Outstanding student, altar boy, Central California all-conference running back, gifted photographer who reminded some of a young Ansel Adams.
That might describe somebody, but not Jerome Pollos.
“I joined the Navy right out of high school because I was a troublemaker and I had to leave before the trouble caught up with me.”
That was Jerome Pollos.
Family man with two phenomenal daughters, a loving, hardworking wife and his own thriving photography business: That's Jerome Pollos, too.
Pollos is now 41. He's known and loved for the smile-or-tear-inducing feature photos and the “holy crap!” spot news images he captured over nearly 13 years as a Coeur d'Alene Press photographer. But in 2013 he gave notice and struck out on his own. This summer, he'll celebrate his fifth anniversary of Jerome Pollos Photography in Coeur d'Alene.
Quite frankly, it's not easy to explain how he got from a very turbulent there to a very successful here.
But we'll let him try.
• • •
I joined the Navy right out of high school because I was a troublemaker and I had to leave before the trouble caught up with me. The recruiter asked what I wanted to do, and I said I don't know. He asked what I like to do: I said I like to DJ house parties. I was never good at it but I enjoyed it. That's the only thing I could think to say that was legal.
They told me I could be a Navy radio DJ but I had to pass a test, which I did. They sent me to journalism school in Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana. They have broadcast journalism, TV and radio; print, layout design, interviewing, writing; public relations/media relations; a two-week course on photojournalism, where they give you an old Canon A1, film and a 50 millimeter lens.
They send you out, you shoot, come back and they critique it.
I failed photojournalism. I aced everything else, but photojournalism? I failed.
So when they had me fill out my dream station, I picked three islands with radio stations and great beaches. They sent me to Washington, D.C., to a newspaper.
Pollos drove three days and nights to reach the East Coast from the West. He checked in to say he'd report to work on Monday but was told they had an assignment for him now. Pollos dashed to his hotel, ironed his uniform and went back to the newspaper. Assignment No. 1: Little boy, pet therapy program, pediatric oncology ward.
I told them I don't do photos. I said, You must not have seen my transcripts. I'm not a photo guy. They're like, Huh. You gotta go do this.
I show up for the assignment. I have no idea what I'm doing. I remembered how to load the film. I turned on the camera — it's not a Canon A1, it's a Nikon. I put the flash on it and the first picture I take almost blinds this poor kid. The flash is on full power and everyone in the room stops and says, What the hell?!
Luckily there were some nurses and parents and the doctor in there who had mercy on me. They came over and said, OK, put it on the little happy green face and put the flash down here, and you should be good.
I took notes and got the interview done. I'm dreading doing photos so I just start blasting through, one roll, a second roll, third roll. Get it all done, go back, drop it in a little box and leave for the weekend.
I come back on Monday and my boss yells Pollos! Get in here! I was like, Oh shit! I'm in trouble!
I told him I'm not good at photos. He said, You told me that. Look at this. We processed them. You've got some OK stuff in here. Looks like you know what you're doing.
I said, I don't know what I'm doing. They told me to put it on happy face.
Pollos ended up writing a story that he doesn't remember but is pretty sure wasn't very good. He does recall, though, that the cover photo he'd taken was of a little boy with no hair and a cockatiel on top of his head. The boy had a great big smile.
I didn't think anything of it. I was a teenage kid who wanted to be a DJ and here I was stuck taking pictures.
A few months down the road I come in and my boss is sitting there with some people. My boss says, These people have something to ask you, and he leaves.
The people don't look too good. They look like they've been crying.
The woman is talking to me and she says, Do you recognize me? I say, You look kind of familiar. She introduced herself, pulls out the paper and unfolds it. It's that picture: She says, This is our son and he's just passed away, and this is the last photo we have of him where he's happy. We want to get a print of this so his little brother can always remember his big brother.
It just tore me apart. And I realized, This is the power of photography. Radio DJ, you know you can announce the weather at the top and bottom of every hour, the news at 15 and 45 and you play records, but it doesn't have an impact on people. It doesn't have that emotional connection.
For six years in the Navy, that emotional connection grew, assignment by assignment, frame by frame. His boss made sure that whenever a superior photojournalist was around, Jerome would get a chance to talk with the shooter, learn from a master. When that six years was up, Jerome moved to Coeur d'Alene and got hired by The Press.
That emotional connection was only beginning.
• • •
You don't get rich as a journalist in a small town like Coeur d'Alene, whether you make your living with a keyboard or a camera.
“With my kids getting older and everything going on with my family, I was like, ‘All right, I think I want to do this - but I'm not sure I want to do this,” Pollos said.
“This” was give notice at the newspaper and dive full-time into doing wedding photos, portraits and that sort of thing; stuff Jerome had done a bit here and there in what little spare time he had.
Sounding like every former employee who decides to become his own employer, Pollos said, “I knew it had to happen, but I didn't know if I really wanted it to happen.”
When he essentially gave half a year's notice in January 2013 to ensure a proper transition could take place at The Press, “I was freaked out a little bit. Then I knew there was no turning back.”
That first year, he admitted, “was a little crazy. I had a full booking for weddings and a pretty good setup for portraits and some commercial work, and I thought I was set.”
Even when winter arrived, a slower time because, as Pollos says, most people don't enjoy having their picture taken out in the cold and snow, “I was sitting pretty. The bank account was nice, I had some money set aside to keep me going through the holidays.”
But then 2014 arrived and instead of ushering in a new year of business blessings, the worst thing happened: Nothing.
