Ask an Expert: Jeremy Lurgio on freelancing a big project

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The pictures were striking, the stories fascinating. But what impressed me most about photographer Jeremy Lurgio’s presentation on his project “Lost and Found Montana” at an Off the Record, was that as a freelancer he’d had an idea for a great project, filed it away and then actually came back and did it.
In about 2000 Lurgio clipped a newspaper article on how the Montana Department of Transportaion was going to eliminate 18 small towns from its maps. Busy with other projects, he filed it into the idea box, which for many freelancers becomes like a black hole. But Lurgio not only revisited the idea, he captured the stories of those towns and the people that call them home in a project that included a gallery show, stories in three magazines and an interactive website.
Read how Lurgio, an associate professor of photo journalism and multi-media at the University of Montana and freelance photographer, tackled the project. Be sure to visit to check out the project.
How long did it take you?
It was about 7,500 miles of driving. Four to five weeks of traveling and shooting. I did an initial shoot early to see if it had legs. Then I didn’t work on it for a year. But then the following year I picked it up and did it over three more summers. So it was like four years put together.
Were you nervous to take on a project as a freelancer and finance it yourself initially?
I knew it was going to cost some money, but I also realized if I had a good story idea I could frame it right and sell it. I wasn’t sure this one was going to be a money maker or just break even.
Did you work on other projects while tackling this?
Oh yeah. I never got a big enough grant to just take a month and do it, and in retrospect that would have been the way to do it: Research, a month of shooting and then a year to put it together.
Tell me about funding this project using grants. How did you find them?
I got money from [several] places. The two I tapped into were the Montana Arts Council and Humanities Montana. I wanted to engage the public in [a discussion on] what does it mean to be a town on a map. I matched it with funding from the university with a grant that helps professors with projects. Some of the traveling was paid for, some of the website and gallery show was paid for. I didn’t get paid for most of my time. I had no experience with grants before. You need to be thinking out ahead in order to get grants, but I didn’t start looking until I was already in the project. Everybody says there’s grants out there for everything, but really, where are they? I Googled and found grants for humanities, photography, documentary work, history, online journalism. People said to look in your own backyard first so that’s how I started looking at the Montana Humanities and arts grants. One thing I found was the more work I had done on the project the more I had to show for it and the more people wanted to fund it. Starting out it’s hard to say “I have a great idea” and get funding.
When did you start pitching the project to publications?
After the first reporting trip I had some publications in mind, but I held off. I didn’t want someone else to say, “That’s a great idea,” and then go do it. So I worked on it quite a bit before I pitched it. I knew locally and regionally they’d be interested. I was confident in the photographs being strong and the story was good. I thought right when I was pretty much done shooting and I had only one trip to do I sent out the queries. Then I took a year and sent out letters that entire year.
Were you confident in writing text to go with the photos?
If someone had said I need a 3,000 word feature on this, I would have been petrified. But I was good at the 800 word story. I had done that in some newspapers. I had done some magazine first-person stories and a handful of features. I had some experience, but it takes me an extra- long time to write something.
Where did you end up selling the project?
I got it in three different publications. One was Montana Magazine. They were willing to give it the most space and work with me on how it was placed. The first place I sold it was High Country News. They wanted it in their travel issue. They wanted me to step back and look at it as a travel piece. I wrote it more as first person. Then there was Challenger magazine. They are a travel magazine for the Pilot Flying J gas stations.
How did you deal with selling the project to multiple publications?
Different publications have their own rules and some are more bendable and some aren’t. One magazine wanted it, but not if it was going to run anywhere else. I then wanted them to pay me more, but they couldn’t do that. I needed publications I worked with to say it was OK to publish elsewhere. As freelancers we need to maximize our profits. ♦
— Kelsey Dayton, editor,

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