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Rural Georgia (better late than never)

January 19, 2010

Obama’s face greets me as I turn into the drive.  He’s a caricature of himself-big ears and fat lips, and he’s the bull’s-eye on the oversized dartboard sitting on the ground-the centerpiece to the split in the driveway. There are extra darts,  in case you’d like to stop your car and test your own skills.

I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

Girl!, this is Rural, Gawja!” runs through my head.  I’m in a dinky rental car, upgraded twice–yet still only crank windows and manual seat adjustments.  WTF?  I can’t get the GPS to talk in ‘Miss British,’ nor does Miss British know the address I need to get to-it’s apparently not in the road archive. I pull out the directions I scribbled onto four yellow post-it notes.  Note to self-next time don’t abbreviate in indecipherable chicken scratch and pay better attention when someone tells you that the road does not exist in Mapquest.

From Jacksonville to Georgia, I sit on my wadded up winter jacket. The steering wheel won’t tilt down and the seat won’t come up.  Airport CNN says that today the temperature in Orlando is as cold as it is in Anchorage, Alaska.  Hmmm.  One in five oranges is bust.  Juice will now cost $6 a carton.  And here I was thinking that work might turn into a bit of warm respite for a few days.  No such luck.

It would probably help if I really knew what “Rural Gawja” meant.  My definition: A 70 mile an hour speed limit, and the vision of a white pickup truck filled with rifles and shirtless men, which has been seared on my brain since our family road trip to Orlando (through Georgia) when I was 14.  I’ve been around the world and back, but put me in rural America and I’m about as ignorant as a frozen orange.

I am here for four days.  I am here to shoot an otter—a wild otter, whose presence, attitude, and cooperation is optional.   Apparently he comes to play with the dogs on the property.  That’s what I need a killer shot of.  In order to maximize photographic possibilities, I am staying in a “cabin” on the property.  Sometimes it actually helps NOT to know the situation I’m getting myself into.  Recently while craving pizza in Peru, I was given some pre-pizza search advice:  “Low expectations Karine.  That way it can only be a positive experience.”  Logical-in theory anyway.

I’m wondering if i’ve landed in a dream.  I’m now at the end of the long dirt drive (I had no urge to throw darts), sitting in the car staring at a scene I know from movies….hundred year old oak trees, covered in Spanish moss crouch over a circle drive.  A stately house, adorned in knick-knack love, stands in front of me, and to the left, another smaller home with a huge wrap-around deck, faces the coastal waterway.  If this is Rural Georgia, then I’d like to stay a while.

Every night the pelicans, cormorants, Ibis, and egrets come to roost.

“I ain’t seen’m for the past cuuuuple days,” drawls my contact. “But, that cuud be a good thang!”  I’m not really sure how to describe her-but a few words come to mind: rugged, durable, mop of curly blond hair, solid, workboots, cargo pants, 1980’s navy blue sweatshirt, and, searing turquoise blue eyes.

My contact, who I’ll call Cat, asks me what I want to do:  go get settled in my cabin? Or have a walkabout to show me the sanctuary.  I opt for the tour.  I park the car back by my cabin which comes all inclusive with a full view of the waterway.  Stunningly beautiful.  I head back to the Critter Clinic in awe.

Cat is intense and talkative and we wander past the pelican enclosure, to the Bald Eagle enclosure, to the owl and Red-Tailed hawk enclosure.  It’s a small animal sanctuary-the only facility for injured wildlife in the area.  Wild pelicans follow us down the road hoping for some fish.  I can’t get a word in edgewise, so I just listen.

“Ya know with this cold, it’s not good.  Ya know yuhr coming at the wrong time–this is also the beginin’ of breedin’ season-and I dn’t know if he’s gonna cum round-the cold is throwing erything awff…..”

“There he is.”  My African bush tracking instinct kicks in.  I give myself a high five.

Cat continues as if she hasn’t heard me.

“The otter, THERE HE ISSSS!”  It’s an excited whisper hiss.  I’m ready to raise both fists and break into my own white-man  rendition of a victory dance, “Uh huh, Oh Yeah!, Uh huh…CHIKA BOWM!”

“What?  Naw, them’re pelicans….”

“No, there!”  My whisper comes out a snarfled yell.  I point to the bush he’s hopping through.

