Stories Behind The Photos
“C’mon, it’s only a one minute and 14 second drive. It is totally worth it,” I beg my mother-in-law and wife as we finish up dinner with our guides at the safari lodge in the Okavango Delta. I know the exact time because I clocked it coming home from our final game drive earlier tonight. Although it is getting late, and we leave in the morning, they agree to take the drive. We invite our steward, who is from Botswana to join us, and he agrees immediately.
“You will never forget this once you see it,” I proclaim as we all spill out of the lodge and follow the guides and their flashlights to the vehicle. The guides shine their lights from side-to-side, checking for any animals that might have wandered into camp. The main concern is the hippos that lumber out to feed on grasses. This camp is situated adjacent to a large water channel, covered thickly with papyrus reeds. The hippos leave the water and often pass through the camp in the evening—right around the time we eat dinner at the lodge—and return to the water from the fields in the morning—right around the time we walk to the safari vehicles. The guides warned us that the hippos are very dangerous, and, unlike elephants, they don’t offer any warning, but instead charge immediately.
There has also been a large bull elephant in the camp the last few days knocking down bushes, and shaking palm trees for their fruits at the top. Tonight, we are fortunate not to see him nor the hippos and, we climb into the vehicle with a sigh of relief. We drive over the slippery sand “road” and in just over a minute we are parked between a large African Baobab tree—those famous trees that look a bit like broccoli—and a massive termite mound. Our guide turns off the engine and it is pitch black with the exception of the guides’ flashlights that dance across the grass searching again for predators.
Exiting the vehicle, we make our way to the front and gather there. The newly waxing moon has already set and the flashlights are extinguished and now it is dark. Really dark. It is amazing how your remaining senses come alive when your vision is compromised: a rustle in the grass, a whisper of breeze, a faint scent—all experienced fully at night but unnoticed in daytime.
We look up and there it is: the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon. There are gasps and wows as we take in this magnificent sight. There is chatter among the group, and the Milky Way gets brighter and brighter with each minute as our night vision adapts. Our guide takes out a laser pointer and shows us some of the constellations. The pointer stars of the Southern Cross shine brightly just above the Baobab tree. We chat about family and friends who would love to see this sky. I have my camera gear and tripod in the safari vehicle, and will return here with the guides to photograph the sky after we return the others to camp.
But this moment, this sky, this place, this feeling of connectedness with the universe, with lost relatives, with family and friends far away is unforgettable. “You are right, Richard. This was definitely worth it!” my mother-in-law exclaims.
December/Collier County, Florida
At the end of a bumpy road in an old Florida town lives an average man.
As a photographer, this town is one of my favorites. It has very few places where you can take a photograph, and the locals don’t seem to like photographers, so it is a strange place to be a favorite. But perhaps the best part of being a photographer are the brief encounters you have with real people, the real conversations you have, the real connection you make with other human beings.
So on a late December evening, I return to this old Florida town in hopes of photographing the full moon rising over water. I park my car on the grass next to a narrow canal, grab my two camera bodies, and walk to the end of the street. From my research, the house at the end of this little peninsula should have a perfect view of moonrise. It is about 50 yards to the last house, a bright green clapboard structure. As I round the corner, I see a silhouette of a man seated on a weathered screened-in porch and say loudly, “Excuse me, good afternoon sir.”
“Who’s there?” the man shouts without turning.
“My name is Rich, good afternoon,” I reply, wondering if he is blind.
“What do you want?” He barks, still without turning.
I explain that I’d like to take photographs of the moonrise over the water from the edge of his property.
“Fine, I got no problem with that,” he replies. “Name’s Jonesy,” he says, finally turning his head slightly. “I can’t see you, I’ve got a hernia. Hurts right here.” He points to his sternum. Not the common place for a hernia, I think.
“No worries,” I reply and take a few more steps so he can see me.
The man is seated on a stool, wearing an old pair of jeans, a weathered green t-shirt and glasses. “What’d you say your name was?” He asks.
