A Decade of Gratitude

My brother, John, and I a decade ago. 

Today I came across this picture of my brother and I taken just before Thanksgiving 2007.

This photo seems pretty basic - a posed picture for a family Christmas card. But looking at it now - with the knowledge of what transpired over the last 10 years - fills me with happiness, sadness and immense gratitude.

Pictures like this have a way of glossing over the real story. The real story was that was a strange Thanksgiving.

My brother, a Marine Lieutenant at the time, had just returned from his first tour in Iraq. I had just started my career as a traveling filmmaker and photojournalist.

We were both going through a lot of change in our lives and had yet to learn how to process it.

It's a Thanksgiving I barely remember. It was the first thanksgiving we spent without the extended Heald family, and the only one where we didn’t eat turkey (we had steak instead). I wouldn't remember it at all, I don't think, without this picture.

When I look at the image today, I see two kids completely unaware and unready for what was to come. At lot has changed since the shutter clicked on this image. 

Since this picture was taken, my brother spent another 8 months in Iraq. He lost a Marine, not in the war, but to suicide later. He has had two civilian jobs, including the one he currently has in commercial real estate. He married my sister-in-law in 2011, and together they have a vivacious almost-3-year-old.

I, on the other hand, have worked in 40 countries and all but three American states (I'm coming for you Rhode Island, Utah and New Mexico). I have been to two Olympic Games and five Super Bowls. I have met people from every walk of life in every corner of the globe. I became an aunt and a Godmother.

Collectively we have lost three grandparents (one on Thanksgiving Day 2010) and a great grandmother. We have watched cousins get married and start careers. We have mourned deaths and celebrated births. We've both made decisions - good and bad - that have led us to where we are now.

My brother is living and working in Tampa. He has found his own community, built his own career and created his own family.

I am renovating an old house in Jacksonville, where my north Florida roots run deep. In all my travels, home has always remained constant. The shores of the Atlantic - the beaches of my childhood - have kept me sane in a chaotic world.

Together and apart we have begun our own stories.

Today my brother and I will meet for a family Thanksgiving. We will drink Bloody Mary’s (a family tradition), eat turkey, take new family photos, and give thanks for all that has passed and all there is to come.

Happy Thanksgiving!

HOLIDAY Shopping

One of the prints available in this year's Little Laura Heald holiday sale. Apply the promo code HOLIDAY at checkout to receive a 25% discount.

Each year I go into the holidays determined to get my holiday shopping done early, and each year I find myself scrambling at the last minute to finish my list.

If you're like me, I'm here to help. Buy a fine art print from the online store now through the end of the year for a 25% discount. Simply apply the code HOLIDAY at checkout and get your shopping done early.

There are 16 prints available on the online store.

There is a selection of new and old prints in the gallery, including this year's Great American Eclipse, a group of infrared images from my home in Florida, and - my personal favorite - an Icelandic Pony.

If you don't see what you're looking for, just let me know. I want everyone to have a happy holiday full of love, laughter and photographic art prints!

Marathon Women

Little Laura Heald at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Last Sunday Shalane Flanagan broke the tape at the New York City Marathon finish line two hours and twenty six minutes after the race began, becoming the first American woman to win the coveted race in forty years.

I’ve always cheered for Shalane. I’ve never met her, but her mother - Cheryl Treworgy - is one of my favorite people.

I first met Cheryl at the 2008 United States Track and Field Olympic Trials in Eugene, OR.

She was one of the roughly two dozen sports photographers covering the event.

The Olympic Trials in Eugene, OR, was one of the first major sporting events I covered, and my only real-world practice running cameras and transmitting images before the Beijing Olympics later that summer.

I met Cheryl on the first day of the event as Bill introduced me to everyone we would be working along side for the 10 day event. Cheryl was immediately kind and helpful. Maybe it was because I was clearly the youngest person there. Maybe it was because she and I were two of the only women photographers. Maybe she could tell I was nervous and a little overwhelmed by all the events at a track and field meet. Regardless, she helped me decipher all the events - where they were starting and ending, what angles were available and who the best athletes were.

She seemed to know not just a lot about the sport, but a lot about individual athletes.

“You know that song, ‘Hey There Delilah,’” she asked me as we were photographing the women's 3000m steeplechase?

I nodded, it was a very popular song in 2008.

“It was written about her,” she said pointing to runner Delilah DiCrescenzo.

She had other tidbits about training schedules, personalities and competitiveness.

I didn't know just how connected Cheryl was until the first final of the event - the women's 10,000m.

The women's 10,000m is always the first final and always on the first night.

That night in Eugene was a lovely summer evening, cook enough for a fleece and perfectly clear.

It had been a busy day of heats on the track and finals in the field, so I was scrambling to finish transmitting before the opening gun. When I got back to the track I saw Bill and Cheryl laughing together before Cheryl walked across the track to the infield to a “good luck” from Bill.

“Good luck,” I asked back to Bill, confused?

“Her daughter is Shalane Flanagan,” he told me. “She’s the favorite to win tonight.”

