Usually, when people make their way to Key West, Florida, they do so for vacation. They go to kick their feet up, consume colorful drinks, and try to remove the word “work” from their vocabulary.
Not John McDonald, though. No sir. Instead, John’s first trip to Key West was work-related and came during a time when he probably should have doing some post-surgery rehab.
Being a few weeks removed from Achilles surgery, I wasn’t much physical help and was honestly in a lot of pain the whole time. [The shoot] was such a blur. Ten portraits in ten locations in less than three days is quite the whirlwind.
The assignment was for a magazine called Southbound, an Atlanta Magazine publication, and called for John and writer Allison Weiss Entrekin to hobnob with locals and learn more about the happening spots in Key West. Both writer and photographer chatted with prominent members of the community to gain insight into the best places to eat, drink, dive, and party (among other things).
It wasn’t like they were telling me stories, and I was just listening. I feel like we just talked. My shoots are always very casual. Never stuffy and uptight. I don’t work that way.
And how can you be stuffy and uptight down in the Keys? As one of Southbound’s interview subjects, Chef Daniel Schillinger, put it, “it’s pretty great living in the place that people go to for their vacations.”
I would say that my favorite interaction was with Chef Schillinger. That’s more on a personal level, though. I worked in the restaurant business for nearly 15 years, so I always get along with chefs and servers. Just in the blood, you know?
One of the nice aspects of this story is that the people John and Allison spoke with weren’t just there to promote their places of business, they also discussed the spots they hit up after clocking out. For example, Daniel recommended some lowkey eateries for visitors who want to soak in the local experience and feel less touristy. The same can be said of Paul Menta, a Matthew McConaughey “doppelgänger” and the founder of Key West First Legal Rum Distillery.
As previously mentioned, this shoot marked John’s first visit to the Keys, so he basically got the inside scoop as to what to put on his itinerary when he heads back down that way for an actual vacation. Starting from a blank slate also gave John a modicum of open-mindedness he might not have had if he’d already been to Key West.
I think not being there before really helped me. I didn’t have any preconceived notions about the locations, but I was shocked at how salt-of-the-earth the locals there are. I fit right in and am planning a personal trip for my wife and myself soon.
Paul certainly fits that “salt-of-the-earth” description, as do a number of John’s other interview subjects. Like this dude:
This is Captain Spencer Slate, owner of his own scuba diving company and teller of one of the most Florida stories you’ll ever hear:
Spencer mentioned how he had nine of his fingers bitten off by eels and surgically put back on. That was odd.
The 71-year-old — who considers the eels that bit his fingers off his “pets” — hosts some of the million-plus people who dive in the Keys each year. After all, they’re home to the third-largest coral barrier reef system in the world. And when vacationers resurface after a day in the water, they can head to a number of local nightspots to keep the party going. One of these joints, 801 Cabaret, is run by a person named Sushi (legal name: Gary Marion).
She was just explosive when we started shooting. [It was] one of those times where you as the photographer don’t have to say anything (give zero direction), and it all just happens. She was just wonderful. I really wish we could have stayed for the show.
The show that John’s referencing is a drag show, which takes place twice nightly and is sold out each time. Like Daniel, Paul, and Spencer before her, Sushi dished on some of her favorite spots to frequent in Key West, giving readers a menu of choices for when they venture south to the Sunshine State.
I know the subscribers are a diverse crowd, but that didn’t influence the way I shot it. I just wanted to represent the subjects and the Florida Keys to the best of my ability. That meant using them in the locations sincerely and showing their full potential and relationship with the space. That’s kind of how I approach all shoots.
See more of John’s work at johnemcdonald.com.
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