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Photo essay

Lovely Monster

This photo essay captures the beauty, awe, and fear of the natural world through portraits of storms from across the American landscape.

I wasn’t born a storm chaser.
When I was a small child of six years, my Shinnecock grandfather sat us outside in the shadeless grass on a hot New York summer. The blue sky was cloudless, and as we sat and wondered what lesson grandpa was sharing with us, we began to perspire. Within a short time—as we wilted in the hot sun, sweat dripping down our brows—he pointed to the sky where a small white tuft of cloud appeared and said, “That’s part of you up there. That is your water. Your sweat becomes the clouds that make the rain, that feed the plants and the animals that feed us.” We are all connected, to everything. Separation is an illusion, and it’s that illusion that helps to cultivate fear.

It’s not that I don’t feel fear. I do feel it. I just don’t allow it to become a barrier as much as an invitation—an invitation to learn more about myself, my capabilities, my limits, and about my world and my place within it.

Even so, I wasn’t prepared for just how overwhelming an experience storm chasing can be. It is visceral and multi-sensory: the smell of the charged particles, the sweetness of the grass, the scent of the pavement just before it rains, the sight of the wind blowing through cornfields—not to mention the colors of the clouds and the light of the sky and the lightning. It’s all so beautiful, so awesome, and so humbling at the same time. After that first week, I was hooked.

Standing in front of a tornado—or even a massive supercell with its swirling structure, lightning, and hail—it is natural to feel fear. Disasters come from that kind of weather. Sometimes when our team pulled into a local fuel station, we encountered superstitious folks who were not glad to see us; some of those people had lost their homes or loved ones in storms. It was important to remember that we were not there for disaster tourism.

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My images were never about what these storms destroyed or the pain and damage they inflicted on the people of the region. I always wanted these images to speak to the duality of all things—to speak to the essential truth that there can be beauty in something terrible and, vice versa, that there is no creation without destruction.

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