I repeat my name and my desire to photograph moonrise and step closer to the porch to give him a business card.
“Sure, take all the pictures you want, I got no problem with that,” he shrugs.
I thank him and tell him I’ll be back in about an hour to set up for moonrise.
“Guy two doors down gotta’ dog, he barks, but he’s friendly,” he adds as I leave the property.
The town is really just a tight jetty of land that sticks out into the water. There are a few restaurants on a tiny thumb-shaped bay, and a real fish market. The other dominant feature is a tightly-packed trailer park, decorated with Christmas lights for the season.
I walk up the bumpy road, past my car and into town. At the edge of the narrow canal, a couple is cutting and cleaning their catch on a fillet table. I continue into town, and a pair of older couples seated on a picnic bench enjoying the late afternoon sun surprise me with a friendly wave. The light is getting softer now as the sun slides towards the horizon. I see the commercial fishing boats along the pier in the little bay and turn into the parking lot to survey the location.
"You can't come in here," says a 30-something man who pops out from behind a truck. He is wearing the high white boots of a commercial fisherman in these parts.
I wave and turn 180 degrees.
"Thank you," he says. His comment surprises me in this gruff old Florida town.
I continue onward, walking past a couple of restaurants lining the little bay. There are several cars turning around me as guests arrive for dinner. A dusty black pickup truck roars past, perhaps the same one that the man popped out from a moment ago. At the end of the little bay is a bar/restaurant, mostly empty now, but with a few musicians on a small stage preparing for the night's entertainment. A police car is parked just ahead, and the Sheriff suddenly appears and our eyes meet. I give him a disarming wave, and he slides into his cruiser. Turning around the end of the bay and coming back up the other side, I see an opportunity to photograph the commercial fishing boats with a long lens and walk over to the water. I peek around a small yellow-painted building and find a leg and foot sticking out, propping up a door, with the person mostly inside.
"Excuse me," I say loudly.
A startled middle-aged man pops his head out.
"Didn't mean to surprise you, but do you mind if I take a couple shots from this property," I ask.
"No, go ahead," he says, and returns to washing something in a sink that is inside the door.
I grab a couple shots in the nice light, and then continue down the opposite side of the bay. There are homes and buildings here blocking the views and I continue to the end where I find a messy lot with a nice, unobscured view of the bay. There are a couple decrepit "No Trespassing" signs dangling from a post. I look around but see no one. So I settle for taking a couple shots from the street and turn around.
I snap a couple more shots of weathered nautical gear scattered around town.
Then I remember that I talked to the GM at one of the restaurants last year about taking some photographs while on the property, so I walk back to the other side of the bay--a trip of maybe 120 seconds. I duck into the darkness, and at the receptionist desk I am informed that the GM is not in today. I leave a business card and head back out into the warm evening light. I exit the parking lot and meander down to the bend in the road, where there is a large restaurant on the water, with signage proudly announcing that it has been operating since the mid-1800s. Today, it is closed.
I return to the street and turn right and can now see my car along the finger canal. The whole canal is bathed in warm light. There is a man cleaning his skiff and I notice that I might have parked in his spot. So I stroll down and start a conversation with him. He is in his mid-40s, and he owns a small weekend house on the island. I apologize if I parked in his spot; he tells me it is not a problem, he isn’t using it. I promise to be out of his way in an hour. I open the trunk to grab my tripod, while we talk a bit about the fishing and the town. An alarm from an astronomy app bings on my phone giving me a five minute warning before moonrise. I excuse myself, thank him for his patience and walk back to Jonesy’ house.
I can smell the cigarette smoke before I round the corner. I spot Jonesy in the same spot where I left him, but this time he is puffing on a cigarette.
“When’s the moon coming up?” he asks still facing the same direction.
“Couple minutes, less than 5,” I tell him.
“Setup wherever you want,” he says. “I ain’t going nowhere.”
I walk to the point, set up the tripod, mount the camera, and look up. And suddenly, there is the moon, giant and tinted in the pinkish hue of early evening.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to cut the grass today,” he apologizes.
