You know that scene in a movie where the protagonist tells his boss to shove it so he can pursue his passion full-time?
Sean Rayford did that in real life.
I tended bar at a live music club for more than ten years. I was freelancing while I was slinging drinks, but the bar was the main job. One night I told my boss off, he fired me, and I decided it was time to take the plunge.
This happened back in 2015, and the Columbia, South Carolina resident has focused solely on photography ever since.
I had just gotten my first really large project with the local tourism bureau, so that gave me the confidence [to pursue this full-time].
Later that same year, Sean’s career path took a somber turn. He received a call from Getty Images, a fantastic client for a budding photographer. The reason he got the call, however, was anything but fantastic.
Getty called me the morning after the massacre at Emmanuel AME church in Charleston. They needed someone to photograph the state senate session here in Columbia, which would be missing Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was one of nine people killed in the shooting the day before.
Sean has worked with Getty ever since this assignment, usually covering local and national politics. The Maryland native — who matriculated south after high school in search of warmer weather — has also worked at least one major storm each fall since 2015, giving him a repository of experience in the field. As a result, Getty contacted Sean to document the damage inflicted by Hurricane Dorian in and around Charleston, a coastal city about two hours southeast of Columbia.
Dorian, which formed off the northwestern coast of Africa in mid-August, eventually made its way to the Caribbean and became the worst natural disaster in the history of the Bahamas. But by the time it got to the Carolinas in early September, Dorian wasn’t nearly as powerful.
Dorian almost stopped and was crawling in speed for a while there. It stayed away from land for the most part and did not produce post-storm river flooding, which has been a problem here in the Carolinas. In Charleston, they escaped a really bad scenario and Dorian’s path past the city actually pushed the water away from the peninsula during high tide.
Even if Dorian’s impact wasn’t as violent as previous storms, there were still a host of things to worry about when on a shoot like this. When I asked Sean about how to best plan ahead for an assignment of this nature, he was quick to articulate a detailed list of tips.
Be ready for surprises. The flood water is probably toxic. Don’t walk in it without protection, i.e. boots, waders, etc. Bring extra towels, underwear, and socks. Watch out for live power lines. Bring rice to dry out electronic equipment. Bring a rope. Avoid using your AC in the car or placing your camera near a vent in the vehicle. Your gear will fog up the moment you step outside. Be prepared for a long, physically demanding experience.
There’s a ton of practicality in that smorgasbord of advice, but there are also some more abstract qualities a storm-chasing photographer must have in order to be successful.
You need to be a problem solver because everything imaginable and unimaginable can and will go wrong. You need to be good under pressure because, if not, that’s when you put yourself at risk. Maybe bartending at that club has helped me stay calm during chaotic scenarios.
It’s clear Sean has an affinity for this work as well as the acumen to properly prepare for it. Sure, it may seem obvious to someone just beginning to photograph natural disasters that they need extra clothing and the like, but it’s probably not as clear to them that they should be looking up the best parking garages in advance of chasing a storm.
I try to research the areas I’m headed into when I have time. I find out where the high ground is and what parking garages have a clearance that allows for my van with the kayak strapped on top. I spend a lot of time looking at maps and hypothesizing. You need to be a good map reader and you need to think about escape routes and what ifs. I used to always ask my dad absurd “what if” questions. I guess I got practice.
Once he’s on the ground, Sean makes it a point to chat with the affected locals. While he used to be nervous approaching people with a camera in hand, Sean quickly found out that most of these folks are pretty open to chatting. If anything, it’s cathartic for them.
Typically, humans are much more social during these scenarios. Everyone is sharing an abnormal experience where information is important, and people want to talk about their experiences. As photojournalists in these scenarios, we recognize that these folks have info that may be of value and vice versa. I’ll meet and talk with more folks in one day of storm coverage than I will in a typical week.
There’s also the news aspect to consider with these assignments. This isn’t some personal project for Sean to experiment with different lighting techniques or to employ unique framing — it’s the documentation of breaking news which needs to be submitted on a deadline. As such, Sean keeps it simple.
I’m not too interested in trying to be subtle with my image-making while covering these events for news. If I’m working a specific story, I can work on that, but when I’m working with a wire service, I want to punch the viewer in the face with an image.
Unpredictability is the nature of the beast in this space, but that’s never something Sean worries or complains about. For him, seeing the situation through the eyes of those affected helps him realize that any hurdles that might come up during a shoot are trivial by comparison.
Once you put things in perspective and can appreciate your position as someone who gets to go back home after a storm, it’s not that big of deal to have to a bunch of wrenches thrown at you. Those challenges might even be part of the attraction to this type of work. As I mentioned before, I think you’ve got to have a passion for problem-solving.
See more of Sean’s work at seanrayford.com.
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