Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.
So much of photography is about being there. So it was with frame number 9,756 for the "Edge of the World" story about the Hebrides for National Geographic.
In this case, being there—getting to the island of Boreray—was no small deal. I know people who have been trying to get there for ten years running and still have been defeated by the stormy Atlantic. They make the pilgrimage to the nearby Isle of Harris and book passage with Angus Campbell, who can get you there if anyone can. Sometimes they wait days without a break in the weather that would allow a boat to land. They go home defeated, with the island still a only distant, unseen mystery.
Let me situate you. Beyond the bulk of the Outer Hebrides islands of Scotland, flung another 40 miles [64 kilometers] beyond, is the St. Kilda island group, that loneliest cluster of remote islands left forlorn and deserted in human memory. The wild winds blow freely, clear across the Atlantic for 3,000 miles [4,800 kilometers] before they meet Boreray. When they do, they are lifted by the unrelenting rocks to form clouds that swirl around the crags. Two sea stacks flank the island like jagged canines thrusting viciously out of the sea.
No wonder St. Kilda is a World Heritage site. The sheer wildness of the place, the profusion of seabirds, and its unrelenting beauty would qualify the place easily. But added to that is the melancholy, heartbreaking saga of the islanders leaving their ancestral home in 1930, a tale I will tell in the coming days.
For all these reasons, I wanted to see Boreray. But I wanted to see it in glorious light. It finally dawned on me why I had seen no pictures of Boreray at sunrise or sunset: everybody takes a day trip to the island. They leave Harris in the morning and are back by late afternoon. My only solution would be to charter a boat so I could be there at sunset, stay overnight in the bay of Hirta (the big island of the St. Kilda archipelago), and catch the sunrise as well. Fortunately I found Seamus Morrison of SeaHarris who also does excursions to St. Kilda and was willing to make the trip—and a great traveling companion he was.
The island of Boreray itself is all about mystery. But in many ways, on the surface, shooting frame 9,756 was easy. See the incredible light. Point the camera at the incredible light. Push the button.
As I said, much of photography is about being there. But that can mean more than mere geography. Your mind has to be there, too, in sync with what you are seeing. And my mind wasn't there. Some of this was because right when we arrived at Boreray the light had been wonderful and the bird colony just magnificent. (I'll write about that later, also.) So I was primed for glorious scenes and wasn't inclined to settle for less.
But now as the sun was setting I was not seeing the Boreray I wanted to see. There it was in front of me, but the island was hidden, shrouded in clouds. I had just one sunset, this sunset, to photograph Boreray—and I couldn't see the island!
So I nearly didn't take frame number 9,756. It is an odd weakness that sometimes overcomes photographers. We are looking so hard for one thing that we can be standing right in front of another equally good photograph and not see it. And so as we circled the island that evening as the clouds dropped ever lower and the light turned morose and gray, I nearly gave up.
Then, for just a couple of minutes, the light at the bottom of the clouds turned this glorious red. I shot a few frames—to console myself for a lost opportunity as much as anything. It was nice scene but simple, not what I thought I wanted. I went to sleep that night, sure that I had botched my opportunity. I still had hopes for a great sunrise, but I awoke at 4 a.m. to a dead-gray, unrelenting, overcast sky.
I was done at Boreray.
The next chapter in the life of frame 9,756 came much later, back in Washington, when we were editing the pictures and producing the layouts for the Outer Hebrides story. Remembering my lost chance to see Boreray unobscured, I found frame 9,756. There was something about the simplicity and color that spoke to the mystery of the place. Frame 9,756 stayed in the selects and was shown to the editors.
Then we got to layout, the point of working through the flow of the story. After two opening spreads we needed an image to set the tone for the opening of the first text spread. This required a different sort of image. Grand gestures and heroic statements usually look out of place here. The goal is for the image to set the mood, to entice the reader into savoring the story. If we were working on a symphony, this would be the moment for the quiet interlude that comes after the crashing opening. We needed to set the stage for the main theme.
Suddenly frame 9,756 looked very good. I don't remember who suggested it for that spot in the layout. It was either Sarah or John, but it wasn't me. However, once I saw it there, this photograph made all the sense in the world. Now the clouds circling the islands had a purpose, and the mystery they implied fit nicely with Lynne Warren's poignant narrative.
I wish I could say, "I knew it all along." I wish I could say that, standing there on the boat on the pitching seas that evening, I could see the need for just such an image and that I knew in my heart that I had captured it. Such are the tales of photographic derring-do. But not often for me.
The Hebrides are a place of mysteries and secrets. Frame 9,756 is about one of those mysteries. I had to learn to accept that. In spite of myself I got the image that I should have wanted all along. Sometimes the whole process is still a mystery to me.