Nelson Chenault establishes his career as one of the state’s top photographers


From an early age, Nelson Chenault knew he was made to be a photographer. His favorite place to go in Little Rock with his family was the Little Rock Zoowhere he competed with his siblings to get the coolest pictures of animals out 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 from the Razorbacks football and basketball teams for the USA Today newspaper. He also twice landed the most coveted honor in sports photography, with two Sports Illustrated cover images.

But his repertoire extends far beyond that, filming 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 began while he was attending Catholic High.

“My Catholic friends and I would sneak in Kodak Disc cameras to go to concerts and have a contest to see who could get the best shots,” he explains. “We saw bands like Whitesnake and Motley Crue a lot back then. They were well lit and easy to shoot with a camera that wasn’t suitable for gigs.

Chenault was also a drummer in many high school and college bands and continued to hit the skins for almost 20 years. He knew ’80s bands “very well” and had an eye-opening experience when he spent the summer after graduating from high school in 1989 traveling the road with Quiet Riot.

“I loved meeting rock stars, they were my people,” he recalls. “But it’s a tough life if you’re not Paul McCartney and you come home every night. You start to see behind the scenes of the tourism industry and it’s a tough, tough life. to make a living from it.

KISS at Verizon Arena | Credit: Nelson Chenault

While earning a business degree at PSUs, Chenault worked as an assistant manager in a Waldenbooks store. But when the manager left abruptly and was ordered to run the store, he made a clear assessment of what he wanted out of life.

“I knew I had never wanted to teach art or photography, but more than that, I knew I couldn’t have a boss slung over my shoulder chained to a desk,” Chenault says. “I realized I didn’t want to manage people and the photography was going really well. I was making more money at a wedding for a 4-6 hour event than for the 160 hours in four 40 hour work weeks. I realized that if I could find just 12 gigs a year, I could earn 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 a photographer on set for the three-week shoot. He took his annual two-week vacation and added his two weeks’ notice, allowing him to work on the film and be paid double to work on both gigs.

He never looked back.

Chenault estimates he’s taken “millions” of photos, a number that may seem unbelievable but makes sense when you consider he takes more than 2,000 photos for every sporting match he covers and hundreds during his corporate and Clinton-related events.

“I shoot hard and try to cover it from every angle, tell a story to someone who’s not there and make them feel like they’re there,” he notes. “You end 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, getting rid of the bad stuff – the blinks, the stuff that maybe isn’t as sharp as you’d like, the stuff with bad lighting. Sometimes editing takes even longer than filming. My bedtime is usually 2 or 2:30 a.m. and I wake up at 8:30 a.m. if my dog ​​or my children don’t wake me up earlier.

Chenault is proud to be a family man, with two teenagers and a 2.5-year-old child who has given him and his wife Heather a fun second spin with parenthood. The couple wanted their first two children to be close in age so they could be good friends as well as siblings, then discovered that the youngest, Aaron, was “a miracle baby who is awesome, much more fun than you could ever imagine”. ”

Having children from the age of 35 led Chenault to reduce his travel schedule for assignments. He is happy to have been there during his children’s formative years, having traveled extensively before they arrived and in the early years before they noticed he was often away. Heather’s job for Southwest Airlines allowed him to easily fly across the country, including his most favorite assignment ever: a Chicago Bears-Green Bay Packers game in which he got to see legendary Packers QB Brett Favre in close action.

But his greatest claims to fame are the two Sports Illustrated cover photos – one of former Razorbacks QB Ryan Mallett and another of former LSU QB Matt Flynn holding the National Football Championship trophy a few moments after winning the national title.

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Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett – Sports Illustrated | Credit: Nelson Chenault/US Presswire

“The cool thing about this LSU is that it’s probably the most publicized sporting event after 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]like yesterday, taking it because we were all in this bounded area which was so narrow that the photographers could barely put the cameras in front of them because everyone was jostling,” he adds. “The trophy went to the coach, who gave it to the quarterback. When I took the photo, I took several versions and gave them to the sender who sends them to USA Today and the wire. A few days later, I discovered that I had the cover of the commemorative edition of Sports Illustrated.

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Louisiana QB Matt Flynn – Sports Illustrated | Credit: Nelson Chenault/US Presswire

Chenault has always kept nearly all of the footage he’s taken, mostly to show his kids, as they cover top-notch musical acts and performers (he shot ZZ Top for fun during their June stint in Little Rock). It also has many photos of world leaders and President Clinton, giving them a behind-the-scenes look at the story.

He’s got a few tricks of his trade, keeping track of his ever-changing schedule of up to three clients a day through constant updates to his iPhone calendar. He also tries to make sure he gets lots of fan reaction photos at sporting events and encourages young photographers to “think outside the box because you also get the band, the cheerleaders, the coaches. , the people on the bench and the mascots”.

Cheerleader |  Nelson Chenault

Arkansas Razorbacks vs. Elon Phoenix | Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Chenault also notes that he never had to spend money on advertising “because the work spoke for me.”

“Having a good attitude, doing what the customer asks, maybe giving some of it – that’s the key to success,” he says. “I had a great marketing professor who asked me how much I spent on it, and he couldn’t believe it when I didn’t say anything. Word of mouth is important – when Alltel broke up, I shot for them and all these people went to a lot of other places asking me if I would come and shoot for them there. This is how the Clinton Center was born.

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Arkansas beats Auburn | Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Ultimately, Chenault doesn’t view his often hectic profession as a competition, and that laid-back mindset is key to maintaining a good work-life balance.

“For me it’s not a competition, but for a lot of people it is,” he said. “I want to get my pictures done as fast as possible because you have to do it with wire service. But I haven’t missed a shoot in 20 years.

“It’s not for everyone. Many people like to walk into an office and sit at a desk. It’s the only thing I wanted to avoid. »



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