Venture Series #5: Storm Chaser

Camille Seaman strongly believes in capturing photographs that articulate that humans are not separate from nature. In this entry on storm chasing, Camille eloquently tells her story, her motivations, and expresses a deep understanding of how we are connected with nature.

Her photos have been published in National Geographic, TIME, The New York Times Sunday magazine, and many more. She is a TED senior fellow (I'd recommend watching her talks), and has been presented with multiple awards for her work.

Location: Middle US

Persons Involved: Camille Seaman

Activity: Storm Chasing

Everything is interconnected.

As a Shinnecock Indian, I was raised to know this. We are a small fishing tribe situated on the southeastern tip of Long Island near the town of Southampton in New York.

When I was a little girl, my grandfather took me to sit outside in the sun on a hot summer day. There were no clouds in the sky. And after a while I began to perspire. And he pointed up to the sky, and he said...

“Look, do you see that? That’s part of you up there. That’s your water that helps to make the cloud that becomes the rain that feeds the plants that feeds the animals.”

In my continued exploration of subjects in nature that have the ability to illustrate the interconnection of all life, I started storm chasing in 2008 after my then eight year old daughter said...

“Mom, you should do that.”

So three days later, driving very fast, I found myself stalking a single type of giant cloud called the super cell, capable of producing grapefruit-size hail and spectacular tornadoes, although only about two percent of clouds actually do.

These clouds can grow so big, up to 50 miles wide and reach up to 65,000 feet into the atmosphere. They can grow so big, blocking all daylight, making it very dark and ominous standing under them.

When I get up on a storm-chasing day, anything could happen.

We’re usually in somewhere deep in Middle America, in a motel like something out of a movie with the cars parked out front. We pile into the meteorologist’s room, sit on the bed, and he projects the day’s weather from his computer onto the wall. We analyse the data and decide where we’re headed for.

Then, we’ll go to some greasy-spoon diner, again like something out of a movie, where it’s all, “How y’all doing today, what can I get ya?” After that, it’s usually many, many hours in the car. The thing with these storms is that they take all day to form. All that warm, moist air has to hit a certain temperature in order for it to start up.

A super-cell isn’t part of a storm front, it’s an individual cloud up to 50 miles wide. It needs the perfect conditions to attract all that moisture, and blow up like a beautiful cotton ball in the middle of the plains.

Only two percent of super-cells create tornadoes, but when one starts to happen, we get into ‘chase mode’. There are no bathroom breaks, no pulling over to get a drink, no chance to check the map.

These storms are moving, some of them at 20 miles an hour, some at 60. It’s like the whole car is taken over by this euphoric silence. You see people on TV shows yelling, “Drive faster! Drive faster!” but our cars are never like that. For a photographer, it’s not ideal because it’s dark under there, the wind is blowing, and there is no time to set up a tripod. If you’re too close, it’s so huge you can’t fit it in your frame, so we look for the sweet spot; just far enough away to get the perfect image.

Storm chasing is a very tactile experience. There’s a warm, moist wind blowing at your back and the smell of the earth, the wheat, the grass, the charged particles. And then there are the colors in the clouds of hail forming, the greens and the turquoise blues.

I’ve learned to respect the lightning.

Storms are living things. Each tornado has its own personality. You see could ten thousand storms and each one would behave differently. Storm chasers name them by their dates, like, “Do you remember June 10th?” or, “Did you see May 22nd 2012?” There is a feeling that if you miss one, you have missed a unique experience.

The storms create life by pulling soil up into the cloud and supercharging it in the cloud. It falls with the rain and hail making the Great Plains incredibly fertile. They are like Shiva, they destroy and create life simultaneously.

What really excites me about these storms is their movement, the way they swirl and spin and undulate, with their lava lamp-like mammatus clouds. They become lovely monsters.

I wouldn’t say that storm-chasing makes me happy... ‘Happy’ just can’t illustrate the level of ecstatic joy and deep fulfillment it gives me.

I feel a sense of why I exist. I feel a sense of belonging.

Not because I’m photographing, but because I am present and I realise how limitless our experience as humans on this planet is. There is so much to see, to feel, to taste, touch and do. You have to get out there and expose yourself to the passion, and the suffering of it, then come to a centre and say, “Who am I?”

I’ve realised I’m dreaming this beautiful thing. I want to show people not only what I see, but what I feel. If my images don’t evoke something emotional, then I have failed. It’s my job to bring people to places they might not get to on their own.

When I’m photographing these clouds, I cannot help but remember my grandfather’s lesson.

As I stand under them, I see not just a cloud, but understand that what I have the privilege to witness is the same forces, the same process on a smaller scale version that helped to create our galaxy, our solar system, our sun and even this very planet.

Thank you Camille for sharing your story and incredible photos - your deep respect for nature, and understanding of our connectivity to it, are inspirational.

BaseCampVenture series is here to publish short stories and interviews with an aim to inspire, captivate, inform & entertain! Based around the topics of backpacking, exploring, adventure sports or life in a seasonal town. If you have a story to tell CLICK HERE to see how to enter for your chance to win $200 for a charity of your choice. Join our Facebook Group here

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