What it’s like to have a photo go viral – as told by the photographer’s wife, Rebecca Nimerfroh
The day of February 20th started just like any other day for Nantucket photographer Jonathan Nimerfroh, with a surf check at his favorite beach: Fisherman’s. The winters on Nantucket are known to be notably lean in terms of photography work, and this winter was no exception. With the amount of “summer money” in his bank account dwindling, Jonathan’s one consistent escape was to get in the water and surf. But on this day it was just too cold. Not the air – no – after several winters on Nantucket he was well accustomed to surfing in dangerously low temperatures, the kind of cold in which some surfers leave their car running the entire time. This day was different. The ocean was frozen.
“The ocean was frozen?” I asked that night when Jonathan told me about what he’d seen.
“The waves were frozen. It was the trippiest thing I’ve ever seen. Do you want to see photos of it?”
“Yeah!” I said. Jonathan pulled out his camera and showed me the icy barrels.
We stared in disbelief.
“I want to see this!” I said.
Jonathan told me he had to take turns sitting in his car to warm up in between takes with the camera. At one point he had to run to the car because he thought he might pass out from the cold. And the waves – they were frozen. “Like slurpees,” he said. Slurpee, slushy waves that slowly rolled to shore. “It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. We agreed to return to the beach in a few days so I could see the slurpee waves myself. A day or two later, and after some extremely low temperatures, when we finally made it to the beach, there were no waves at all anymore. The ocean itself had completely frozen. It was so strange – one of the island’s most popular summer beaches was frozen solid like a lake and silenced in the cold.
Several days later, on February 25th, Jonathan decided to share the photos with Holly Finigan of The Nantucket blACKbook to post on her Instagram feed. “I’ll never forget it when he sent me the pictures and texted “I think people are going to freak out,” Holly states when recalling the story. “Little did I know, he was right. I took a screen shot of the text he sent me saying that.” Holly posted Jonathan’s wave photo on her Nantucket blACKbook Instagram account, which then reached CBS Boston weatherman Eric Fisher. Within minutes, Jonathan’s phone rang. It was Eric.
“That was CBS!” Jonathan exclaimed after getting off the phone. “They want the photo for the 11 o’clock news! I think I should send them a couple – maybe they’ll show them all?”
It was nearly 10:40 pm but Jonathan worked quickly to get the photos to Eric. Then we waited, cell phones in hand, ready to video our 5 seconds of fame on the local news. What we thought might be a flash of a single picture was actually the entire series Jonathan sent over, lingering on screen for maybe 10 seconds – which felt like an hour – and after the segment was over, we screamed in delight and forwarded the video to everyone we knew. Wow, that was fun, we thought. Maybe we’d even get some new followers on Instagram from it? Meanwhile, Holly’s Instagram post was also gaining momentum with more likes than normal.
At the same time, Jonathan posted the photo on his own Instagram page. “I figured people might see it on the news and they’d go to my Instagram page looking for it.” That night, his Instagram follower count started climbing. He laid in bed, unable to sleep, continually refreshing his feed to see the number continue to climb.
Thursday morning, Jonathan saw that Stay Wild Magazine had posted his photos with a brief article about the “slurpee waves”. Nantucket’s Townpool also posted a slurpee photo on their Instagram account. And that is when things really started to take off.
“I was getting about 100 emails per hour. The phone started to ring off the hook. ABC. New York Times. The Huffington Post. The Weather Channel. They all wanted the photo. Some even wanted to interview me. It wasn’t uncommon for two or three contacts from the same news agency to contact me for the same info – I had to tell them I was already working with them. Thursday was the real “eye of the storm” in terms of the photo going viral. I was bombarded with requests – and I was gaining 300 Instagram followers an hour. I had to create a folder in my email just for requests for print orders of the photos. I hadn’t even had the time to set up an on-line store for print sales. I worked as quickly as I could, supplying all the info I could to whoever needed it. I even did a phone interview while I shoveled snow. I did a phone interview while I ate dinner. My phone would beep with email alerts, Facebook notifications, texts, friend requests and other incoming calls like it was going to explode.”
Friends from all over the country were starting to take notice as well. “We saw you on ABC World News with David Muir!” “Your photo was on Good Morning America!” A friend in Brazil saw it posted on a Brazilian news station. It was everywhere. It was international. And it was crazy!
Thursday night Jonathan hardly slept, too excited by the day’s events. He had doubled his Instagram following and was quickly growing over 4,000 followers. Eric Fisher from that original local news airing on CBS said it was their most viewed story EVER on CBS Boston.com. The story of the “slurpee waves” was officially viral and trended as the fourth top story that day on the internet. It appeared in newsfeeds in Japan, Australia, Costa Rica. The term “slurpee waves” was a bonafied Google search term that brought up results for Jonathan’s waves. Even Jonathan’s eight-year-old nephew in Philadelphia called to report he’d had a show in tell at school with pictures of the slurpee waves. He laughed and told us, “One kid said, “wait do you know him?” and I said, “Yeah, he’s my uncle!”
“You’re famous!” Friends teased. But many said the same endearing thing that – they felt it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person.
Friday was more of the same craziness, with more press and even more requests for print sales. Jonathan was at his desk all day, working as quickly as he could to get the information out. In the late hours of the night leading into Saturday, he finally had time to create the on-line store. Collapsing into bed, he’d already gotten his first order.
Saturday morning the New York Times ran a half-page color photo in their paper, telling Jonathan’s story about the slurpee waves. Jonathan had to sit down to watch, over coffee that morning, as his 9,999 Instagram followers turn into 10k. It was like New Years Eve. He literally had tears in his eyes.
The day served as a day to attempt to catch up on emails and print requests. Some people had even written Jonathan just to say thank you for capturing such a beautiful scene. Some had long stories to tell about their memories of Nantucket Island, stories about family, the island, the beauty of it all. One email simply said, “I love you” to which Jonathan wrote back, “I love you too!”
Over a quick break for lunch, the food almost fell out of Jonathan’s mouth. The childhood hero of Jonathan’s, professional skateboarder Tony Hawk, re-posted Jonathan’s photo on Instagram. And started following him. “It was surreal. My hero. Posters all over my wall as a kid. He was following me on Instagram.” Jonathan worked the rest of the day handling print requests and remaining loose ends.
Sunday was more of the same, with over 14,000 Instagram followers by the end of the day. One fan wrote to Jonathan over Facebook, “Can you tell me how one person can go from Joe Shmo to famous photographer? Any advice to help the rest of us out?” “I don’t know what to tell this guy!” Jonathan said. “I don’t even understand this myself!”
Even today, months later, the viral momentum has not quite ceased, and our hopes and dreams for our photography business are so much closer now. All I can say is to never, ever stop believing that things are possible. It may be cliché, but don’t be afraid to dream. Someone once said that luck is simply preparedness meets opportunity. Be prepared. And dream away.
To see the full portfolio of Jonathan Nimerfroh’s “Slurpee Waves,” and his other photography, check out his website at www.jdnphotography.com