“We’ll I’ll be dammned.” Cat finally acknowledges the otter, and my first success.

I’m victory dancing in my head.  “UH HUH! Oh YEAH!”

Oodie, as he’s called, is on his way towards us.  Actually, he’s in a direct beeline for me, and doesn’t stop until he reaches my feet.  He looks up, backs up a couple steps, sniffs the air, and then hops in an arc around me,  onwards towards Cat who lets out a loud long whoop:

“OOOOOOOOOODIIIIIIE!”  and then another, “OOOOOOOODERRRRSS!”

It’s then I realize the camera is on the other side of the property.  Dammit.

“Take the golf cart, and go get the camera,” Cat says as she slowly lopes to the Critter Clinic with otter in tow. I hesitate at the golf cart.

“I just press the gas right?”

I don’t think I could have disturbed her more.   Cat does a slow motion foot-hanging-in-air stop.  She just stands there with her back to me.  She’s taking her time to turn around.  I feel like I did in third grade when I just finished slamming my lunchbox over Michael Franks’ head, while standing in line to get back into class. Yup. Guilty as charged.  There’s disgusted silence.  And then mortification.  She turns and just looks at me with her head cocked to the side.

“Don’t tell me y’all don’t know how to drive a damn golf cart?”

What could I say.

And so began four days.   Not only did I not know how to drive a golf cart, but, I also didn’t know how to build, stoke, or keep a fire going, nor did I eat meat, nor was I a Republican, nor had I ever eaten grits.  As far as Cat was concerned, I was a complete moron; completely, totally, utterly incompetent when it came to any useful skill.

But, where I impressed her, was in what i’d come there to do.

Oodie came four out of four days.  If you’ve ever had the task of shooting a wild otter playing with two completely untrained dogs, you’ll know that it’s damn near impossible. Where there is a head, there are two tails in your face, or, where both dogs are looking a the camera, all you see is an otter tail disappearing under a dog body.  Or, the dogs are playing on the other side of the lawn with each other, and the otter is posing perfectly right in front of the lens.  Oodie was never in the right position (playing perfectly with the dogs all on the same side of the property), or the right light (they were always all perfectly placed in half shade half sun), or the perfect pose (I have more shots of butts than faces), but, he did allow me to be around him.  As did all the animals, which surprised Cat (and dare I say slightly impressed her?).  I rolled in the dirt, I got shit on and bit by the pelicans, and slobbered on by the dogs.  And, I came back for more.  Even Wags, the dog Cat despised and mistrusted, let me pet him, despite her warnings.  And, not only could I get dirty and not complain, but, I could go out to dinner with the owner of the sanctuary, and get invited back.

In the end, I won complete trust.   On day 3, when Cat rolled in and saw smoke coming from my fireplace, she realized I wasn’t a complete waste (a quick learner if nothing else).  It was then we became friends.  Cat took me to lunch at a local haunt, and brought me to the shrimp boats to show me what I could come back to shoot.  She educated me on the locals:  a pair of sneakers on a phone pole above a house meant a place where you could buy drugs…..you stay away from the swamp people…..Pit Bull fighting is a past time in the area….a fish sandwich is a stupid thing to order in a fried shrimp restaurant, and owl talons can be relaxed by snapping them backwards.

On day four-the day I was leaving, Oodie was a no-show.  We waited and called, but, no otter.  After a tiny brown bat landed itself in the Critter Clinic (no joke-it just appeared half frozen on the table for Cat to nurse back to health–“I am charmed!” I heard her whoop from the clinic), and after some fun shots of a Screetch owl,  Cat decided to cook me three pounds of boiled shrimp, and tell me her life story in the kitchen of my cabin.  When 2:00pm rolled around, I began to say my goodbyes and ‘thank-you-for-having-me’s.’   I got sent off with the remaining two pounds of shrimp.

“I don’t know what them all airport rules are, but, yuh’re takin’ this shrimp with ya.  I’m cookin it for ya, and yuh’re takin’t with ya.”

Perfect.  Airport security here I come.

And so I left, driving off back down the dirt road, with two pounds of shrimp wrapped in a garbage bag held together by duct tape and an education in fire building, and a bit of Southern life.  I didn’t want to leave.  I stopped at Obama and took his photo-at least i’d have proof of that, because no one is going to believe that I know how to build my own fire-and keep it alive.