“Not a problem for me,” I shrug, getting to work.
“Take a shot of the Sheriff!” he calls out. I look up and a police boat is entering the bay from the right.
“I don’t think so,” I call back, and hear him chuckle.
Photography is a lot of “hurry up and wait” and then just a lot of rushing when the light is right. I get the focus set and start snapping some shots. There is still a lot of light and I want some glassy water so after a few shots I add a 10-stop filter.
“Why don’t you come back here?” Jonesy suggests.
I’ve taken enough shots at my first spot, and I need something a bit more interesting in the foreground, so I walk around to the side of the house facing the water and see a little pier, maybe 25 feet long. Sure enough, there is a better foreground from this perspective. I get the camera set, and start shooting.
“Where’d you park?” Jonesy asks.
“A couple houses down, over on the canal.”
“You can park here,” he offers.
“Probably too late for that,” I think aloud as I continue to work. “I talked to your neighbor and he said it was fine to leave the car there for a little while.”
As the evening darkens, I realize I forgot my remote shutter release in the car. There are clouds creeping in from the top and bottom, and I realize the moon is going to be blocked in a few seconds.
“I think we are going to lose the moon for a bit,” I announce to Jonesy.
“Yep,” he says now from a standing position on the exterior deck.
“I won $10 on the scratch off lottery today,” he pronounces.
“No way, congrats,” I smile looking back at him.
I snap a few more shots using the camera’s shutter timer, and then the clouds begin to encroach on the moon.
“Man,” I moan, “I forgot something in the car. I’m gonna’ leave my cameras here for a second,” I tell him.
“Not a problem,” he says through a puff.
So now I take off running back to the car.
“Run Forrest, Run!” he chuckles. I realize now that Jonesy has a sense of humor.
A grab the remote shutter release and run back to my spot.
“You didn’t miss nothing,” he tells me.
The moon is still behind the clouds as I attach the remote shutter release.
“Sunrises are beautiful here too,” he says. “You fish?”
“I do, I fly fish” I tell him.
“You can’t believe what swims past here,” he says nodding at the dock. I notice a light has automatically turned on at the edge of the tiny dock.
“Like what? Sharks?” I ask.
“Sharks, rays, dolphins, all kinda’ fish,” he says. “You ever caught a snook?”
“Yeah, I have. Caught some little ones yesterday.”
“I want to show you a picture of a fish I caught before you leave. You ain’t going to believe the size of this fish,” he says proudly.
“Sure, sure,” I say, wondering what I am getting myself into. “How long have you lived here?” I ask, awaiting the moon’s reappearance.
“15 years,” he says.
“Nice spot to live,” I say to him.
“Yeah it is. A rich guy owns the place and I’ve been taking care of it for him. But he’s sick now, so he hasn’t been down for a while.”
The top of the moon begins to emerge from the clouds.
“I gotta’ get the place fixed up now that all these are million dollar houses,” he says, referring to the steady rise of home prices in recent years. “But I ain’t been feeling good. I got this hernia,” he says pointing to his stomach. “But the doctors don’t want to do nothing about it. I can’t do a lot of things, can’t bend over and tie my shoes.”
“You sure that’s a hernia?” I ask. “Might want to have someone take another look at that.”
“The muscles are all torn up. I can’t get a doctor’s appointment. I got insurance but it takes a month to see a doctor.”
“Torn abdominal muscles, huh? Can they operate on it?” I ask with the moon almost full again.
“Yeah, but they say they don’t recommend it.”
“Maybe get a second opinion?” I offer.
“I want to, but it take a month to see a doctor,” he repeats.
“I might be inclined to try the surgery if you can’t do anything,” I say.
“No I can do stuff, I just can’t do all the things I need to do. I worked a couple hours today,” he says.
“Where do you work?” I ask, leaning forward to look at the emergent moon through my camera.
“At the big restaurant.” He names one of the restaurants down the street but I don’t understand him.
I start taking shots with my remote shutter release. I experiment with a few different settings to try to get smooth water with a long exposure, but without losing focus on the moon moving higher in the sky.