Shalane Flanagan leads the pack of 10,000m runners. Kara Goucher and Amy Begley finished second and third at the Trials.

Turns out Cheryl isn’t just the mother of a runner who happens to follow the sport. Cheryl was herself a runner. In 1966, she became the first female athlete in the U.S. to receive an athletic scholarship to a public university — Indiana State University. Then in 1971 she ran her first marathon, won it and set a world record with a time of 2:49:40.

That night in Eugene, Shalane followed in the family footsteps and won the 10,000m race, earning her spot on the US Olympic Team.

Fast forward to Beijing a month and a half later. It’s opening night in the Bird’s Nest. The morning had been full of heats on the track and events on the field. The women’s 10,000 meter - as always - was the last event from the first day of track and field. It was a cool night in Beijing, the lights from the Olympic Village bounced off the haze that constantly covers the city.

I came out of the photo room just before the first gun to watch the runner introductions.

I went back in as the runners circled the track, watching the progress from the media room as I made sure images kept sending. With a couple laps left I went back outside.

The media area and the athlete’s area were right next to each other in Beijing. I watched as runners from Ethiopia and Turkey crossed the finish line first. After gold and silver finished a couple runners who were a lap behind followed. Then Shalane crossed and looked up to the athletic area and found a man standing directly in front of me. He held up three fingers, signifying her third place finish. She burst into tears and a wide smile as an American flag was handed to her.

Shalane Flanagan runs around the track at the Bird's Nest after winning the bronze medal. That bronze is now a silver after a disqualification was handed to Turkey's Elvan Abeylegesse (who originally finished second) for doping.

The big screen cut to Cheryl who was bouncing, crying and hugging friends and family from the stands. It was and is one of my favorite moments from the 2008 Olympic Games.

As I watched Shalane cross the finish line in New York last week, I could imagine Cheryl, laughing, crying and celebrating. Like mother, like daughter. Two of the fastest women to ever run in America.

Noche de los Muertos

Noche de los Muertos in Tsin Tsun Tsan, México.

On this day last year I was waking up late to the sounds of Lake Pátzcuaro gently lapping against the wall of my boat house bedroom outside Tsin Tsun Tsan, México.

Our hotel on beautiful Lake Pátzcuaro. My room was in the bottom of the boat house, just over the water.

The night before had been out of a dream. November 1 - el noche del muerto - is a sacred night in the “Magic Cities” of Michoacán around massive Lake Pátzcuaro.

Bill and I were in México working on a series of videos for an educational company out of Morelia. One of the videos was to focus around Michoacán (the state) and it’s many cultural treasures. El Noche del los Muertos was on the top of our list of necessary documentations.

Our night started late - just before midnight. We grabbed a couple cameras and face paint (at least I did) and headed into the city of Tsin Tsun Tsan.

Me and my Catrina face paint, lit by the candles of Tsin Tsun Tsan.

We had spent a lot of time there in the days leading up to el noche del muerto. We had bought local pottery to bring home and watched as the cemetery in the center of the city turned into a beautiful forest of marigold altars.

The busy Tsin Tsun Tsan cemetery the day before.

When we pulled into  town just after midnight on November 2, the streets were full of visitors and locals observing the tradition.

It was a strange mix of wild party and sacred ritual. The streets were noisy, full of music, food and mezcal. But as soon as everyone entered the cemetery, the mood changed. Hordes of people reverently walked among the candlelit graves.

We weaved through the cemetery, taking pictures and video clips as we went. Stopping here and there to talk to people.

A woman in Tsin Tsun Tsan on el Noche de los Muertos.

The altars were full of flowers, candles, pictures, food and drinks. Some families even played music or hired mariachi bands to play their loved one's favorite songs. The scene was lively and fun, but somehow sacred and reverent at the same time.

The crowd, while large, seemed to respect the tradition and the people partaking in it.

From Tsin Tsun Tsan we went back to our hotel where a boat was coming to pick us up to take us to a small island on the lake.

We boarded the boat just before 2am. I walked right past my bedroom to get onboard, part of me wishing I was just going to bed.

The boat ride was a boisterous few minutes. Most of the people in our group weren’t working. They were there for fun and were drinking enough mezcal to prove it.

We offloaded on a tiny island with a steep hill. It was cold outside and getting colder. We all quietly walked up towards the cemetery. As we approached, the top of a giant cross made out of marigold’s became visible in the candlelight.

We were the only visitors on the island. The graveyard was small, lit only by the soft glow of homemade candles, and full of local residents honoring the deceased. It was a chilling and beautiful sight.

Our group, full of jokes on the ride over, was silent. This was clearly a sacred place.

A man smokes a cigarette by his family's altar on a Lake Pátzcuaro island.

I separated myself from our party. I wanted to experience this place on my own. I stood in the center of the cemetery and watched as the local Purepecha residents drank coffee, fixed candles, warmed themselves under blankets and touched the pictures of their lost loved ones.

The place felt distant and intimate. I felt like I didn’t belong there and like I was part of the place all at once. It was a strange, out-of-body-like experience.

A woman among the candles on el Noche de los Muertos.

