A Quiet ‘Giant’: Photojournalist Andrew Nelles

27-year-old photojournalist Andrew Nelles, infamously fired from the Chicago Sun-Times a year ago, is flying higher than ever before.

Andrew Nelles is back at his alma mater, and it’s like he never left.

It’s April 2014, and the 27-year-old photojournalist is at Columbia College Chicago to judge the annual Illinois Press Photographers Association’s student competition. He could pass as a college kid if he wanted to – the hipster-esque glasses and casually stylish clothes only amplify his youthful appearance. “Look,” he points, as he walks down Columbia’s orange halls and spots a photo of three older women set in black and white against a dramatic sky. “They’ve still got a photo of mine on the wall.”

But April 2014 means something else that proves he’s no student: It marks almost a year since the Chicago Sun-Times infamously fired Nelles and the rest of its entire photo staff, citing a need for more multimedia content. Nelles finds two former Sun-Times colleagues, all photographers – Rob Dicker, a fellow judge, and Rob Hart, just there to watch – and it’s clear that the anniversary is on all of their minds. One of the Robs mentions exactly what he thinks of their former employer, and the other, referring to a non-disparagement clause in their post-severance paperwork, responds, “Watch it now, you won’t get your $2,000!” The first Rob mock-panics. “Ah, I talked about it! Oh, fuck!” The conversation spirals. Nelles doesn’t say a word.

Andrew Nelles is a quiet giant.

That is, according to John H. White, the Pulitzer-winning photojournalist who taught Nelles at Columbia and worked with him at the Sun-Times. It’s not a reference to Nelles’ height or mannerisms – the Chicagoland native stands at 5’11” and prefers calm confidence to a larger-than-life personality. But when Nelles looks through a lens, he sees from a vantage point nobody else does.

So it’s no surprise he’s racked up a stunning list of accolades for such a young photographer. His photos have been seen in the Chicago Tribune, The Associated Press, Crain’s Chicago Business, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time.com and MSNBC.com. He’s worked in Turkish Kurdistan and Iraq, and has twice been embedded with the U.S. military in Afghanistan. The Sun-Times hired him on a temporary basis in September 2012 while looking elsewhere to fill a full-time position, but photo editor Ernie Torres knew from the beginning they had their man. “I realized right away that this guy has got it,” Torres says. “He’s got it, he knows what he’s doing, he fit right in – a total professional.” Fellow photojournalist Scott Stewart recalls proudly walking into the photo room after that September’s CPS protests, confident he had gotten the best snapshots – until newly-hired Nelles walked in a few minutes later. “I thought I’d have a good shot and he’d walk in and we’d go, ‘Where’d you find that at??’” Stewart says.

For Nelles, the Sun-Times was a dream: a newsroom job after years of freelancing, the ability to stay in Chicago and the opportunity to work alongside White, his mentor and friend. Eight months later, it was all gone. In a way, it’s almost fitting: After going overseas to witness history first-hand, Nelles became part of it.

But even the shock of the layoffs couldn’t keep Nelles down. Before he left the building, he started reaching back out to his old freelance contacts. Within hours, he had a next-day assignment for the Chicago Tribune. “It took a little bit of the bite off the situation,” he remembers. “I’m working tomorrow even after what happened today.”

Andrew Nelles is the future of photojournalism.

At least that’s what Hart says. Hart studied under John H. White at Columbia College a few years before Nelles and knows what it’s like to be indoctrinated by the Pulitzer-winner: “In your first class with John, he would sit you down and tell you his spiel about service to others, and your rent to pay for your time on Earth – if you’re not doing something good for somebody else, you’re not doing anything,” Hart recalls. “Andrew’s one of those people that’s really taken that mission to heart.”

White himself agrees: “The camera’s just an extension of his heart, and he has the eye for it. So I love him. It’s great to see him fly. A year later, he’s still in flight – in a higher orbit. The Sun-Times did not give you your talent, nor can they take your talent away.”

Perhaps it’s an innate talent. Nelles grew up with camera around the house – his mother Terri is a longtime photographer, and his father John is a video engineer – but didn’t express interest until high school. He still didn’t consider it as a career until taking a History of Photography class freshman year of college – part of why he transferred to Columbia College after a miserable year studying engineering at Purdue University.

That decision is paying off. In the past year, Nelles has returned to his freelance roots – and he’s been in high demand. Add that to a richly decorated resume, and it’s easy to forget how young he is – and how much time is still ahead of him. “I’m confident with my career choice,” he says. “As long as there are stories to be told, there will be visual storytelling.”

 

Cameron Albert-Deitch // MEDILL

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