“I was thinking in January I'd get all these bookings like I had the year before,” Jerome said. “Didn't happen. So I was thinking, ‘Do I have a bad reputation all of a sudden? Did something happen?' But it was just a shift in the market, where people were waiting to book later.
“So come mid-March I'm about to jump off the cliff and Marie [his wife] is trying to talk me down, and the bookings started to come in.”
Lesson Learned: Put more money back. Make sure you account not just for November and December, but November through March. And build those emotional connections like there's no tomorrow, because when you work for yourself, there might not be.
• • •
Pollos was internally famous at The Press for zeroing in on details, for diving headfirst into something he didn't know until he was so proficient he could teach it, for being the hardest worker in a newsroom full of them, and for consistently producing photographs that made you forget they were surrounded by words. Those characteristics have made him a success as his own employee, and it started with a thorough and honest market assessment as he sized up his competition.
“There were so many photographers in the Coeur d'Alene area,” he said. “‘How am I going to separate myself? How am I going to compete with all these people?'
“After my first couple years, I realized, ‘There's not much competition here. I'm not saying that to be egotistical. There's a core group of photographers who are where I am from a cost perspective and services for clients. And then there are other photographers… who are just trying to figure it out.”
Pollos himself was trying to figure it out years ago when he realized he could make decent money as a weekend wedding warrior while working full-time plus at The Press.
“I was walking around doing all these contrived, standard wedding photos,” he said. “It sucked.
“So I talked to friends in the industry who asked, ‘Well then, why are you in the wedding industry?' I said I work at a newspaper, where I don't make much money. I need extra money to put away for kids' college and family trips and pay bills.' They said, ‘Well, you're a photojournalist.' I said, ‘Right.' They said, ‘Stop being a wedding photographer. Be a photojournalist who's documenting a wedding.”
And how important is that photojournalism background to his success today?
“It's why people hire me,” Pollos said.
• • •
The photojournalist who documents weddings actually does a lot more, too. Jerome's business essentially breaks down into four categories, each with targets:
Weddings. This is the biggest revenue generator, as he averages $4,700 for 54 to 58 hours on the assignment. (When he started five years ago, his average wedding shoot was $2,500.) Jerome will shoot no more than 25 weddings a year.
Commercial. When businesses and other organizations need branding messages or product images, they call Jerome. He likes to shoot five commercial projects annually.
Portraits. These include engagement sessions, modeling, head shots for executives, family portraits, senior portraits and so on. Jerome shoots 50 to 75 portrait projects a year, ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars each.
Editorial. Yes, Jerome still does a little shooting for newspapers, magazines and websites. Target: Five editorial projects annually.
With a website as good as any in his industry (see www.jeromepollosphotography.com), Pollos is able to interact with clients from introduction to project completion, and beyond. His experience as a photojournalist is another advantage that few competitors can touch. But if there are two words that make magic and money, they are “moments” and “timeless.”
“Clients say they hire me because I capture moments that look real and that look timeless,” Pollos said. “There's nothing trendy about it. My photos are going to have the same impact 60 years from now as they will tomorrow, because they just have a journalistic look to them.
“I don't go for trendy; I fight against trend. I want timeless.”
Diana Ithomitis, event planner with Agape Events in Spokane, knows Jerome's work well. Over the years she's matched him with clients who want “professional quality images that document their life — an event, a season of life, a moment in time, or even capture just a feeling.”
Ithomitis appreciates Jerome's photojournalism background, saying that and his professionalism set him apart.
“Jerome is the total package when it comes to photography,” she said. “He's a successful businessman with years of experience running his own business, so working with him is easy. But he also meets the clients' needs unlike anyone I've ever seen take pictures.
“He collaborates with each client to select a location that fits the character of the people he's shooting. He lets the client be natural and 100 percent themselves and then he journalistically photographs as they hang out together. The end product is stunning images that look, feel, and embody the personality of the client.”
Ithomitis said Pollos has made indelible images ranging from a sweet kiss with a gorgeous sunrise in the background to a belly-laughing groomsman whose pants just split on the dance floor.
“Jerome captures real moments and produces wall-worthy prints,” she said.
Like all successful people, and Pollos is successful by every modern measure, he couldn't have done this alone. Among many, he credits Mike Wells of the Small Business Development Center at North Idaho College for serving as Jerome's business coach the past three years.
“I don't understand why more businesses don't rely on that (SBDC),” Pollos said. “Mike's owned a number of businesses and has a lot of knowledge — a lot of failures and a lot of successes, and that's what you want.
“I feel like I have a pretty good handle on it now and know what it takes to hit a success level, but there's always more to learn. I listen to podcasts all damn day when I'm toning pictures just so I can know more and learn different ways to make my business more profitable or streamlined or provide a client something that's going to add value.”
From there to here, Jerome's transcript over the past 20-plus years shows he is in fact a photo guy, a superb shooter, his career born during an awkward assignment featuring a sick little boy with a bird on his head.
They are the moments Jerome not only captures, but lives for.
Fun with Numbers
$75,000: Roughly, Jerome's initial investment in his business
40: Percentage of business from out of town
150,000-200,000: Number of frames Jerome shoots annually
$4,700: Average fee for a Jerome Pollos wedding shoot
90: Percent of inquiries that come from his website
And the most important number of all:
4: Jerome, his wife, Marie, and his daughters, Felicia, 21, and Rheana, 16
Did you know?
On top of his busy professional schedule and family life, Jerome has been North Idaho College's photojournalism instructor since 2007.