As we grow up, and away from our youth, some of us hold on to the nostalgia of a time where possibilities seemed endless. An age before we settled into our characters and careers, and we could be anyone living anywhere in the world.
DC-based Matthew Rakola is by no means unsatisfied with his exciting life working in commercial photography but as he got older, he couldn’t help but wonder what other avenues his creative life could have taken. These thoughts were the inspiration for a personal series Matthew calls “My Former Future Self”.
For years I’ve been playing with the idea for a series called “My Former Future Self.” I’ve created images based on the careers I wanted to have when I was a kid and first on that list was a paleontologist.
As Matthew started to research how he could approach this project, he discovered a stretch of coast along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland where you could find Miocene-era shark teeth. The fossilized remains held the sentiment of Matthew’s long ago aspiration and he began to search for subjects with experience in finding these buried treasures.
I fell in love with the somewhat romanticized idea of hunting for these shark teeth, a sort of Indiana Jones meets Where’s Waldo meets Jaws thing.
His ideas led Matthew to some chance encounters, like with a friendly Airbnb host, that enabled him to connect with people dedicated to unearthing fossilized shark teeth. He spent hours pouring over social media groups and immersed himself completely in the online community of fossil hunters.
My first connection was actually an Airbnb host at a little cottage we stayed at over Easter. He suggested I join a private Facebook group on Maryland fossil hunting.
Matthew contacted one of the administrators of the Facebook group to help guide his search. He took the time to approach him and each member of the group respectfully, explaining who he was and why he wanted to photograph them. Matthew took care to show his appreciation and this led to a better relationship with the local fossil hunting community, which eventually aided him in his own hunting.
If we approach a project with the camera glued to our faces, we can achieve singular focus, but we miss so much more. I personally believe we need to occasionally put the camera down, show some humility, and experience the place and people.
These connections led to several trips on the western shore of the Chesapeake, many of which are secret locations known only to the subjects he met. The land there is ideal for fossils because the mineral-rich soil is soft clay, and helps to preserve the teeth. The fossil hunters have logged several thousand hours of fossil hunting near these waters through the years.
This project unfolded in early mornings, mid-day, and late at night–whenever a low tide was to be had.
In Maryland, everything below the median high tide is public property and you can hunt fossils on it. The trick is access to the beach from land, as much of it is at the base of cliffs.
Matthew would either travel via boat or bush-whack his way to the coast, equipped with waterproof gear. The project was physically demanding, requiring him to climb boulders, wade in chest-deep water, and incur a few jellyfish stings and tick bites. All of the difficulties pushed Matthew to work harder, and as a result, he’s now pursuing a scuba certification to be able to capture images underwater.
Everything that made my body hurt also reminded me that the best things in life usually aren’t within arm’s reach.
The project started with a focus on paleontology but Matthew now explores areas of meteorology, climatology, geology, anthropology, and mineralogy as well. As he dove into his memories and former aspirations, this project led to other questions he now seeks to answer.
I’m fascinated by how Native Americans in the area might have incorporated these teeth in their own daily lives but also their own mythology. We know that they used smaller teeth for bow and spear tips, but what did they think when they discovered a 5” long Megalodon tooth?
As a Maine native, Matthew grew up playing on forested beaches riddled with shells and rocks of all kinds. Though he’s moved away from his childhood home, he carries the sentiment of his youth by capturing images of other young explorers on the beach. It’s personal projects like these that help to remind Matthew why photography is the right career for him.
I believe it’s crucial for each of us to take the time to really examine why we became photographers. For me, it’s to meet interesting people, find myself in unusual places, and learn something new.
Photographer: Matthew Rakola