We didn’t stay long. I think everyone felt the same.

We walked around the grounds, took a handful of pictures, and got back on the boat to return to the hotel.

Once back across the lake, everyone quietly went to their respective rooms. I was exhausted but somehow not ready for bed. I sat on the cold dock for a while afterwards, watching the candles burn in the distance, each island a flickering orange light in the water.

When I woke the next morning (afternoon), it all seemed far away; like a dream you can’t quite piece together.

The Budda

Carrying a Nikon 400mm while on assignment in Plantation, FL, in 2012.

Last night I watched the Thursday Night Football game between Baltimore and Miami, and a memory was jogged.

One name kept getting called - Alex Collins, the second-year, former practice squad running back for the Baltimore Ravens.

“Alex Collins up the middle for 6 yards…Alex Collins gashes the defense for 22 yards…Alex Collins…Alex Collins…Alex Collins…”

Every time I heard his name - Alex Collins - I said the name “Budda” (pronounced like the founder of Buddhism) in my head.

I met Alex “The Budda” Collins in 2012 when he was a senior at South Plantation High School. Bill and I spent three days in Plantation, FL, to do a video on one of his good friends - third string quarterback Erin DiMeglio.

Erin was the first female quarterback in Florida (and possibly American) high school football history, and she played the part well. She was tough. The 18-year-old had already suffered a broken nose, a concussion, and dislocated fingers on the basketball court with South Plantation's girls' varsity team. She had played flag football since the 4th grade and had been a football team manager before suiting up as a backup quarterback.

We arrived in Plantation the Thursday before the game to shoot practice. Our first order of business was to find the coach, Doug Gatewood. He knew we were coming, but we wanted to make sure we didn’t get in the way of practice.

We shook hands with Coach Gatewood, then he pointed to the locker rooms, “Here they come now. That’s Erin on the right and Alex Collins on the left.”

Coach waved them over and introduced us.

“Erin, meet the folks from Sports Illustrated.”

We shook her hand first, introducing ourselves then turned to Alex. 

“Hey, I’m Laura,” I told him.

“Alex,” he said back with a warm smile.

“But we call him Budda,” Erin quickly corrected, “because of his belly.”

She slapped him in his stomach and ran onto the field laughing.

Alex shrugged, the same warm smile on his face, told us it was a pleasure to meet us, and jogged up behind her. 

Erin helps Alex “The Budda” get his shoulder pads on.

We ended up spending three days in Plantation. It was fun to watch the team relationship with a girl on the roster. The boys clearly loved having Erin around. She was hugged, teased and protected; welcomed as a teammate and friend. 

Erin in the middle of a team huddle.

In out time at South Plantation High School, we got to know a couple players, but we talked to Erin and Alex the most.

Erin was focused on school. She was a dual enrollment student, taking college courses at her high school. Unlike some of her teammates, she knew football at the next level wasn’t an option. She talked instead of academic or basketball scholarships; whatever it took to get to a university.

Alex, on the other hand, was weighing options. One day after Erin talked about the colleges she was looking at, I asked Alex what his plan was for the next level.

“I don’t know,” he said, running his hands down his face, clearly exasperated.

Erin and Alex talk to friends in the hallway of South Plantation High School.

He had talked to coaches at the University of Florida and Florida State, but no offers had been made (they were made later). He thought maybe he’d go to Miami. Maybe Louisville. Maybe Arkansas. He was clearly unsettled.

Other guys on the team, like starting quarterback John Franklin III, had already committed to Florida State (he is now at Florida Atlantic University, his fourth college) so Collins was feeling the pressure to make a decision.

After the story ran, I didn’t think much about it. Then, the following year, I started hearing a familiar name on TV - Alex Collins. Alex had chosen the University of Arkansas and - based on his freshman year in which he won SEC Freshman of the Year honors - it looked like the right one.

He had three successful years at Arkansas, but his performances were often overshadowed by the bigger named backs like Derrick Henry of Alabama and Leonard Fournette of Louisiana State. Still, he kept posting consistently good numbers regardless of whether anyone was watching.

In 2016 Collins was taken in the fifth round of the NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks.

He had a quiet rookie season before being waved by the Seahawks on September 2 of this year. Three days later the Baltimore Ravens signed him to their practice squad. Ten days after that he was on the active roster after the Ravens lost Danny Woodhead to injury.

His carries started slow after he fumbled the ball a couple times. But the Ravens kept him on and Budda kept playing his game.

Last night he had the best game of his career - 18 carries for 113 yards and 30 receiving yards. He currently leads the NFL in yards per carry.

The uncertain kid I met five years ago is certainly making his mark.

The 63 Club

An iPhone double exposure made in a pizza restaurant somewhere along the Sterling highway in Alaska.

In October of 2012, writer Tim Layden called us. He was worried. One of the longest standing NFL records was on the brink of being broken, and he wanted to tell it’s story before that happened.

It’s a record that had stood since 1970 when Tom Dempsey, a club-footed kicker for the New Orleans Saints, booted a 63-yard field goal to beat the Detroit Lions 19-17 on November 8.

