Camille Seaman spends her days photographing tornadoes, on the edges of lightning storms, and under black skies to capture mother nature at its most charged
“I wasn’t born a storm chaser”, says Camille Seaman of her career which is far from commonplace. The American photographer’s interest in storm chasing came during an offhand moment: “I was watching my daughter and vacuuming whilst she was sitting on the couch watching storm chasing and it just looked so interesting - the colours, the light, and she caught me looking at the TV and told me I should do that!” she explains. “So, during a commercial break I Googled ‘storm chasing’ and a whole, new world appeared. Three days later, I was there, I was doing it.”
From this day Seaman’s photographic landscape shifted forever. “I feel a sense of belonging. Not because I’m photographing, but because I am present and realise that our experience as humans on this planet is limitless,” replies Seaman when asked what she has learned (and what she hopes others will learn) from her photographic series The Big Cloud. Recently published by Princeton Architectural Press, the book is both beautiful and shocking in its portrayal of Seaman’s experiences as a storm chaser.
“There are very few breaks ... there’s no stopping. The aim is to be a storm chaser, not to be storm chased” – Camille Seaman
She now spends her time driving great distances looking for her next chase. When asked what it takes to be a chaser, she responds nonchalantly: “I think almost anyone can do it, you have to be a really patient person because it’s very long hours in a car, driving and driving, and sometimes that’s not comfortable. There are very few breaks, you can’t just eat or go to the toilet when you’re in chase mode – there’s no stopping. The aim is to be a storm chaser, not to be storm chased”.
This photographic process is neither simple nor safe. It is instead a largely intuitive experience, that has left Seaman at the hands of tornadoes, at the edges of lightning storms and under black skies to capture supercells and mammatus clouds in their natural settings. I wonder how she copes with fear: “People often ask me what makes me do something that seems so risky. It’s partly to do with how I was raised, but I don’t experience fear the way many people do. I feel it, but it doesn’t inhibit me. More often it motivates me”.
However, scratch beneath the surface and the horror of the chase has rocked her experience. “In 2013, several chasers were killed during a storm that I was in and it was the first time that I realised, yes I have a child, and no, no image is worth losing your life for. The year after, we chased, but I think we had all lost our edge, we weren’t willing to take risks and so we missed a lot of opportunities - it just wasn’t fun anymore”. Is there an acceptance of death within the storm chasing community, I ask? “Absolutely. I don’t think anybody out there would chase if they were not accepting. They are being naive if they think bad things can’t happen. They could get hit by hail and killed, or debris or lose control off road in a muddy situation and have a car wreck. You’re actually more likely to get killed in auto-accidents when chasing rather than by the storm itself. So you know, I think everyone that chases has to be aware of that”.
This duality of life and death informs Seaman’s work. In her eyes, the power of natural beauty manifests itself in a multifaceted way that is capable of both creation and destruction. “This week in Hawaii for example, people that chose to live on an active volcano are now having to accept reality, that their beautiful, natural environment, that was made possible by this volcano is also capable of taking away – and that’s the same no matter where you live. The Earth is a living thing and it is dynamic and constantly changing and moving and I think humans would be wise to remember that and to embrace it instead of trying to make things so permanent”.
Camille Seaman’s The Big Cloud is available now from Princeton Architectural Press