A few summers ago, I was attacked by a batch of furious birds.
They dive bombed me from above—such vicious arctic terns with sharp and vengeful beaks, who struck the top of my head with such force that little drops of blood trickled down the side of my face.
It really hurt.
Now—all these years later—I have returned to this same, small flat island in Iceland and reactiv ely flinched at the swooping terns overhead.
Beyond the spare white church, a bunch of laughing, blonde children scurry from the screeching birds. Like a Japanese tour guide, the tallest of them totes a tall wooden stake in the air, a diversionary target for the angry birds—they always strike at the highest point. And so the birds rush and dive bomb the piece of wood as the children run for cover.
The terns nest throughout the coast of Iceland, laying their eggs in rudimentary piles of shallow stones. On tiny Flatey, half the island is roped off in the summertime, in order to protect the nesting grounds from intruders.
Today, Annie and I are the intruders, venturing into the edge of the birds’ territory, following the haunting screams of the soaring birds. I imagine we offer an imposing sight, this woman with a blue coat and bright pink headband and then me in my pessimistic black raincoat and a knit cap, following behind like a curious puppy.
Typically, I work and travel alone—and I suspect Annie does, too—but Iceland has brought us together and landed us both on this very small rock in the middle of Breiðafjörður, the largest and widest fjord in Iceland. In concentric circles, we are standing in a green field, surrounded by the rocky beach, surrounded by the vast blue-grey sea, surrounded by faraway walls of black volcanic mountains, marbled with snow.
Like the wave of a white silk fan, an arctic tern hops out of the shin-high grass, and hovers above the shiny green tufts, upset by our presence.
“Maybe you’re a little bit shy?” Annie speaks aloud to the bird, almost listening for a response. The bird flits about nervously, holding a bit off fluff in her beak, carried so far to soften her nest.
“I think we’ll just hunker down here for a bit,” Annie instructs, and then drops to the ground, crouching up against an old fence post and tangle of barbed wire. No matter the blue coat or darkened glasses. She has disappeared her body into the natural shapes of the island, erasing herself from the timid tern’s view.
Annie Griffiths has been shooting photos for National Geographic almost as long as I have been alive. Perhaps we have only just met in person, but already, I feel like I know Annie so well—I grew up with her photographs, read the articles and books that she photographed and edited, and followed her assignments over the years. Some of her images are simply iconic—readers around the world would easily recognize them as “the ones from National Geographic.”
And now, like some far-fetched dream come true, I am here in Iceland, with Annie—a person and face and mind to match the byline I have known since I was a child. Together, we are hugging the ground and inhaling the peaty soil of this small Icelandic island, trying desperately not to alarm this flighty bird, who has now descended back onto her nest, some fifteen feet away.
Like an unflinching archer, Annie aims with her camera, lens pointed to the spot where she anticipates the bird will hop. I watch her incredible concentration, see her hands hold the camera like you’d hold a newborn’s head, ready, waiting.
I feel like I am watching some sacred ritual unfold. Like a hunter stalking a deer, the photographer is barely breathing, still hiding herself against that wooden post, watching the world through the viewfinder, a solid finger on the trigger.
Together we wait for more than ten minutes, utterly silent. Patience is principle in photography—I always remind myself that I must wait for the right picture to happen—but in practice, it feels so slow and uneventful, like fishing all day without a bite.
We wait, and wait and then—
- Nat Geo Expeditions
—the bird takes off.
Schlick, schlick, schlick—Annie’s shutter chops aloud in the air. I notice that she shoots with her left eye, and unlike so many of us, she does not pull away immediately from the camera. Instead, she just sits there, unmoving and smiles, so gently.
One day shooting with Annie and I have noticed this. She smiles a little after every frame. The bird has flown, the moment is over, but Annie has captured all of it through her lens. A kind of sharing has occurred—the bird has given Annie her image, and in return, Annie has granted the bird a voice.
And just like that, in one shot, the story has changed. These are not angry birds, but merely shy—they are not waging a war against my forehead, but simply guarding their best hopes and greatest work—the optimistic eggs in the tall grass.
Annie and I retreat from the nesting grounds, away from the painful cry of the terns and the newborn chicks hiding away unseen. Annie has just delivered my first photography lessons—that great pictures come with great patience, to never frighten your subject, and to always tell a story that is fair.
And so next time, when I return to Flatey, rather than remember the angry birds drawing blood from my head, I will remember this—crouching in the ground behind Annie, barely breathing, becoming practically invisible and waiting—waiting for the bird, waiting for the shot.