It was a Friday afternoon and we drove north after shortened work days, which are the best work days. We traversed the Straits of Mackinac via the 5-mile long Mackinac Bridge. Our stomachs were rumbling so we decided to stop at the Village Inn in …
When I was going to school for photojournalism, the importance of constantly having an image-making device prepared to photograph was made very clear. Having a camera always ready means that whenever something happens where you’re at, you’ll be able to document it. I remember biking …
A little more than one week ago, on Friday, May 20, 2022, an EF3 category tornado touched down in Gaylord, Michigan. It caused two fatalities, numerous injuries and widespread destruction due to the 150 mph wind speed it reached.
It’s extremely rare that such a natural disaster would strike in northern Michigan. Tornadic activity has taken place, but it’s extremely seldom.
The Day of the Storm
On the day of the storm, Friday, I was working outside at a house on Lake Michigan, so there was a front-row weather seat all around. Midges had hatched so they were a constant presence. Thankfully they don’t bite, not painfully at least, but the small, black insects with tiny fern-like antenna were numerous, to say the least. Choking on them during regular breathing would be, and was, their greatest form of attack. The presence of midges near water isn’t unusual though.
Once the afternoon arrived, my coworkers and I were checking in with each other as we watched some precipitation moving our way. Weather changes fast but this weather change was exceptional. The cold, damp air and soft diffused light made way for dark skies and humid heat—it took place fast, too.
The decision was made to move all tools inside in an effort to leave a little early. Once the tools were moved and the job site was cleaned, our effort was successful and our weekends were about to begin early.
True to our instincts—our phones were also warning us—heavy rains and fairly strong winds had made their way to shore. Car-damaging hail was predicted, but thankfully it didn’t happen where we were.
As soon as I arrived home, news that a tornado had hit the small Bavarian-themed town of Gaylord, Michigan was being transmitted from seemingly all media outlets.
The Day After the Storm
On Saturday morning, May 21, 2022, I’d woken up and was prepared to start the day like most others. It was impossible to shake the thought of this tornado that had hit Gaylord, though.
My dad had lived there for a number of years, so I was very familiar with the area. The population is under 3,700, there’s an ordinance requiring businesses to have a Swiss alpine-themed aesthetic and there’s even an event there each summer called Alpenfest. To say it’s a quintessential northern Michigan town is accurate.
I’d made the decision to travel the 61 miles to Gaylord and see the town for myself. I have a personal connection to the community, and, the need to do photojournalism is in my blood.
Arriving and Documenting Gaylord
There’s a straight section of road that heads east and west, in and out of Gaylord, called M-32. At least, that’s the route I usually take. Before entering Gaylord, there are a lot of trees and then, just like that, businesses. As I was making my way toward Gaylord, the first sign that something significant was taking place was literally that, a sign. There was a blinking orange road sign signaling that a curfew order was in effect.
After that, the local cinema came into view. What was noticeably different though was that the parking lot was filled with power company trucks. While traveling farther westward is when the damage of the tornado began to become more visible. A mobile home community was one of, if not the, hardest hit location. It was destroyed. Past that was a series of businesses that were now turned into a gigantic game of pick-up-sticks.
Vehicles were seemingly frozen in time, as so many remained in the spots that either their owners had to leave them, or where the tornado deposited them. Many of the vehicles shared common characteristics: blown out windows and flat tires. Some of them had wood and debris impaled into them.
The power was out, so each intersection where stop lights once directed traffic was now directed by weighted stop signs, with the expectation that travelers would abide by them—most I saw did not. It was the most apocalyptic journey into a town I’d ever experienced.
What struck me immediately—which says a lot because so much of this trip struck me—is that the distance between destroyed buildings and perfectly preserved buildings was just a matter of feet (meters).
A small parking lot near a historic church seemed like a good place to park, so I did.
One lesson I’ve learned after doing photojournalism is that there’s a lot to be said for parking a good distance away from something, then walking in. This proved to be the case here. The parking lot I arrived in was manageable and only occupied by two other vehicles. The parking lot was also across the street from one of the hardest hit neighborhoods of Gaylord.
I placed my transmission in ‘Park’, turned off the key to my vehicle and listened, then sort of tried to mentally prepare myself for what I may or may not see.
As soon as I exited my vehicle, what immediately struck me was the collective sound of many chainsaws and the smell of fresh-cut wood.
Walking Through the Neighborhoods
As I was getting a sense of what was taking place around me, it was immediately clear where the concentration of activity was. Behind me, everything was fine. Across the street though, and beyond, I could see emergency vehicles, trees down, roofs blown off and community members helping one another.