As I merged onto 95 south, my head was spinning and my heart was in my throat.  I’d just had an education in a bit of life. And, I’d done a shoot, but had to leave without the exact shot that I wanted-which has never happened to me before.  I wanted more time.  And I wanted more “education.”  The phone rang.

The voice was unmistakable.  “Miss Karine.  Guess who’s here?  Guess who’s playin altogether riiiight here in front of the clinic,  riiiightt here in the sunlight?”

I laughed.

“I’ll get him the next time Cat.  You tell that otter it’s par for the course of my life…..you tell him I’ll get him next time.  And you tell him I’m bringing him two pounds of boiled shrimp.”

It was a shoot I will not soon forget.  Sometimes we are lucky enough to cross paths with people who change the way we think.  They change our stereotypes, and our first impressions, and they allow us a view into worlds we know nothing about.  For me, thats what this shoot was about and that’s what Cat was about.  My new words for her include: super well educated, open, kind, intelligent, caring, one woman band, and a super amazing person and cook.

Rural Georgia is a place I want to get back to. If nothing more, then to eat some damn good boiled shrimp, and visit with an amazing friend.

Cheers to you Cat.  And Thank You.

I wasn't kidding.

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“Shoot” (v.) = Photograph (v.)

January 8, 2010

Instead of making this impossibly difficult, as I’ve  been successfully doing for the past six months (most blog for enjoyment-they do not spend 180 days pining for the perfect first sentence), I’m just going to do it.  Nike had a point.  Seriously.

Three weeks ago I had the perfect adventure for a cool “first post.”  I was on the plane heading to a shoot in 14 degree Idaho.  My travel would be through a mountain pass, where “strong winds and snow could make it impassable.”  I was warned to fill up with gas at  the weigh station, and beware of zero cell phone service for an hour, and, to bring warm clothes in case I broke down because “you might have to wait a while to be rescued.” Lovely.  And i hate cold.  On the other side of the pass was my subject:  a pony that visits nursing homes and children with disabilities.

Of course,  that’s when it all came to me-on an airsick bag, at 30,000 feet, ten minutes before landing.  The words came gushing. I hunched over the tray table, scribbling madly, covering my words from Mr. Wandering Eyes in 14E.  I  filled  front, back and bottom of the bag.  Conveniently that’s when the tray tables had to go up.  Ecstatic that I’d finally turned thoughts into a soon-to-be-published-melange-of-pointless-sentences that would  be joining a million other blogs about useless info, I took a photograph of the bag.  I was triumphant – ready to post words and picture when I got to the hotel.  That night WordPress and i engaged in our first serious quarrel.  An hour later, I lost.

But, I have overcome.  And here I am, with my second cool post possibility. Again I’m writing from the plane, this time on the back of the printed directions to the house of the woman I’m supposed to meet.  I couldn’t find the airsick bag, which, after finding out that I now have to PAY for a blanket and a pillow on US Airways, I was afraid to ask for.  So, again from a plane, again with the original pen and paper we all used to use;  and again, from the beginning of an adventure.  This time:  “Rural Georgia,” as my contact puts it.

So, I am going to use this white space for me.  To share some of the things I get to see and do.  I am privileged in that not only do I get to be the photo editor of an amazing children’s magazine, but, I also get to shoot some of our stories.  Kids like animals, so there you have it.  I photograph animals. I photograph people too, but, it’s the animal adventures that swirl in my head begging to be told.  I end up in the middle of nowhere.  I get pulled over for speeding while stopping to check out a bald eagle.  I see wild coyotes.  I get doused in shit by a pelican above.  I get on the ground with hyaenas.  I get a peek in to living rooms and lives that I’d otherwise never know exist.  Those who know me no longer bat an eye when I say I’m going to shoot a dog that climbs trees, or a duck and a bunny that are best friends.  But, no one ever gets to hear the stories.

So, here they will be.  My tales from the road, and other wacky places, and sometimes, my personal stories from Africa.  I will post randomly-mostly when I’m on a shoot, or shooting something worth talking about. So check back every once in a while-hopefully you’ll enjoy the ride as much as I do.

We are landing.  Next:  Rural Georgia.

–ps:  forgive me if sometimes i screw up the formatting.  WordPress and I are on speaking terms, but not fully recovered.