After a few minutes of silence I hear, “It’s my birthday today.”
“Oh yeah? Happy Birthday, Jonesy.” I say.
“68” he pronounces.
“68 today?” I lob back.
“No, not today. At noon,” he clarifies.
I think to myself that is an awfully precise birthday.
“You were born at noon?” I ask.
“I gotta’ go take a leak.” He says. “You want a beer?”
“No thanks, Jonesy,” I say, “I have to drive back.”
“How far’s the drive?”
“About an hour.”
“Traffic is bad, everyone is coming in for New Years,” he says.
“Yeah, I’ve seen a bunch of people going through red lights recently,” I add.
“Gonna’ be crazy tonight, everyone coming in around New Years.”
“Are you going into town?”
“Nah, I ain’t going nowhere,” he repeats.
With that, he is gone for a few moments, and I am left to the quiet of the water, and clouds, and breeze, and the moon. I remove the 10-stop filter and adjust some settings. These are the moments—the oneness with nature—that I love as a photographer.
“You ever think back when you were young?” he asks on his return.
“Oh yeah, all the time,” I say.
“I mean like in high school and after high school,” he clarifies.
“Sure I do. It doesn’t seem that long ago but time goes fast,” I offer.
“Man we did some crazy stuff. Crazy. But it was so much fun.”
I let him speak but he doesn’t add anything more, just sighs “Crazy, but we survived it.” And he takes another swig of his beer.
A few more minutes pass.
“I’m here alone,” he announces. “My wife went back to the Indian reservation. Her brother got sick up on the reservation so she left to take care of him.”
“The reservation down here?”
“Yeah,” he said, as if it there were only one. The reservation is only about a 30 minute drive from where I am standing.
“How long ago was that?” I ask wondering if I should have not pry.
“Three years. But we talk. We’re good.” He sips his beer.
I continue shooting as the moon ascends and a beautiful line of moonlight reflects across the bay.
“Well, I’ll be out of your way in a few more minutes,” I say.
“I wanna’ show you that fish before you leave,” he reminds me. “So what do you do with these pictures?”
“I sell artwork to a lot of hospitals and medical offices.” I reply.
“I’d like to get one of your pictures.”
"Sure, no problem. Just give me your email address and I will send it to you,” I offer.
“I don’t got email,” he retorts.
“OK, well give me your address, and I will send you one.” I pull out my cellphone to enter his address.
“I’ll pay you for it,” he says.
“No, you don’t have to. You let me shoot on the property, I will send you one. What is your address?”
There is a long pause and some confusion. He starts to give me the address and then corrects it.
I read it back to him.
“No, that’s not right,” he says and gives me some changes.
Again, I read it back to him. “You gave me a street address and a PO box, which one do you want me to send it to?”
“There aren’t any mailboxes for these houses. Send it to the PO box but you also need the street address,” he directs.
I return to my work, and take a few more shots as the moon begins to dissolve behind the clouds.
“I think that’ll about do it for me,” I say, pulling my head back from my camera.
“Let me get that photo,” he says and disappears inside.
I start packing my gear and have a last look around on a beautiful night.
“Here, here it is,” I hear him calling from inside before he reappears on the porch.
I walk over and turn on my phone’s flashlight. Sure enough, it is a massive snook.
“That’s enormous!” I exclaim.
“Caught it right here,” he points to the little dock. “You can’t believe the fish that swim past here.”
“Nice fish,” I nod and hand him back his picture.
“There’s a lot of big ones right here,” he says.
I look over to the little pier and see fish swimming in the small dock light.
“That’s a great fish.”
He starts to retreat to the porch.
“Well, thanks a million, Jonesy. I appreciate you letting me shoot on the property.” Since my phone is still in my hand, I figure I better check his address one more time before I ship him a photo. I read aloud his address.
“No, no, it’s 105 not 519” he shouts.
“105?” I ask, thinking those numbers are very different.
“Uh, yeah, it’s 105,” he stammers.
