free me up to spend more time taking fun photos.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Is it hard for you to ask for the big money that commercial jobs command? Do you have tips for helping yourself and clients recognize your value?

Click here for a list of all other “After Staff” posts.


  1. August 10th, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Sol Neelman | Steven St. John Blog

    […] the rest of the interview Portland based photographer Sol Neelman here:… Share and […]

  2. August 12th, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Stephanie Vaughan

    These pictures rock! The way you capture “life” is utterly brilliant.

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