Behind the Camera: Jim Reed

Posted on July 11, 2011

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A supercell thunderstorm over Kansas, by Jim Reed

Photographer Jim Reed’s business is severe weather, and this year business has been good.

I spoke by phone with Reed, one of the country’s premier “storm chaser” photographers, the day before yesterday, as he was watching a dangerous weather system forming over Wichita, Kansas, where he lives. “We might get disconnected,” he warned me. I’ve known Jim for quite a few years now, and I wanted to get his take on what has appeared to me (based on all the weather-related photos I’ve seen in the past few months.) to be particularly wicked season of dangerous storms. Or was it just my imagination?

“It was not your imagination,” he said. “It’s been an extremely explosive year. We’ve been looking at extremely large, long-track tornadoes across the country, and the aftermath is really hard to accept.”

The lure of the vortex, photo by Jim Reed

A tornado creates a river of prairie dust, photo by Jim Reed

Reed has been shooting severe weather for two decades, which means that he’s been an eye-witness to a lot of weather history. His website notes that he has photographed 17 hurricanes, including Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and that he’s had his images published in National Geographic, the New York Times, and on the Discovery Channel. His book Storm Chaser: A Photographer’s Journal, is an ode to the strange beauty and allure of killer storms, and I’ve been following him this year via Twitter as he’s tracked the path of tornado destruction from Tuscaloosa, Alabama to Smithville, Mississippi. [Go here for another another portfolio in the world’s increasingly severe weather.]

Rattlesnakes in the Sky: Joplin, Missouri

Last week Reed was in Joplin, Missouri, photographing the aftermath of the tornado that crushed much of the city. The human toll from that tornado reached 155 with the death of a man earlier this week who had been injured when the tornado hit on May 22. “Having seen the destruction, I’m frankly surprised more people weren’t killed,” said Reed. “It looked to me like about 20 percent of the city was wiped out.” Here is Reed describing what made the storm so deadly:

“Typically, large tornadoes take a little while to get their act together. They start out small, then widen, and then you go, ‘Okay, this looks like it’s going to be a very large tornado.’ You have time to evaluate and adjust. But the Joplin tornado just started out scary—multiple vortexes appearing out of the sky like rattlesnakes hanging down from the clouds, rotating and snapping at things on the ground.”

Joplin, Missouri after the May 22 tornado. Photo by Jim Reed

As if rattlesnakes from the sky wasn’t a powerful enough metaphor, Reed added that the debris kicked up by the tornado “was like a blender blade that just chewed up everything in its path,” he said. Here are a few of the images he made recently in Joplin:

Reed has been interviewing survivors of the Joplin storm, trying to learn when they knew about the approaching tornado and what they did to protect themselves—his job, he says, being as much about safety research and education as journalism. “I’ve always had the idea that my pictures were teaching people about the power of weather, especially when my photos appear in school books,” he told me.”That’s idea was particular gratifying for me.”

Dangerous Allure: Bad Weather’s Awful Beauty

In the past few years, though, Reed has been troubled by what he sees as an increasing public disregard for severe weather. “I can only describe it as a psychological disconnect,” he says. “It seems like people just don’t understand the danger.” People now treat tornadoes, he says, like a kind of exhilarating amusement park ride, “or like going to the zoo and wanting to stick their hands through the cage to pet the tiger.”

Dangerous weather may well have some sort of irrational allure—perhaps there is something about the awful beauty of threatening clouds or the fierce uncontrollable energy of a tornado that annihilates the ego in a satisfying way. Or conversely, perhaps such sights represent an irresistible challenge to the human spirit. (I’m reminded of the comedian Ron White’s story about the Florida man who said he was strong enough to withstand the winds of a Force 5 hurricane. “It’s not that the wind is blowing,” White notes, “but what the wind is blowing. When you’re hit by a Volvo, it doesn’t matter how many pushups you can do.”) Here are some examples of Reed’s fine art work, with its awful beauty:

“Last Saturday, we had severe weather here in Wichita, and a colleague called me and said, ‘You are not going to believe this, but there are 60 or 70 cars pulled off to watch and photograph it all. They’re families—dads with kids on their shoulders pointing up at the sky. And there is lightning all around us.’”

The growing fascination with dangerous storms has spawned television shows like the Discover Channel’s Storm Chasers and filled YouTube with amateur videos of killer storms. Reed points to the lasting effects of this famous video clip of a TV news reporter and cameraman who hid under an interstate overpass as a tornado passed over.

“After that, everyone started crowding under overpasses during tornado sightings—which created huge traffic jams blocking the interstates, which was very dangerous,” said Reed. “Also, overpasses are are NOT really safe places to be because wind funnels up into them. The National Weather Service eventually had to start a campaign warning people not to do this.”

Reed, who makes a living doing the same sort of thing, faces a dilemma. “There is a skilled way to do it, and those who approach storm chasing in that way can really minimize their chances of being harmed.,” he says.

Reed wonders whether all the vivid weather imagery that goes viral via social media and plays over and over on 24/7 TV news channels after big storms is inuring the public to the dangers of nature rather than educating us about it. Everybody has always talked about the weather. Now the weather has become a cost-effective form of entertainment. (This writer argues that storm chasing is, in some way, immoral.)

A Word of Warning: Buy a Radio

“I keep a simple journal, and if you look at it there’s a clear pattern of worse and worse weather,” says Reed. “I can’t tell you why it’s happening. But I think we’ve become so obsessed debating why the weather is changing and how we should battle and reverse and conquer the weather that we have neglected to really help people survive bad weather.”

A tornado, filled with dirt, in western Kansas, May 8, 3008. Photo by Jim Reed

What Reed has learned in Joplin, Missouri is that homes and buildings in America’s “Tornado Alley” should all have basements. Mobile home parks should have community storm shelters. “I can guarantee you that big box store chains like Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Walmart are all rethinking their building’s safety features,” he says.

The number-one piece of survival advice, and the simplest to do: “Go out and buy a NOAA radio at a Radio Shack or some other electronics store, load it with some batteries, and listen for weather watches and warnings. “And if a weather watch goes off, you push a button and you get information on the watch—okay, am I in it?…okay, storms expected around two…and then, if it’s a Saturday morning and you have a trip to the mall planned for later in the day, you might want to cancel it and stay close to wherever it is you would want to take shelter, in case the worse happens.”

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