In 2001 I was assigned to photograph a cave rescue seminar – part of a Wilderness Medicine Conference to demonstrate cave rescues to other doctors – on the north end of Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. I showed up wearing a waterproof jacket, boots I could get mucky, khaki pants and of course my camera gear. I chatted with the spelunkers who were going to be leading myself and a reporter deep into the limestone caverns and when we were about ready to go, our guide turned to me and said something along the lines of, “Is that really what you’re going to wear?” followed by, “Can your camera get wet?”
I had spent a sleepless night before thinking about the possibility of the tiny spaces I was going to be crawling through, and I had thought about the possibility of getting a bit damp, but I was shocked by his questions.
“This is all I have to wear,” was my reply to the clothes issue and “Well… My gear can’t really get wet,” was my reply to the other. “How wet are we going to get?”
“We have to ascend an underground waterfall,” was his answer.
Knowing I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go caving, between us all we scrounged up one small waterproof box that was just big enough for me to put a camera body in and one lens – my fixed 20mm. No flash.
This was back when I was shooting first generation Nikon D1s – possibly the worst digital camera ever made. They could barely take a picture in daylight let alone in the pitch blackness of the underworld. And no flash. I shot everything using headlamps, both my own and those of my fellow explorers. In the end, although my pictures were strong enough to carry A1, I still had a long conversation with the photo director about being prepared and not having strobes with me.
It is one of my favorite photo memories and it’s this kind of not knowing what adventure might be around the corner that keeps me addicted to journalism. I had never been in a real cave before, and I had definitely never scaled an underground waterfall. The caverns we climbed into were massive worlds under the earth. It was humbling and exhilarating.
I was reminded of this adventure after following a link off of one of my favorite blogs, A Photo Editor (here), earlier today. The link took me back, deep into the world below us. Only this time the photos rock. I had never thought about how the only real way to capture underground caves is through photography.
Below are two videos, both by photographer Stephen Alvarez. In the first he describes the project he has been working on for years, “Earth from Below.”
The second is maybe only cool to us photo nerds. It’s short and awesome.
For more of his pictures and bio information, check out his Web site (here).
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