Since then, only three other kickers had ever managed kicks of 63 yards - Jason Elam, Sebastian Janikowsky and David Akers.

We talked the story over and decided to all travel together to the four kickers in three locations - Janikowski and Akers were both in the Bay Area, kicking for Oakland and San Francisco, respectively. We would all work together to interview them each on camera. This made it more economical from a budget standpoint, and more likely that each of the players would agree to the story since they would only have to sit for one, not two, interviews.

We wanted it to be simple. Video interviews, historical images and a voice-over by Tim to connect the stories.

Our first stop was New Orleans to visit with Tom Dempsey. He lived in a small house decorated with his football paraphernalia, including his specially made shoe.

Tom Dempsey's custom kicking shoe, one of his memorabilia saved from Hurricane Katrina when his home flooded.

Tom Dempsey's custom kicking shoe, one of his memorabilia saved from Hurricane Katrina when his home flooded.

Dempsey at the time was suffering from the early signs of dementia. When we first arrived he seemed scattered and suspicious, ranting about the NFL bureaucracy, Democrats and everything in between. But he settled down and talked easily about the kick - a known clear spot in his foggy memory.

He told us about the late night he and his teammates had had the night before - they had just fired their coach - the hangover he was nursing during the game, the dusty ground he kicked off of and being carried off the field after his improbably game-winning kick.

Tom Dempsey in his galley kitchen in New Orleans, LA.

From there we went to northern California. David Akers and Sebastian Janikowski were in the middle of their respective seasons, so we had to find a week when they were both home and available.

We went to Janikowski first. He is a famously difficult person to track down. He would always give media time, but on his terms. He’s not rude, just very short and to the point.

We waited outside the Oakland practice facility as the team finished working. We watched the entire team return to the locker room, but no Jano. We waited longer. Finally, he came out.

“So you want to take a picture,” he finally came out to ask wearing his jersey and a backwards hat.

He took us out to the empty practice field and showed us the field goal uprights.

“This will work,” he said in his famous Polish accent, allowing no room for discussion.

It was 1pm in Oakland, California. The sun was shining in a cloudless sky. It was an almost impossible situation from a portrait standpoint. Regardless, Bill positioned him under the upright and took as many frames as Sebastian allowed.

Sebastian Janikowski in Oakland, CA.

From there we moved inside for the interview.

As we set up we talked about his college years at FSU and his home in Jacksonville, FL, where he and his wife live in the off-season. He reminisced with Bill and Tim about his younger, wilder years in Tallahassee.

“Everyone grows up,” he said with a chuckle.

He then told us his wife had given birth to twin girls a couple weeks before and he was looking forward to getting home to them. We worked quickly and he answered every questions perfectly.

We talked about his kick - a 63-yard kick against the Denver Broncos on a rainy day in Denver on September 12, 2011.

“I didn't really hit it that good,” he told us, “but the ball goes an extra 7, 8 yards there [Denver].”

He went on to predict that whoever would eventually break the record would do so in Denver. He thought the altitude and thin air made it easier than other stadiums.

We met David Akers the next day, who was one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met. His 63-yarder bounced off the cross-bar and through the upright in Green Bay just before halftime against the Packers on September 9, 2012. He was the newest member of the 63-yard club.

Akers had his family at the practice facility that day. His kids and wife all had on Akers jerseys so we included them in the photo, which doubled as their Christmas card that year.

David Akers with his kids, Luke, Sawyer and Halley.

Our last stop was Alaska to catch up with retired Denver Broncos kicker Matt Elam.

I was upgraded to first class on our very early flight out of Jacksonville. I got on the plane as soon as I could and rested my head against the window, ready for a nap. I watched as people filtered on the plane. Then, a tall and somehow familiar man got on. I knew his face, but couldn’t place him. He sat down next to me and I saw him put his backpack under the seat. It was an official Jacksonville Jaguars team bag with #10 on it. I was sitting next to Josh Scobee, beloved Jaguars kicker.

I chuckled and he looked up.

“You’re my favorite Jaguar,” I told him, adding, “You score points.”

He laughed, said thanks, and extended his hand in introduction.

Bill was sitting across the aisle so we all started talking. We told him about the story we were working on, the personalities we had met. We discussed each kick, Scobee dissecting the conditions of each one.

We told him our hope for the beginning of the video was to get a close-up of a foot hitting a ball in slow motion.

“I’ll do that for you,” he told us. “When you get back just call up the office and tell them I already agreed to the shoot and we’ll set it up.”

We arrived in Alaska on a cold but clear October day. We got all of our stuff and Tim, and took off for the Kenai Peninsula to meet up with Jason Elam, who had moved there after retirement.

Elam’s kick came on October 28, 1998, just before halftime against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Denver. He was the first kicker to join Dempsey in the record books.

As soon as we left Anchorage, the drive became a series of Ooohs and Ahhhs from Bill, Tim and I. If you’ve never been to Alaska, go to Alaska. Every turn is stunning. It was taking us so long to drive the what-should-have-been two hours to Elam’s house that we had to stop taking pictures (which is a real shame).