Michigan State Police patrol vehicles were stationed at some of the entrances to neighborhoods. I chose a street in front of me, where there was a lot of activity, as my point of entry.
Seeing so many houses without roofs was surreal. My initial observation was that it looked like an area of the south or Tornado Alley. Yet, it was in northern Michigan. Debris was everywhere. Items that should’ve been inside houses were now in yards. Magazines and childrens’ toys, for example, were lying on street curbs next to tree branches.
A car was flipped upside down in one front yard. It was such a strange and dramatic sight, it looked like an Avant-Garde art installation.
What became quickly apparent while walking from street to street, was the amount of people and the effort that was being placed on cleanup. The tornado had only struck the day before, but community members and volunteers were clearing yards and helping others like I’d never witnessed before. One group was helping move debris and going from yard to yard, with rakes, chainsaws and whatever else they could use.
Trucks with trailers were hauling away anything they could to help. Streets that would’ve been quiet only 48 hours earlier were now dense with people and trucks and all that the tornado left behind.
Heading Back Home
Photographing this assignment left me with an extremely heavy and emotional heart. I’ve photographed a lot of situations and events but this one was challenging. The combination of having it be so close to home, while not being able to comprehend the speed and ferocity this tornado struck with and the thought of how frightened the people, children, pets, wild animals and all else must’ve felt during the storm, weighed mightily.
As I was traveling toward home, I was contacted by the Detroit Free Press to document the town the next day.
It was difficult documenting Gaylord, knowing the tornado caused loss of life and numerous injuries, as well as the loss of peoples’ homes and possessions.
Seeing the community and volunteers come together for one another was powerful, and offered a shining light in the amazing town of Gaylord.
It Started with National Geographic When I was just starting out with photography, my main source of inspiration—and countless other photographers’ inspiration—was National Geographic magazine. In its pages, you could be transported to a Hawaiian volcano, a Mongolian steppe or in an Italian village. Not …
Bump-n-Run, demolition derby, automobiles attacking automobiles…whatever you want to call these events, they’re fun. Sine this one was dubbed Bump-n-Run on the festival agenda, we’ll go with that. Although ‘run’ seems like a stretch considering it indicates some sort of consistent speed. After witnessing many a vehicular clash royale, I know that if a car even makes it off the track with both axles, that’s more than a small success.
Keep in mind, I photographed this event pre-COVID, so I’m posting this as both a respite to that time, and as hope that when COVID-19 is under control, we can look forward to coming together again for events like this.
If ever at any race you have the option to access the pit area versus the audience stands, take the pit area, every time. It’s where you’ll have the best access to people and machinery, and it’s all about access with photography. This is what makes small-town events so fantastic: there’s little to no competition for space at events and there are numerous opportunities for quality, intimate access.
Orange pit band on wrist and responsibility of my own life signed for, I began my steps into the heart of the action. The drivers’ cars were as unique and individual as the drivers themselves; each was a canvas for mostly-intimidating expressions of imminent rival destruction. Each car had its own trinket, totem or charm—Superman cape, hood-ornament skull, etc.—to aid in the quest for victory.
Start Your Engines
As cars lined up at the starting line for the evening’s first heat, the energy was palpable. The almost-deafening rumble of muffler-less exhaust “systems” ensured that the spectators would have to cheer their loudest to be heard over the crinkled automobiles.
Suddenly, the green flag was waived in a figure-eight formation and it was game on. Fans looked on as cars—cars that only their drivers could love—growled and ripped around the corners trying to disable other cars, while track officials made sure most of the rules were followed.
Once a heat was finished, battle-wounded vehicular victims limped back to their places of pit origin to be assessed and repaired before heading back out onto the field. The ingenuity of the pit crew would’ve made engineers at NASA impressed, if engineers at NASA were competing in an intergalactic demo derby and wouldn’t need the aircraft again, ever.
There were drivers of all ages. It was encouraging to see veteran drivers offering tips and tricks to amateur drivers. There was no doubt about the knit closeness of the community and surrounding area; everyone knew everyone and it was obvious that if the Bump-n-Run wasn’t taking place, most of the attendees would probably be doing something else together anyway. That’s the type of community involvement that we need more of. The enjoyment of the evening was infectious as I was photographing as many action-packed—and subtle scenes—as possible.
At first glance—and possibly reading of this—it may seem like the event was one of constant damage and disarray. Safety protocol and guidelines were indeed followed though. Rules were explained and enforced.
