The Perfect Storm

Inspiration04 February 2018

“I AM NOT GOING TO LET THE FEAR OF DEATH STOP ME FROM EXPERIENCING LIFE!” SAYS CAMILLE SEAMAN, ONE OF TWO STORM PHOTOGRAPHERS WHO EXPLAIN WHAT DRIVES THEM TO TAIL TORNADOES.

How on earth did you get into storm chasing?
I was already a photographer and was looking for my next project when I noticed my eight-year-old daughter watching a programme on tornadoes. I was mesmerised, and within three days of her telling me that I should photograph storms, I was! That was in 2008. I wasn’t prepared for how overwhelming it would be. The sensory experience was incredible – the smell, the colours, the wind, being in a place where most people were heading the other way... I was hooked!

What does it feel like to see a tornado up close?
Storms spawn supercells and they, in turn, can form tornadoes. Seeing a supercell move and form and swirl feels like I am experiencing the same forces that created the galaxies, like I’m watching a god at play. They are powerful, beautiful and humbling. As humans, we live in a thin zone from sea level to a couple of hundred feet. Supercells can be miles wide, travel at 100mph and reach tens of thousands of feet into the air.

This image (below) is the perfect example of that…

CAMILLE SEAMAN
Camille is a professional photographer who spends much of her time taking pictures in the Polar regions. Her images have appeared in publications such as National Geographic, TIME, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine amongst many others.


I named it Lovely Monster. I took it in Nebraska in 2012. It just came right towards us over the wheat fields at about 20mph. The conditions were perfect – the air was warm and moist at our backs as it was sucked into the supercell. When that stops or shifts to a cold blast in your face, the storm is collapsing and you need to go!

Do you find the element of danger enticing?
I’m not an adrenaline junkie! I just wanted to capture the perfect light and structure. It is called storm chasing because you literally chase the storms. We are usually in the south west corner of the storm, behind it as it travels, and this is where the tornadoes tend to form. The storms can generate hail the size of grapefruit. We have to put towels on the inside of the car windows in case the glass smashes!

Is it hard to focus – literally – when that happens?
As a photographer it was a steep learning curve. You have to trust your driver and guide with your life. The storms aren’t usually the biggest danger, there are so many other hazards: falling off the road or being hit by debris. You might only have 10 or 15 seconds to take a shot, so there is no time to set up a tripod. You end up holding the camera in high winds, getting buffeted about... You quickly learn to jam your body against things like telegraph poles, but they can attract lightning. The situation definitely teaches you to focus!

How did you learn to cope with the dangers?
In extreme situations you quickly come to realise that freaking out and screaming hysterically never helps. The biggest lesson I had about facing fear was when I learned to surf; when you go under, you’re told to relax so you don’t use your oxygen up quickly. I think that advice goes for any situation in which you feel out of your depth. The more you relax the better your brain functions, your responses will be quicker and you will be able to think more clearly, which means you are more likely to make the right decision rather than losing your head – and potentially your life.

So what made you stop shooting supercells?
After five years chasing hundreds of storms I had been lulled into a feeling of safety, but that all changed in 2013. I was following a tornado in Oklahoma called El Reno. It was the widest storm in history – 2.6 miles across! I just had this feeling that something wasn’t quite right. It was so dark ahead of us and as we slowed down a tree came crashing down from one side and a telegraph pole from the other, blocking the road. It was like a sign, so we decided to turn back. Three storm chasers were killed a mile in front of us that day. After that I changed, something shifted in me. My daughter was 14 years old and I began asking myself what I was doing. The next year, I found that I wasn’t willing to take the same chances so I missed out on a lot of great images and wasn’t having as much fun. I knew that I was done.

How do you look back on your time with tornadoes?
They are possibly the ultimate performances of the natural world – my back and arms have a chill now thinking about the situations I have been in. It is an incredible way to experience both the creative and the destructive forces of the planet at the same time. There are people who just want to reach old age, to say they have made it. I constantly ask myself: ‘Are you living or just afraid of dying?’ I’m not reckless but I am not going to let the fear of death stop me from experiencing life. If you don’t ever step outside your comfort zone, how much are you actually living?


 

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS OF A TORNADO?
Texan Mike Mezeul has lived his entire life in America’s tornado alley. He explains how to give a picture-perfect performance when the world is whirling in front of the whites of your eyes


PASSION GIVES YOU PURPOSE
“I’ve always had a fascination with the sky; as a little kid I would just stare at the clouds. I went on to study meteorology and atmospheric science at college.”

YOU CAN’T BEAT EXPERIENCE
“I’ve photographed storms for 18 years. Now, you can check forecasts on your phone but when I started you had to know what you were looking for. You had to understand paper maps and know the weather just by looking at it. You have to know the dangers, too. The closest I’ve been to a tornado is 500m, but usually I’ll be 1km away.”

RESPECT THE ROTATIONS
“The nerdy side of me is freaking out because of the science that goes into producing them, but  a part of me is scared because I am looking at something that could easily take my life. I feel insignificant, and I sometimes feel anger and sadness that something so beautiful can destroy people’s lives.”

PERFORM UNDER PRESSURE
“It usually starts off with a lot of screaming! I have to balance my excitement with figuring out what is going to add to the image and how I’m going to stay safe. You have a small window of time to get the shot, so need an understanding of light and composition, but patience is key.”

PAY ATTENTION TO THE PLAN
“You have to know where your escape route is at all times and pay attention to where a tornado has been. If it has gone through a town, it will be carrying debris such as glass, bricks and wood.”

HAVE A ‘UNICORN SHOT’
“The one shot I still want to get is a super-close shot looking up at a tornado a couple of hundred metres in front of me. It is a huge risk and the conditions need to be perfect. It means catching the tornado at its birth, when it is at its weakest. It needs to be moving away from me and I’ll need the right road to give me a perfect escape route.”

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