a surfer underwater in the ocean with
portrait lighting. The story was about how
the surfer trained by swimming down more
than 40 feet and through lava tubes to
strengthen his lungs. I had to simulate this
harsh environment after being thrown off
a large wave.
The problem was, the surf was very
rough and my assistant and I had to swim
out about 500 feet from shore to a large rock. Then I swam down
holding an underwater housing connected to two lights while my
assistant swam behind the athlete with a light for edge lighting.
After our first two attempts at this, the waves were too rough,
and we were getting thrown into the rocks. I immediately got leg
cramps because, unlike the person I was photographing, I did not
train by swimming in rough, open water through lava tubes. I was
kicking my legs very hard to try to swim down and hold my location
as the athlete swam through. In addition, there was so much sediment in the water that my strobes (especially the edge light) picked
up every spec, making the photos unusable. I had to reevaluate, and
we decided to move locations to a different spot on the island.
Luckily, I remembered a spot where I had previously snorkeled
with calmer water and a shallower area with lava rocks. There
was still sediment in the water but not nearly as much. After eight
hours in the water, we were all exhausted, but luckily I came back
with a few usable shots and one I still have in my portfolio today.
One of my more challenging assignments
was canoeing down the Thelon River in
Canada’s Northwest Territories, with a
group of First Nation Lutsel K’e Dene teen-agers and elders in a remote game sanctuary just south of the Arctic Circle. It’s tundra
country that’s covered in ice in the winter
and liquifies during the short, summer days.
This is the home of caribou and the grizzly
but also mosquitoes and black flies. I had
no idea how debilitating and ferocious these tiny creatures could be
and was ignorant to think a cotton bug suit would protect me. My
tent was covered in blood, my body covered in welts and my mind
going mad. How could such small beings be so powerful?
In addition to keeping up with the expedition, canoeing the river,
pitching tents and keeping the bugs at bay, I also had to make
images and a film. This was an opportunity, and the best places on
this planet often require some suffering to get to and experience.
I found solace at night in my tent, listening to what sounded like
rain but was actually the steady kamikaze rhythm of bugs aiming
for and bouncing off my nylon enclosure. There I would squeeze
the last drops of power from my solar-powered batteries, transmit
pictures to my client and remind myself that the bugs were temporary. Being in this magnificent place was an incredible gift.
To watch the video Vitale made during this trip,
Every day is an adventure. Lots of folks
play golf really well, and when the ball
stays on the fairway or the green, they
shoot good scores. Pro golfers can hit
the ball into the rough or the sand—but
it’s how they play out of trouble, how they
handle awful situations with grace—that’s
why they play for serious money. It’s the
same with great photojournalists. When
everything goes wrong and you’re on a
tight deadline, it’s how you handle the situation that sets you apart.
Last summer Sports Illustrated picture editor Marguerite
Schropp Lucarelli sent me to photograph Torian Graham, a junior
college basketball player in Marianna, a small town in the Florida
Panhandle. I left home at 4 p.m. on a nice sunny afternoon. My
shoot was scheduled for 8 p.m. It’s normally a three-and-a-half-hour drive. An hour out, the skies turned black. It started to pour.
The interstate became almost impassible. It took nearly four and
a half hours to get there. Just as I reached Chipola College, the rain
stopped. All of the courts were flooded. The sun was totally gone.
Using an Elinchrome Octobox with a 1200 ws Ranger head inside,
I balanced the light to look like it was coming from a streetlight just
broader than the light itself could have produced. Working close
to the ground with a Nikon D800 and an AF-S NIKKOR 35mm
f/1.4G, I used the ambient light, including the streetlights bouncing
off the puddles on the outdoor court, to make a very moody image
that worked perfectly for the story. We were done in five minutes.