The rays from the sun delivered a bright but very pleasing light, illuminating and backlighting an impressive amount of mud being slung from mismatched tires as it flew into the air and rained back down, dirt shrapnel making it’s presence felt by every person, dog and cotton candy cone within slinging distance, which seemed like two miles, as the dirt flies.
Tech notes: My camera of choice for this was my trusty Canon 1D Mark II. One of the reasons I chose this tool was because it’s an old beast, like many of the cars I was photographing at the event. It wasn’t the only reason though; the Canon 1D Mark II is ancient, especially by digital camera standards, but it produces stunning files when the light is sufficient and, almost more importantly, your exposure is spot on. Also, the focus speed is lightning fast, accurate too. I’ve used so many cameras it’s embarrassing, believe me when I say that the Canon 1D Mark II—and all of its 8.2 megapixel glory—produces a file as fine, if not better, than anything out there. It pops, is sharp and is phenomenal.
Let’s Roll The Cadieux Cafe in Detroit’s east side serves up an impressive selection of Belgian beers along with mussels and other specialties. It’s a unique place, not just for the food and drink though. Walk through two doors at an end of the bar …
Smallest Post Office in the U.S. Situated between Naples, FL and Miami, FL is a 7 foot by 8 foot structure in Ochopee (pronounced O-Chop-ee), FL. It’s small but visible as its white color stands out from the surrounding southern-Florida greenery. Driving past it for …
In the springtime, I’d photographed subjects, places and people relating to the coronavirus. Those photos were self assigned, as I wanted to visually document what I could during that time. The benefits of self assigning myself that work was that I had the convenience of photographing in the town I live, there were no deadlines and all the photographic decisions were on me. It’s been said before, but you can find amazing photographic opportunities in your own backyard, town…anywhere!
A few weeks into June, I was contacted by a photo editor at The Wall Street Journal to document COVID-19 and how it has, and continues, to impact the city of Muskegon, Michigan. It’s always excellent working with The Wall Street Journal, primarily because of their professionalism and attention to detail. Before I could go on assignment, I was to attend an online training seminar about working safely during the pandemic and how to take necessary precautions. After the training, I felt ready to safely begin the assignment.
Due to my schedule, I was able to devote an entire day to travel, photograph, edit and submit the assignment images. Muskegon is about two hours away so I left early in the morning so I could arrive during nice light. There was a loose shot list for me which provided some details on what to look for and photograph as I navigated the city. While driving, I received some requests for additional portraits, which thankfully, I was able to fit in. Time management is absolutely essential when it comes to photography assignments of any kind. Sometimes, the writer will be present, which can be nice because then the story and visuals have a harmony to them. That wasn’t the case for this trip, which can also be a benefit because it allows a lot of flexibility and freedom.
Every assignment presents challenges and this one was no different. There was construction throughout town, the light was pretty bad (a cloudless day so straight sun), it was hot (especially with an N95 mask) and care had to be taken due to the pandemic. A big part of photojournalism is to create quality content and images despite those challenges. To solve the problem of subpar light, I simply tried to photograph with the light behind me as much as possible. For portraits, I have an off-camera strobe I employ to give me control over bad-lighting scenarios.
It was strange and difficult to make portraits from a distance rather than up close. The benefit for me though was that it forced me to think of portraits in a different way. I walked away from this assignment having a new appreciation and for full-body portraits.
It’s important to include people in photographs for interest, scale, etc. My assignment was a weekday in a town not necessarily bustling so in this case, a lot of patience is involved. Fortunately, there was a mid-week farmers market taking place. Years ago, I saw National Geographic photographer Sam Abell speak. Among his many useful tips, one that stuck with me was the importance of finding an interesting scene and waiting for a person or people. I’ve never forgotten that and I used it many times on this assignment. I take in a scene, imagine how it’d look for a person to be in the frame, gauge (this is important) the probability of a person actually being in the frame, then wait.
This was an important story to work on I’m thankful The Wall Street Journal entrusted me with the story and visuals. A takeaway for you, reader, is that if you’re hoping to do this type of work, you can! No need to wait for an assignment. Make photos, learn, keep photographing!!! You’d be surprised at how a solid body of work and reaching out to professionals in the business can help you open doors, especially in photography.
The Traverse City Record-Eagle newspaper recently contacted me to make images to be used without a story attached. These types of photos can be called ‘features’, ‘spec photos’ and ‘wild art’. There have been so many photos focused on coronavirus that the challenge …