An iPhone pano image taken just outside of Anchorage.

On top of the amazing landscape was a plethora of wildlife. A buffalo here, a moose there. I felt like I was driving through a national park (which we may have been).

Elam and his wife, Tamy, decided to move their family to Alaska in 2010. They love the outdoors and the quiet lifestyle. They hunt, fish and home-school their five children. The home is full of animals they have killed (and eaten). They have two satellite dishes on their home, but Jason doesn’t watch the NFL. He got his fill in his 17 seasons in the league.

Jason Elam on his dock in Soldotna, Alaska

Of the kickers, we spent the most time with Elam. He’s the only one who’s retired and healthy. He showed us around his property, then took us to the small local airport where he keeps his two planes.

“Does one of you want to go for a ride,” he asked Bill and I?

The backseat of his two-seat plane was tiny, so I got the nod.

The plane was glass on all sides, so their was always a view. There was not a view, however, of Elam, who was the subject. I tried to make pictures of him as he turned his head from side-to-side, but the flight ended up being a much better life experience than photograph.

Jason Elam flying above Alaska. AS we flew, he pointed out different areas, animals and natural phenomena, of which there are plenty in Alaska.

We left his home with a couple hours of daylight left. As we began our long drive northeast to Anchorage, the weather took a serious turn for the worst. What had started as a crisp, cool day turned into an impossible-to-prepare-for blizzard. One minute it was sunny with blue skies, the next snow was falling in sheets and roads were dangerous.

Florida girl takes in sudden blizzard in October.

We didn’t know if we should pull over and let it pass, or continue and hope we make it back before roads close. We opted to stop for a half hour, pulling off into a park that was covered in 6-inches of now in the blink of an eye.

Snow-covered ground through a rain covered windshield in Alaska.

Luckily, the storm passed as quickly as it started, and we were able to continue the trip back to Anchorage.

We finished shooting and immediately started editing as Tim raced to finish the written story. Every week that passed was a week that the record could be broken, making the story obsolete.

As soon as we got home we called the Jaguars and scheduled our shoot with Scobee. She showed up with various sock options and a holder and kicked the ball for about 20 minutes for us. Then we stayed and talked for another 30.

The story was wrapped and published by the end of the month, a full 13 months before the elusive record fell.

It fell as predicted, in Denver. On December 8, 2013, Matt Prater of the Denver Broncos lined up for a 64-yard field goal just before half time against the Tennessee Titans. His kick sailed through the uprights, officially sending the 63 yard kickers and the 43 year record into history.


Enjoying a temperate night and a local beer in Portland, Oregon, in 2011.

It’s Friday! And for the first time in a long time I have nothing to do tomorrow. No work. No plans. Nothing.

With that said, I plan on recreating - in one way or another - the above photo.

This particular image was taken in Portland, Oregon, in June of 2011. Bill and I had just finished covering the USATF Championships in Eugene, it was the day after my 25th birthday, and we were visiting our friend, Patrick Pendergast, for a down day on the road. We had known Patrick for a couple years through work and shared interest in music, and he graciously opened his home and a couple beds to us for a visit.

Posing in Portland with Patrick.

Track and field in Oregon has always been one of my favorite sporting events. With that said, it’s also a few of the longest days on the road. On non-Olympic years (which 2011 was), the USATF crams a ten day event into four very long days. By the end of those four day stints I was always exhausted and more than a little ready to get home and rest.

Before the track championships I was excited to visit Portland. It had just hit my radar screen as a “cool” place to be. Voodoo Doughnuts had opened the year before, craft breweries were springing up all over the place, artisan coffee shops were on every corner and farm to table restaurants were all the rage.

But the best laid plans always seem less fun when you arrive - as I did to Portland - with a single and immediate desire to just go home. I badly wanted the comfort of my own bed and the warmth of my north Florida beaches.

Usually when I decide I'm done and want to go home, I find a way home. I have more than once driven through the night - through rain and snow - to get home a few hours earlier than planned. But Florida is a long way from Portland, and I knew that Patrick's offer of a house and hospitality was a really nice one. I didn't want to be in a bad mood, but I've never been good at disguising emotions.

I was in a less-than-fun mood when we arrived in Portland from Eugene. I was tired and irrationally mad at Bill and myself for not being better at predicting my future moods. 

When we got to Patrick’s house, my mood began to lift. His house was warm and inviting; its walls full of interesting art and fun memories. I always enjoy when a place fits a person, and Patrick's house absolutely fit him.

Then, Patrick took us to lunch. Anyone who knows me well knows that there is one unfailing truth in dealing with me: if I’m unhappy, just feed me. Food makes everything better.

That was especially true that day. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant but I remember there was food and it was exactly what I wanted/needed.

Lunch, a guaranteed mood lifter.

After lunch I was able to get out of my own way - and out of my own head - and truly enjoy the city and the people I was with. We walked the streets of Portland, ate doughnuts, drank coffee, looked at art and finished the visit with a couple of my favorite things - pizza and beer.

The simple things in life - good food, local beer and great company - saved the day.

