Sitting on the edge of the boat with my legs dangling in the water, I flipped on my flashlight. The red crescent eyes of one, two...14 gators glimmered as they skimmed across the dark waters of the swamp. This was no time to hesitate.
The wind was finally calm in this protected cypress cove. The arching limbs, draped with Spanish moss, were perfectly mirrored in the water. The photograph I wanted was here but it wouldn’t last. I checked the seals on my dry suit and slowly lowered myself into the water. My feet sunk into the silty mud as the warm water pressed against my body and around my neck
Alex, my assistant, handed me my tripod and camera and drove the boat away to position the light for my traditional off-camera, three-point lighting setup. Walking slowly, each step on the swamp bottom tugging at my feet, I positioned the camera to capture the full height of the trees along with negative space to reveal their related embrace. I called for Alex to turn on the lights and began the six-minute exposure. The photograph you see below was my first exposure, where we shone lights on the foreground trees. As I floated behind the camera and waited the six minutes, my mind wandered.
It was my sixth consecutive night of shooting, and I had spent five to six hours each night in the swamp water. I’m not superstitious, but tonight was different: it was Friday the 13th, the first on a full moon since the year 2000. And every time I show these swamp photographs, someone asks, “Aren’t you scared of the alligators?” Soaking in gator-infested waters, the echo of this query had me questioning both my photographic practice and my sanity. I know humans aren’t gators’ preferred prey, and in my experience, they are sometimes curious but never aggressive. So far.
As the moonlit night wore on, my paranoia grew. What if, tonight, my good gator luck ran out and the gators mistook my legs for a deer’s? There were so many circling the cove during the exposure it felt like they were protecting the area. I worried their glowing eyes would appear in the photograph like streaking car headlights. I clicked the shutter closed and flipped my flashlight on to check the eye width of the area gators. Most were smaller, with eye widths of 3 to 5 inches, about 3 to 5 feet long.
I do have one gator rule: if the eyes are as wide as my shoulders, I don’t swim with the gator. Sure enough, lurking near the distant tree, I spotted the reflection of larger red eyes the width of my shoulders. It was time to clear out of this “protected cove.” But as I started to take my camera off the tripod, the rush of fear sparked a flash of inspiration, shaking me from my traditional lighting approach. I imagined the scene in silhouette with the background tree lit aglow with this alligator eye inspiration. I radioed Alex to adjust the light behind the distant tree and not to flush the big nearby gator in my direction.
The light filled the tree, the wind held still and the big gator kept his distance. I was scared to pursue a career as a photographer, scared still to work creatively, and terrified to open a gallery.
Lemeire reminds me that often my bouts of fear and inspiration are intertwined. I never know which photographs will resonate with viewers. Over time, I’ve realized that it’s my job to continue my creative practice and listen, impatiently waiting for the inspiration that follows routine.