We review the entire address one more time. I’m feeling less confident than when he originally asked for the photo.
“Which way you going out?” he asks.
“Just round the same way I came in,” I say.
“Oh, okay, cause there is a big hole on the other side of the house.”
“Come back anytime,” he says.
“Thanks, I’ll send you the photo. And happy birthday. Maybe have another beer.”
“Nah, I can’t drink too much,” he says as I snap the legs together of my tripod.
“Nice to meet you,” he says.
“Same here, and maybe have that surgery, Jonesy,” I muse aloud.
“Docs don’t recommend it. I don’t know, maybe I will. Be careful getting out of here,” he adds.
“I will,” I say as I lug my cameras and tripod around the corner of the house.
“I’ll be seeing you,” he calls out in the darkness.
As I start down the bumpy road, I can barely hear him say “Have a good night.”
December/Glades County, Florida
Out past Alba, out past LaBelle and quite a ways up Bridge Street, you come to Fisheating Creek, Glades County Florida. We are in a van with a trailer towing three kayaks six miles up the creek. Our driver is a thickly-built 20-something wearing faded jeans, a beard, and a University of Florida ball cap. He's back in Glades County after some time in LaBelle and Lee County out west. He's come home to take care of his old man who is now disabled. There's not much work out here, so he helps out with the kayak rentals and the campground and takes care of his dad. He's got a couple of sisters and a brother, but his brother is 18, and "he don't care about nothing." So he's got to help out back home. I am starting to feel like I just fell into a Bruce Springsteen song.
"You hunt?" my friend asks our driver.
"No, sir," he responds sheepishly. "Well, maybe sometimes, but you gotta' have a permit."
A few more moments of silence pass.
"You ever eat alligator?" my friend asks.
"Yeah, but I like wild boar better," the young man responds.
He points out the window to the road. "The roadside's covered with boar most nights," he announces.
We turn off the main road at the green mailbox and our driver hops out to unlock a gate. We drive through and he repeats this step at various places along the unpaved road as we inch closer to the creek. At the final gate, his cell phone chirps an alert. I tell him he's got a new text message as he slides behind the wheel. He glances at it and then mutters something about a problem with his girl.
We glance at the trail map in the van but only briefly. The head guy back at camp says you can't get lost, you just follow the flow of the water.
We arrive at the launch and drop the kayaks on the muddy shoreline.
One last question. "You see a lot of water moccasins out here?" I ask.
"I ain't seen one out here," he says. I'm relieved. But only momentarily. I remember him saying he's only been working this new job for a month. Maybe they're out here.
"But we got two back in the campground last night," he offers. Yup, my sense of relief is now completely gone.
As we climb into the kayaks, a set of eyes stares at us from across the water. It's a good 8, maybe 9 foot alligator watching silently. Back at camp, the manager told us not to worry about alligators. He says he's swum in these waters his whole life and so did his momma and she's 86. And no alligator never bothered neither of them. I tell him "Thanks, Lefty!" and we laugh a bit.
But that chat was a while ago and now we are on the water, on our own. The water splits immediately and with the wind in our face it's not at all obvious which way the water is flowing. We go right. It's easy going, the water is pushing us gently from behind. We pass several alligators, an endangered wood stork and a bunch of wading birds--egrets, herons, ibises, and bitterns.
We had been advised that the water is shallow this time of year, and we might have to portage from time to time. Things are definitely getting shallower now. And the banks are closing in. Before long we've run out of water. I get out with my paddle and bang the cypress knees--the small wooden lumps that pop up a foot or two in these parts--as I walk forward. I look for water or an opening in the trees ahead.
"Nah, nothing," I call back to my buddies.
Plan B: use technology. The idea of checking the iPhone has some limitations, the main one being that the $50 navigation app doesn't have rivers. I fortunately have a signal on my phone and I call back to the shop. Yup, we went the wrong way. I bang the cypress knees again as I walk back to my muddy kayak. Just then a four foot snake lurches in front of my kayak and into the water.