In fact, I think I may enjoy those same simple things tonight.

The Kings of Arthur

A team portrait of the 2008 Arthur County Wolves.

October is one of my favorite months.

The temperature drops, the leaves change and football season is in full swing.

I’ve been lucky in the last decade to cover football at every level and on every stage. I’ve been to seven Super Bowls, countless college games across the southeast, high school rivalries in Florida, and - my personal favorite - homecoming in Arthur, NE.

Arthur is nestled in the rolling and windy sandhills of western Nebraska. It’s not close to any major city or town. No highway goes through it. No railroad goes by it. Cattle outnumber people roughly 275 to 1 (human population is 145).

Sitting outside the Arthur gas station / convenient store / tire shop.

The town is so small that in order to field a football team, they have to play 6-man football. For those of you, like me, who had never heard of 6-man football, it’s very similar to the 11-man game we’re used to but faster and shorter. The field is 40x80 yards, the ball has to be touched twice before it crosses the line of scrimmage, and virtually every player plays multiple positions (for full rules click here).

Bill and I went to Arthur in the fall 2008 to work on a feature for Sports Illustrated for Kids. Bill had been years earlier - before digital cameras existed - and wanted to revisit with a new eye and new tools.

We had just begun delving into the world of multimedia. To that point we had produced stories on NASCAR fans and the NCAA Men’s Final Four. We were both still figuring it out. Still looking for the right mix of stills and video, still learning how to shoot quality video footage - the settings and setup are very different than for stills - and still learning how to ask good interview questions. 

DSLR cameras didn't yet have a video function in the fall of 2008. I instead worked with an actual video camera that recorded on actual tape. Looking back at it now, the footage looks grainy and jerky. The camera wasn’t exactly top of the line and neither was my knowledge of how to use it (I've never been one to read manuals, preferring the “I'll figure it out” method).

Learning how to shoot video on the fly with the Arthur wolves team dog (in my experience, every small town in Nebraska has a dog at practice).

That trip to Arthur was one of my first to the great state of Nebraska. In the years since, Nebraska has become a second home, but then it was still a strange place in the middle of America.

It was on that trip that I first began to understand what made Nebraska special.

We spent a week in Arthur, going to school during the day, football practice in the afternoon, and home with players at night.

On the left, me in the middle of practice. Only in a place like Arthur do they let you shoot from between the tackles. On the right, the resulting image I made, one of the first images I remember making and liking.

The town welcomed us with open arms, each person more willing than the last to tell a story, brag about the toughness of their football team, or recommend a local delicacy (note: rocky mountain oysters in no way resemble actual oysters from the ocean).

Making friends outside the town bar / restaurant / motel (it has four very small, basic rooms).

We had total access. We could go anywhere, take pictures of anything. The town was warm and open. They trusted us in a way most people don't in the modern world. It was disarming and relaxing. 

We spent time with the players in and out of school and got to know several of the boys on a personal level.

There was Will Lagey, a 96 pound kid with diabetes who was as tough as the biggest kid on the field and had hopes of someday attending law school (if all went well, he's about the right age now to be doing just that).

Will Lagey (10) walks onto the practice field with a tall teammate.

Anthony Trimble, the quarterback who also played saxophone in the school band.

Anthony (4) plays the saxophone in the school band before kickoff at their homecoming game.

There was Jeff and his girlfriend Brittany, the town's sweethearts.

Jeff and Brittany in the school gym.

And Brad Vasa, a 15-year-old ranch kid who woke up every morning at 5am to do chores before driving himself fifteen miles to school.

Brad Vasa in his truck on the road home.

After practice one day Brad invited us to his family’s ranch. 

Bill followed in an SUV as I rode with Brad in his navy-blue truck down the long, winding dirt road - nothing but rolling hills and cattle out the windows - to his house. I interviewed him as we drove, asking him about life on a ranch, school and football. He was kind and simple in a way I had never experienced. There was something pure about him that made me wistful for a simpler time. He seemed familiar in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.

We got out to the field just as the sun began to set behind an overcast sky. Brad’s chore that night was to count and feed the horses.

The scene was amazing; like something from the past. A teenage boy in an old truck surrounded by horses under a dark sky. 

Brad feeds horses just before a thunderstorm broke out at dusk.

Lightning danced across a distant horizon. The sky glowed with building electricity. The air was cool yet warm. Bill and I quickly made images in the increasingly low light. Then, suddenly, the wind picked up and the distant lightning became rapidly closer.

It’s a moment I will never forget.

I could feel the pressure drop as the storm grew nearer. We made images as long as we could then ran back to the car, throwing cameras and tripods in the back. We got in just as the sky opened. We followed Brad, slowly, back to the barn to park safely and wait out the storm. As we pulled in, hail the size of golf balls began falling. The lighting was so frequent it looked like a stroboscopic daylight outside. The sound was so intense I couldn’t hear myself scream over it. 

I felt like I was in a modern day Willa Cather novel. In that moment the Vasa ranch seemed more foreign to me than a temple in Mumbai. Brad and I had grown up in the same country, but worlds apart.

