From the time he was a young child, Nelson Chenault knew he was meant to be a photographer. His favorite place to go in Little Rock with his family was the Little Rock Zoo, where he competed with his siblings to get the coolest shots of the animals there – a contest he always seemed to win.
Now 51, Chenault has established a career as one of the state’s top shooters, taking thousands of shots per game of both the Razorbacks’ football and basketball teams for USA Today newspaper. He also has landed the most coveted honor in sports photography twice, with two Sports Illustrated cover images.
But his repertoire extends far beyond that, as he shoots for corporate clients, including Lexicon and Comcast and filming President Clinton and countless other luminaries at the Clinton Library, Foundation and School of Law. The road to success started while he was attending Catholic High.
“My friends at Catholic and I would sneak in Kodak Disc cameras to concerts, and have a contest to see who could get the best photos,” he explains. “We saw bands like Whitesnake and Motley Crue a lot back in the day. They were well-lit and easy to take photos with a camera that was not suited for concerts.”
Chenault was also a drummer in numerous high school and college bands and kept banging the skins for nearly 20 years. He got to know ‘80s bands “really well,” and had an eye-opening experience when he spent the summer after high school graduation in 1989 traveling on the road with Quiet Riot.
“I loved meeting the rock stars, they were my people,” he recalls. “But that’s a hard life if you’re not Paul McCartney and get to fly home every night. You start to see the back side of the touring industry and it’s a tough life, hard to make a living at it.”
While earning a business degree at UALR, Chenault worked as the assistant manager at a Waldenbooks store. But when the manager left abruptly and he was ordered to lead the store, he made a clear assessment of what he wanted out of life.
“I knew I never wanted to teach art or photography, but more than that, I knew I couldn’t have a boss hanging over my shoulder while chained at a desk,” says Chenault. “I realized I didn’t want to manage people and photography was going really well. I was making more money at a wedding for a 4 to 6 hour event than I was in all 160 hours in four 40-hour work weeks. I realized if I could find just 12 gigs a year, I could make at least as much as working at the bookstore.”
Chenault made the jump when a local filmmaker was preparing to shoot a feature film in Little Rock and wanted an on-set still photographer for the three-week shoot. He took his annual two-week vacation and added in his two-week notice, enabling him to work on the film and get paid double for working both gigs.
He never looked back.
Chenault estimates that he has taken “millions” of photos, a figure that might sound incredible but which makes easy sense when one considers he shoots over 2,000 shots for every sports match he covers and hundreds at his corporate and Clinton-related events.
“I shoot heavy and try to cover it from all angles, and tell a story for somebody who’s not there and make them feel like they were there,” he notes. “You wind up with up to 2,500 images and you go home and it’s a lot of work.
“That’s where the real world begins: the editing, culling out the bad stuff – the blinks, the stuff that may not be as sharp as you’d like, ones with poor lighting. Sometimes editing takes even longer than the shoot. My bedtime is usually 2 or 2:30 a.m. and I wake up at 8:30 a.m. if my dog or kids don’t wake me up sooner.”
Chenault is proudly a family man, with two teenage kids and a 2.5-year-old who’s given he and his wife Heather a fun second go-round with parenting. The couple wanted their first two kids to be close in age so they could be good friends as well as siblings, and then found the youngest, Aaron, to be “a miracle baby who’s a blast, much more fun than you could ever imagine.”
Having kids starting at age 35 led to Chenault cutting back on his travel schedule for assignments. He’s glad he was present for his kids’ formative years, after formerly traveling a lot before they arrived and in the early years before they’d notice him being away much. Heather’s work for Southwest Airlines enabled him to fly easily around the country, including his most favorite assignment of all time: a Chicago Bears-Green Bay Packers game in which he was able to see legendary Packers QB Brett Favre in up-close action.
But his greatest claims to fame are the two Sports Illustrated cover shots – one of former Razorbacks QB Ryan Mallett and another of former LSU QB Matt Flynn holding up the national championship football trophy moments after winning the national title.
“The cool thing about that LSU one is that it’s probably the most heavily covered sporting event next to the Olympics,” he explains. “Sports Illustrated had six of their guys there and when I was called to be congratulated, I thought ‘no way.’
“I remember [it] just like yesterday, taking it because we were all in this roped-off area that was so tight, photographers could barely get the cameras up to their faces since everyone was pushing around,” he adds. “The trophy went to the coach, who handed it to the quarterback. When I took the picture, I took multiple versions and handed them to the transmitter who sends them out to USA Today and the wire. A few days later, I found out I had the cover of the Sports Illustrated commemorative edition.”
Chenault still has nearly all of the images he’s ever shot stored, mainly to show them to his kids since they cover prime musical acts and performers (he shot ZZ Top for fun at their June stop in Little Rock). He also has plenty of shots of world leaders and President Clinton, giving them a behind the scenes peek at history.
He has a few tricks of his trade, keeping track of his ever-shifting schedule of up to three clients a day through constant updates to his iPhone calendar. He also tries to make sure he gets plenty of fan reaction shots at sports events, and encourages young photographers to “think outside the lines because you also get the band, the cheerleaders, the coaches, the people on the bench and the mascots.”
Chenault also notes that he’s never had to spend money on advertising “because the work spoke for me.”
“Having a good attitude, doing what the client requests, maybe throwing your spin on part of it – that’s the key to success,” he says. “I had a great marketing professor who asked how much I spent on that, and he couldn’t believe it when I said nothing. Word of mouth is a lot of it – when Alltel split up, I’d shot for them and all those people went to lots of other locations asking me if I’d come shoot for them there. That’s how the Clinton Center came about.”
Ultimately, Chenault doesn’t see his often-hectic profession as a competition, and that laid-back mindset is the key to maintaining good work-life balance.
“For me it’s not a competition, but for a lot of people it is,” he says. “I do want to turn in my photos as quick as I can, because you have to with a wire service. But I haven’t missed a shoot in 20 years.
“It’s not for everybody. A lot of people like to walk into an office and sit down at a desk. That’s the one thing I wanted to avoid.”