My neck snapped back as the impact thrust us forward. The force accelerated my van, and we started to spin. My feet pressed into the floorboards as the second impact struck with the sound of crushing sheet metal. We spun fully around to face the oncoming traffic. From the passenger seat, as we hurtled backwards, I looked into the terrified face of an 18-wheeler driver coming at us.
As a photographer, I seek out scenes that will change my perspective—and yours. But this was a vantage point I never wanted to find.
The 18-wheeler driver stood on his brakes, front wheels jumping as he skidded and swerved. I thought, This is it. He is going to hit us head-on and we are going to go over the barricades and into the water. My assistant and I were heading home from a photoshoot, towing my boat behind the van. The first impact we felt was a distracted driver hitting my boat and trailer, shoving the trailer into the van. The second was his vehicle hitting my rear panel as we spun. The boat was thrown off the trailer and into the roadway, along with my photography gear. We struck the barricade, and the trailer went over the side of the bridge.
The Atchafalaya Basin Bridge was completed in 1973 and is the third longest bridge in the U.S. The concrete and steel barricades that are designed to keep vehicles from plunging into the water also create a dangerous chute effect as more than 40,000 vehicles cross each day. For most travelers, this is the closest they’ll get to experiencing Louisiana’s cypress swamps.
The 18-wheeler skid marks. After impact we were skidding backwards in front of him while he was trying to stop.
The strange thing about auto accidents is that everything happens so fast, but the heightened awareness and adrenaline elongates those moments. Gazing through the lens mimics the feeling of staring out the window of a car as the world passes by in slow motion.
During photoshoots, I use the camera to slow down and reflect on the scene, ask questions, and consider my experience. I often drive fast to new places and make long exposure photographs that slow things down. In my last photo release, Lemiere, I wrote about viewers’ fears around my swimming with alligators. Yet no one ever questions my driving at night over long bridges. Fast cars kill countless more than slow gators: there were 1,183 auto accidents on the Atchafalaya bridge between 2014 and 2019, but I can’t find any reports of alligator attacks in the area. It’s strange which fears capture our imaginations.
After we struck the barricade, the 18-wheeler swerved around us and, judging by the skid marks, missed my front end by 18 feet. I have not traveled this roadway in the two years since the accident; instead, I take the slower Hwy 90 on my trips to the basin. My October 2019 trip to the bridge to make this photograph was my first time back there. The stream lights of a passing 18-wheeler can be seen on the left side of the frame, above the rail of the bridge. Floating in the water between the two bridges, the vanishing point perspective of Dupuis hints at my questions about how fast we go and what is over the edge.
I highly recommend the speed and perspective change of a kayak or canoe trip. You can find more recommendations on swamp experiences here, and the book Canoeing Louisiana is a great starting point if you want to explore the area’s waterways.