The next day was homecoming. We photographed the parade down main street in the morning then went to the soggy field for the 1pm kickoff (with no lights on the field games have to be played early).

The Arthur County High School Homecoming Parade.

Football in places like Arthur is a community event. It’s not just about the game, it’s about the people. The entire town - entire town being a feed store, post office, gas station and bar - all close down for every football related event. 

The Arthur Wolves won the game easy, though I couldn’t tell you the score.

After the game we did our best to dry off, then got in the car to make the long drive back to Denver - the closest major airport (4 hours away).

Bill drove as I edited the multimedia. The car bounced across rough county roads as I attempted to make sense of the world I had just witnessed.

Beach Kid

Miami Beach in 2008

I'm a beach kid, and always have been. I was born and raised on the north Florida coast and still call Jacksonville home.

The beach is where I find my balance. My life over the last decade has been hectic, and the Atlantic Coast has offered me calm from the storm.

Most days of the year, the north Florida shore is pretty quiet - small waves roll in over our shark-teeth laden beaches. But the end of summer brings added stress. Not only is it the beginning of football season - we take football seriously in the Sunshine State - it's the heart of hurricane season.

This time of year is always full of nostalgia as well. Hurricanes - as terrible as they are - tend to bring out the best in people. Communities come together, families make plans, friends reconnect.

Some of my most vivid memories are from hurricanes.

I remember running on the beach during Hurricane Bertha as hard as I could, barely moving in the tropical storm winds. I remember my dad hammering plywood over the windows and trying to help as the dog paced nervously.

I remember fleeing Hurricane Floyd in the middle of the night with my dad, brother, dog and cat (mom was a local news anchor and had to stay at the station) to my grandparent's house in northeast Georgia. We spent four carefree days on a lake in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My mom was the first back in our neighborhood and I remember how faraway and strange her voice sounded as she described the small amount of damage, stress and relief heavy in her throat.

I remember my senior year of high school when four hurricanes hit Florida in six weeks. We had a week off of school and spent it surfing, mudding (as in driving trucks in mud) and having hurricane parties by candlelight. 

This time of year also makes me nostalgic for the places that have made Jacksonville home.

The North Beach access of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (Guana, for short) is one of my favorite places on Earth. Guana is 10 miles of untouched oceanfront that I imagine looks very similar today to what Ponce de Leon found when he first landed in Florida back in 1513. If I ever need a few moments to myself - to smell the salt air and feel the wind my hair - Guana is where I go.

My dad got me interested in infrared photography when he made a series of really dreamy images on old IR film. Being a child of the digital age, I quickly converted an old Nikon D300 and started making images myself. This is one of my favorites, infrared or otherwise. This, to me, looks like home.

The north beach access at the Guana Reserve.

The Jacksonville Beach Pier has always been the icon of summer fun for me. I never spent much time there as a kid, but the idea of it always captivated me. The place is constantly crawling with surfers, fishermen and lifeguards. It's like Baywatch, but without the super models.

Last summer on a warm August night, the moon rose as the sun set over Jacksonville Beach. I took a Nikon D810 with a 200mm f/2 lens and a Manfrotto tripod to the Jacksonville Beach Pier to capture the rare event.

The moon rise over the Jacksonville Beach Pier.

Last October Hurricane Matthew came through and took off the last 350 feet of the Jacksonville Beach Pier and vastly changed the makeup of the beach; the tall dunes at Guana still stand but have eroded significantly. The Pier is still being rebuilt.

Still, in my lifetime, Jacksonville has been lucky. We've faced a lot of threats from different storms but have never endured a direct hit. We get the process without the devastation.

Hurricane Harvey reminded all of us what a bad storm can do. And Hurricane Irma - one of the largest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic - is quickly approaching the south Florida coast. 

Watching Irma make her way north and west over the Caribbean has left me with conflicted emotions. On one hand I fear for my neighbors in south Florida. On the other I feel incredibly lucky for the distinctly happy memories from the storms of the past, the people I shared them with and the places that made them special.  

I'm traveling to a wedding in Vermont today and am wondering what Guana and the Pier will look like when I return; if they'll still be there at all.

Home, and the places that make it such, change as time does. In Florida, we have natural disasters to remind us of that.

I've spent most of the last two days on the phone with friends and family. We're making plans and seeing who needs help.

At the end of the day it's not the places that make a city home, but the people. As long as they're okay, home will always be there.

Friends in Photographs

Behind the scenes with the Hensel Porty 1200 at Katie and Kevin Morrow's farm north of O'Neill.

Nebraska is a story I keep telling. It’s a place I never imagined visiting that I now can’t imagine leaving.

I arrived in Nebraska (once again) two weeks ago to put in a few long days of work on the Great American Eclipse out in Moose’s Pasture - as I discussed in last week’s blog - but I also wanted to see the friends who have become family.

Over the last three years, I have spent almost as much time in Nebraska as I have at home. I have devoted an incredible amount of professional and creative energy to the Nebraska Project. It has been some of the hardest and most fulfilling work of my short career.

Much of what has made Nebraska so special and the project so successful are the people.

