The first time Jes Therkelsen stumbled onto a red-eye flight out of the Jersey shore, he was headed east, halfway around the world. On Friday he was headed west for a new job, home and adventure. Welcome to Fresno, Professor Therkelsen!
In January, Therkelsen will become part of the growing multimedia department at Fresno State. The newest offering in the catalog will be MCJ 17, beginning photojournalism.
By the time Therkelsen had finished his undergraduate work at Amherst College, he knew he wanted to do more than be a geologist.
“I enjoyed the outdoors, and that came along with the field, of course,” Therkelsen said. “I got into geology because it represents an amazing perspective of the Earth.”
After receiving a fellowship to teach abroad, he packed his bags and traveled to Athens, Greece, to teach geology and English.
“This was actually before Greece as a country began to care about recycling and other environmental concerns,” Therkelsen said. “I hope, at the least, I raised their awareness level.”
Therkelsen says he got into filmmaking quite by chance.
While in Greece, a lot of local residents were vocal about the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and he was often bombarded with questions about American foreign policy.
“So, I took out my camera and took still photos of my subjects and used captions to keep track of who was who, and what they were asking,” Therkelsen said. “When I got home, I had hundreds of these still photos, so I decided to make a short film documentary about my experiences.”
Therkelsen used the project to apply for a grant to make another documentary. This time he decided he would use his family as the subject.
“Every film maker will tell you with certainty, never make a film about your family,” Therkelsen said. “The film ended up debuting in San Francisco at an indie film festival, and it eventually got me into grad school.”
Therkelsen credits his family for supporting his efforts through school, but was well aware of financial opportunities. Therkelsen applied his newly found passion to filming documentaries in Washington D.C., while attending American University.
He discovered that it was a great town to produce documentaries and non-fiction films.
In 2008 while still at American University, Therkelsen embarked on his journey toward his greatest accomplishment so far, the Clean Hands project.
Traveling halfway around the world, Therkelsen touched down in Nepal. As young rock ‘n rollers would envision themselves saying as they boarded the airplane, he shouted, “I Think I’m Goin to Katmandu!”
The idea behind the project was to take the poorest of the poor in the region and place professional journalistic equipment in their hands.
Therkelsen selected 20 students who were given a real-life opportunity to learn an applicable journalistic trade.
“One of my students from there came to visit me in D.C. awhile back,” Therkelsen said. “He was attending a conference as a media professional for a nonprofit. It was quite a thrill to see him doing well. Another student in my group is now in Australia working on his master’s.”
Therkelsen worked on that project for nearly two years but was happy in Katmandu during his three-month stay. He found himself emulating their lifestyle.
“I learned how to eat with my hands and learned to love lentils,” Therkelsen said. “The whole project was supported by grants, so we lived modestly, even using public transportation which was less than adequate. During labor strikes, the buses sat on the side of the road.”
In Katmandu, one phenomenon stood out: brownouts, where the government would turn off the power at a set time on certain days. At first, he was intent on trying to work nonstop, but it became frustrating.
“But after a few weeks, I found that I would look forward to the stoppage,” Therkelsen said. “I learned how to shut down, relax and unwind.”
At 32, Therkelsen believes that coming from D.C. to Fresno is a good fit. He would like to find a nice bicycling community where he can live, maybe even within walking distance to the campus.
Along with teaching MCJ 17, Therkelsen will mentor the advanced video production class. MCJ 178, new information technologies, is also on his plate.
“I hope I can bring a passion and excitement to the course curriculum,” Therkelsen said. “Today’s journalists need to be well-rounded, multi-faceted individuals, sometimes producing their own video, still photos and audio.”
An avid bicyclist and hiking enthusiast, Therkelsen is a classically trained pianist, while doubling as a jazz trumpeter. He taught himself how to play the guitar, and he wants his new students to know he is available to talk about anything, as long as the common goal is communication.
After all, a picture was worth a thousand words years ago. In today’s fast-paced world, a picture is more of an instant connection and a powerful communication tool.