How Camille Seaman Became a Storm Chaser
Photographer Camille Seaman has a viral TED Talk, a new book, and an uncanny knowledge of weather and storms.
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Name: Camille Seaman
Home Base: Emeryville, California and County Clare, Ireland
Education: Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography from the State University of New York at Purchase
In 2008, photographer Camille Seaman was vacuuming her living room when her eight-year-old daughter spotted storm chasers on TV. Seaman, taken by the color and quality of light in the footage, said, “Wow, look at that.” Her daughter responded, earnestly, “Mom, you should do that.”
Seaman, who’d spent the previous decade photographing the Arctic and the Antarctic for publications like National Geographic, went online and found a guy in Oklahoma who led tornado-chasing tours. His upcoming trips were all sold out, but Seaman emailed anyway and asked to be put on a waiting list. He wrote back: “Can you be here in three days?” So she hopped a flight from California’s Bay Area to Oklahoma to chase her first storm, a hobby that would soon transform her career.
She stopped storm chasing in 2014, but the images she captured during those years can now be seen in a new book, The Big Cloud, published in May. Her 2013 TED Talk about photographing storms has been watched more than 1.6 million times. Seaman is now living in Ireland working on her first novel, but we spoke to her during a brief visit back home in California.
On What It Feels Like to be a Storm Chaser: “We’d pull into these towns and inevitably, we’d stand out. We have this equipment on our car that’s known for storm chasing. People either saw us as a bad omen or they’d say, ‘Is it coming our way?’ There is nothing more frightening than hearing those storm sirens go off. You have all this warm, moist air being sucked into the plains, you have rotating clouds. You can feel the warm air against your back, being pulled into the storm. You end up with this lotto machine, with balls of hail that get bigger and bigger. The clouds become turquoise and green.”
On the Challenges of Shooting Epic Storms: “These storms are 50 miles wide, so it’s almost impossible to fit that into a 24-mm lens on a full-frame camera. There is no time to set up a tripod. You have to steady yourself in blowing winds. Clouds are a little forgiving, but it’s very dark. A lot of the images are taken with the camera wide open.”
On Nailing the Shot: “I like images that don’t look overworked or manipulated. The storm is already so amazing, there’s no need to accentuate it. I look for images that capture the structure and compositional balance and have a sensitivity to color and light. When you get the shot, you feel it. There’s a lot of screaming and enthusiasm, and not from fear.”
On What Else She Saw: “We are traveling through middle America that has been lost by the side of the freeway. These are little one-stoplight towns. It’s this whole other cultural trip. You see these places that were once boom towns that have totally dried up.”
On the One Item She Brings Everywhere: “You’re on the road every night in a different place. So I would bring my own pillow case. It’s something that can help you sleep better and feel more relaxed in a strange place. And I always carry microwave popcorn for an easy snack.”
On Her Level of Risk Tolerance: “I grew up always knowing to respect nature and its power. At no point did I feel brazen, like I’m invincible. I wasn’t stupid. At the same time, in storm chasing, you want to stay on the chasing side. You don’t want to become chased. That can pivot very quickly. As careful as you can want to be, sometimes that’s irrelevant.”
On Her Craziest Day on the Job: “One day, we were watching this storm sucking in air in South Dakota. Then all of a sudden, the guy who was leading us was like, ‘Get in the car now.’ Within a few seconds, that warm air was cut off like a faucet and a huge cold blast of air came out of the clouds toward our faces. That was a sign that the storm was about to get more intense. We drove 95 miles per hour and I could see this dark cloud of dust behind us. We’d stop for ten seconds, take a picture, get back in, drive like mad. At the end of the day, as we were driving, something felt weird. I got out and the back wheel was being held on by one lug nut.”
On the Good Luck Token All Storm Chasers Carry: “All the serious chasers on their first day of a big chase will go into one of those arcades where you try to grab the stuffed animal with a claw. You grab an animal and that becomes your mascot. If you have a good chase, that’s the mascot to keep. You attach this mascot to the grill of your car and it does not leave. We had this purple monkey. He was pummeled by hail, lost body parts, and was attached to that hood for the whole season.”
On Misconceptions About Storm Chasing: “You see these guys on TV who are screaming, ‘Go faster, we’re going to die!’ That’s not me. I don’t need that in my life. I tend to go with people who are calm, respond well under pressure, don’t freak out. I had the same crew for years. We would say, ‘This doesn’t feel right. Does anyone disagree with us bailing on this storm?’
On Why She Stopped Chasing Storms: “When Tim Samaras died in El Reno in 2013 , that storm felt like a wake-up call. From the beginning of that day, I felt like something was off. That was the first time that my daughter texted me to make sure I was OK. I tried to chase the following year, but when we were out there, it was like I had lost my nerve. I missed a lot of great opportunities because I wouldn’t get close enough. I could feel that I was done. Suddenly I wasn’t so excited to sit in a car for ten hours, eat bad food, and stay in a motel with bed bugs—all things you have to do when you’re storm chasing.”
On Her Next Project: “After eight years of absence, I went back to Antarctica. I’m looking at what’s changed there. I’ve been spending time near the Equator and islands that are threatened by the rising sea level. This September, I will go back to Greenland for the first time since 2010. In Antarctica, it felt like there was more precipitation, it’s not as cold. The penguins seemed to carry on in their way and it’s still beautiful, but it felt more melty.”