For three years Nebraskans have welcomed me into their cafes, schools, bars, studios and homes with open arms. I entered this trip without a return ticket - I’m not sure when I’ll be back in Nebraska. Once the eclipse was over, I was determined to spend time with some of the people I have grown closest to. To have one last meal, share one last laugh, and make one last portrait.

For this series, I brought a Hensel Porty L 1200, a Grand 90 parabolic softbox, a couple reflectors and a Master PXL umbrella. I’ve always heard wonderful things about Hensel light, but had never had the chance to work with them before. This was my first time using the system, but won't be my last.

When I light something, I don’t want the light to be obvious; I want it to look natural. The Hensel’s made achieving that “natural” look incredibly easy. The light seemed to melt into each subject, gently wrapping around their features and offering just enough punch to make them stand out from the background.

My first test with the Hensel’s was with the Messersmith family.

I first met the Messersmith’s three summers ago as we were beginning work on the Nebraska Project in earnest. We spent the better part of the summer of 2014 out west, much of it on the Messersmith ranch. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. The first time we drove down Nebraska Highway 250 from Rushville I remember thinking, “This must be what Heaven looks like.” Rolling green pastures, crystal blue skies, gentle white clouds. There’s a reason Nebraskans call the sandhills “God’s Country.”

The Messersmith’s are exactly the kind of people you expect to meet in heaven. They are handsome, kind and incredibly hospitable. When we met them, they had three little girls (they now have four) - Ava, June and Paige. Watching their family grow over the last three years has been one of my greatest joys on the job. In fact, all the work I did in Nebraska over the last two weeks almost didn’t happen thanks to a game of tag gone wrong, when I fell over Ava and slammed my right shoulder into the ground. Nothing broke, but I have learned how many things you use your shoulders for (pretty much everything, including lifting my camera to my face) in the days since.

The Messersmith family. When we first met them Brooke (left) didn't exist and Paige (the blonde hugging her mom on the right) was a baby.

I wanted to show the Messersmith's on their land at sunset. Their ranch is one of the loveliest places on Earth, and their personalities match it. The Hensel light allowed me to almost paint them into the sky as the sun sank behind them.

After the Messersmith’s, we headed back east to stay with some of our newest friends in Nebraska - the Kester family. We have been working on a story with them - and their numerous offspring - for most of the summer. They are a huge family - their reunion over Memorial Day had over 200 people. More than their numbers, however, has been their kindness. Like many Nebraskans I have met over the years, they welcomed us with open arms. But then -  after they welcomed us - they insisted we stay.

Getting to know the various members of their family has been incredibly fun.

Anthony “Smoke” Kester has about as much personality as you’d expect from someone who calls himself Smoke. Smoke is a cancer survivor, rancher and member of the NRA. He gives jokes just as well as he takes them and has a horse named Reno. I wanted his portrait to show him in his element - on a horse on the family farm. There was a storm moving in just as the sun began to set, giving the horizon a firey glow. I used the Hensel with a sport reflector to his him with harsh but warm light to match the sunset.

Smoke and Reno at sunset on the family farm.

Chris Kester is a high school quarterback. He’s one of the oldest of the many Kester cousins and genuinely enjoys spending time with the many younger kids. Emorie just turned 5 and started pre-school. After her first day she came up to me exasperated, exclaiming that she hates school because they didn’t get to paint (they have painted in subsequent classes and she is much happier).

Emorie Bearinger and Chris Kester, cousins and friends.

I wanted to show the yin and yang of who they are while still connecting them to each other. Emorie is a precocious girlie girl who  gets just as muddy as the boys. Chris is a high school football star who carries himself with a quiet kindness. I wanted the light for their portrait to disappear, so I lit them softly with a Grand 90 parabolic softbox and just a kiss of light.

I wish I could have made a picture of every member of the Kester clan, but time and my bad shoulder didn’t permit that.

From Clearwater we drove north 45 minutes to O’Neill - another town I have spent an inordinate amount of time in - to visit the Morrow’s. I met Katie Morrow in 2009 at an education conference in Orlando. Later that summer we went up to photograph the Holt County Fair for an Apple ad. It was there I met her husband, Kevin (who has since produced several shoots for us), and their three kids Emily, Claire and Drew. Since then, I think Drew has become the most photographed kid in Nebraska. He is incredibly photogenic - a red-head with countless freckles and piercing blue eyes. An all-American, Nebraska boy.

Drew Morrow in the cow pasture at his family's farm north of O'Neill.

Like Chris and Emorie, I wanted the light on Drew to disappear. I lit him with the Master PXL umbrella from slightly above and to the right (his left). Fair-skinned people tend to be difficult to light - Lighter colors are more reflective - but the incredibly soft light that bounced out of the Hensel umbrella wrapped around him for a beautiful, gentle glow.

I’m not sure when I’ll see all these friends again - or the many who I didn't manage to visit on my last trip - though I’m confident I will. When people and places are important, you find a way to make room for them in your life. Until, then, these pictures (and many more) will be daily reminders of my Nebraskan family.