"Snake!" I say a bit too loudly to sound cool. I collect myself quickly and then lean forward to lift his head out of the water with my paddle. Just a harmless water snake. I turn my focus back to the kayak as the serpent swims away silently.
A bit of grunting, and tugging, and mosquito swatting and we have the kayaks turned around and are paddling back upstream. It's less fun for sure and requires some more effort. We get back to the first intersection and see three 8 to 10 foot alligators on the banks and in the water ahead. As I look ahead, I see even more sets of eyes dotting the water further down the creek. The wrong turn has cost us 45 minutes. I wonder if the alligators got hungry in that time.
We begin to head down river, amid beautiful cypress and Spanish moss, alligators and ibises, egrets and turkey vultures, herons and even the elusive roseate spoonbills. The spoonbills are my favorite, their striking pink feathers contrast beautifully against the brown cypress and moss.
The water changes color from black to brown as we head into shallower areas. The current picks up in a narrow section through the cypresses and our kayaks accelerate. This is fun again. I'm hoping this easy paddling continues, but of course it doesn't. I'm soon aground and pushing my paddle deep into the sand to try to find deeper water. The tannic smell of sulfur drifts up to my nose.
We take our time, and I stop for a picture here and there. In the solitude is great beauty, and wonderful patterns. I shoot "Cypress Knees" as warm light falls along the creek bed. I fall behind the others and paddle steadily to catch up. Eventually, I see one buddy around the corner. He's not paddling at all, just laying back in his kayak. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, I think aloud.
It's a beautiful, sunny day. The temperature is in the mid-to-upper 70s and there is a steady breeze. And it's quiet but for the soothing sound of paddles stroking the water. The quiet is occasionally interrupted by an "Alligator!" call or "Stay left" as the lead boat hits shallow water. The birds squawk, croak, and yap when we catch up to them, and then they fly off further down the creek.
We arrive at a particularly beautiful spot later in the afternoon. The sunlight casts a soft glow on the landscape and then I see it. A wonderfully smooth pattern and reflection at the base of a cypress tree, and I stop here for a good 10 minutes to shoot "Wave of Wood." The effort to get the right angle and the clear reflection in the water are complicated by the irregular drift of my kayak. I stay until I know I have the shot.
I turn my kayak around and realize that I am now alone. The others have continued to move downstream. I pick up the pace and a good 15 minutes later I catch up with one of my friends. I ask to look at his map. Not good: we are only about halfway down and it is already 3:45pm. The sun sets around 5.30 this time of year. We'll need to pick up the pace to get in before sunset. I have my knife but I did not bring a flashlight; I don't want to paddle in the dark. We now embark on a steady 30 minutes of paddling and reach our other friend, the lead dog. He informs me that a wild boar snorted a warning at him from the banks a few minutes ago. I would have liked to see it, but I recall our driver telling us that the adults are mean and will charge. "What do you do if it charges?" my friend asked. "Climb a tree," he advises. Noted.
We give our friend an update on time and position and I suggest we pick up the pace a bit. Another half hour later and we still have a long way to go. My hands are getting sore. The current is much slower, and is impeded now by severe S-curves in the creek. As I look ahead I see my friends paddling now in my direction but around a curve to the right. No doubt, the curves are getting more severe.
We alternate between S-curves and open bodies of shallow water, and keep paddling. The light is absolutely perfect for photographs, but I'm focused on making progress.
One bend leads into another. One stroke leads into another. I am hoping the map is not drawn to scale. I'm wet and definitely tired. But then we turn a large bend and there is the camp. A marvelous site. My friend raises his paddle overhead triumphantly.
We drag the kayaks onto shore, drop the gear on a picnic table outside a locker, and before long we are back on our way, down Bridge Street towards LaBelle, and then out to Alba and back to life.
I'm tired. Not from office stress, just tired from a good day out in nature. My stomach grumbles a bit and I'm looking forward to dinner. But the Springsteen-esque story of our driver is playing again in my head and I know this young man's story will stay with me for a long time.