I wrote in this blog following the April 27th tornado that the homes in Camden Court that were completely destroyed had no one home at the time the storm hit. I wrote that because someone I met there, and I don’t remember who it was, told me. I thought that was a great story until Jennifer Pitts Adair contacted me to let me know that she was indeed home when the storm hit and her house was totally destroyed, all the way down to the sub-floor leaving her laying in what used to be a closet. We exchanged a couple of emails and she agreed to tell her story to The Decatur Daily.
I contacted “my reporter,” Holly Hollman who covers Limestone County and we made an appointment. I arrived just about 15 minutes early to the assignment. I wanted to check things out before hand and try to form a plan. Two things struck me immediately. First, there was nothing left of the house except some debris laying around on what had once been the floor of the house. A few piles of brick and random pieces of what was once a house were laying around in the yard but a great deal of clean up had already taken place. The second thing that hit me was the absolutely awesome sky.
I have done several portraits of survivors since the storm passed and they have all been shot on clear days with deep, blue skies and harsh, direct sunlight. This sky had some cloud character in it and I wanted to bring that out in the photo. To handle the light, I would need to dramatically underexpose the sky and use some powerful strobe light to balance everything out. I felt like a darker sky, even on a relatively clear day, would convey something of the terror that came from the skies. The other unknown was I had no idea where Jennifer had actually been when the storm hit and where she was when it ended. So I composed a basic game plan and waited.
I used the time to brainstorm my light. I had a softbox that was actually made to fit on an AC powered Elinchrom strobe but I thought I could make it work temporarily on my Lumedyne which is battery powered. This is one of those “happy accidents” that I think God directs. I usually don’t carry my Lumedynes but save them for my freelance work. But that day I had them in the car. I was able to fit the Lumedyne reflector inside the mounting ring for the softbox but it was very loose and I had no tape to hold it in place and the wind was blowing. It looked like a small windmill as the wind blew and the softbox spun on the strobe head. At least it didn’t fall off. I finally figured a way to rig it so it wouldn’t spin. Now I had 200 watt seconds of battery powered storbe power to play with and a softbox. Things were looking up.
Jennifer arrived and I asked her to walk me through the day. She took me to the place where she had sheltered in what had been a bedroom closet. Jennifer told me she grabbed all the blankets in the bedroom and the pillows and lay flat on the floor and covered herself with the blankets and pillows. She was hearing the local TV weather as they watched it approach their tower cam located directly between her house and the storm. She knew she was in the path. Then the power went out. Seconds later the front edge of the funnel struck her home. This was followed by about three seconds of quiet as the center of the funnel passed over her then the noise resumed as the back half of the funnel passed over her. She reached up to find something to grab to get up but found only air. Everything was gone right down to the floor. A large dresser landed inches from her head but she came out with only a minor shoulder injury. Jennifer said when she emerged she was the only person visible. She thought everyone else in Camden Court was dead.
After hearing all this, I knew I really wanted to emphasize the sky and decided to shoot low angle. There was little left to show of the house. The first pose I asked her to take, kneeling in the spot where she survived the storm, was by far the best image. The wind was blowing and caught a strand of her long hair and blew it across her face and in that moment I felt I captured something special. I chimped the image and was blown away by the depth of the sky. I knew I had a keeper but we kept on shooting so I would have plenty of choices. In the end, this image stood out.
I really hope you guys can go to decaturdaily.com for the Sunday edition and read her story. I can’t tell you more here but there are ties to the 1974 F5 tornado that destroyed family homes and killed three relatives. Both she and her parents lost their houses in this storm. It is a really great story. It is worth the price of a subscription.
When you shoot assignments like this, having a plan is a good idea but the best idea is to listen to the person tell you their story. So many times you find out what to shoot and how to shoot it by simply listening. Having a an ability to listen to people will make you a far better photojournalist than you could be by simply following your own ideas.
Photo copyright Gary Cosby Jr., The Decatur Daily. The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.