A few years ago while on assignment in Southwest Florida, I wandered around Sanibel Island and J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge one morning, in search of some images, and met an older gentlemen fishing. I thought he might make a nice subject fishing in the mangrove-lined refuge, and approached him.
Lee McMichen was in his early eighties, open to chat since he had been fishing for three days, casting his net without a catch. We talked a bit as I tried to figure out how I could capture a decent photograph in the harsh mid-day light. My first thoughts were all about creating an image, but as we spoke more, he shared a few stories of his life, and it became more about our personal interaction instead of producing an environmental portrait.
Sometimes, even when I’m on assignment, I stop, put down the camera, and listen. Although I might not create photos at those moments, and maybe miss memorable scenes, I believe this process brings me closer to the area I’m documenting, and in an indirect way helps me produce better overall images.
As we continued our conversation, he began to tell me about his experiences in war, and his time stationed in Pearl Harbor. You see he was on one of the four battleships bombed that morning, Lee deep in the hull when the explosions crippled the ships and the alarms to abandon ship sounded. He described his rush to escape from down below, only to have the main hatch be closed off in front of him and three others. Panic ensued as all four seamen realized the fate had been sealed, yet only seconds after the hatch closed, it reopened, and they were able to get out before the ship sunk.
After sharing this information, he didn’t talk of the joy he had at that moment, his life saved. He only spoke of all the others who weren’t able to get out. Yet because of the few seconds in his life where one sailor saved four others, he was given over sixty more years on this earth.
As we stood along Wildlife Drive, me fumbling through my camera bag, I heard him yell out – he had caught a large mullet, the first of his trip. “Looks like you are my good luck charm young man”, he said to me. I smiled, yet could only think of who his real good luck charm had been years before. You see, it’s not always the locations you dream of visiting, the adventures you hope to take, or even the images you produce as a travel photographer – it’s really about the people you meet.
Here’s to the men and women who served our country in all of our wars on Veteran’s Day. Although I prefer to follow the anti-war beliefs of many leaders such as the Daila Lama or Mahatma Gandhi, I will always honor and support our troops – those who do a job where so many lives are lost. To those who weren’t able to be saved, rest in peace, and thank you for your ultimate sacrifice.