Photographer Profile - Jim Reed: "The discussion has definitely increased about climate change"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday April 26, 2016

A severe-weather photographer living in the Great Plains is necessarily in tune with the seasons. Jim Reed  has been shooting super cells, tornadoes and hurricanes for 25 years — or, as he puts it, for 100 seasons — and has come to know what to expect with the arrival of the spring, when the big storms form over the region. But this year has been weird.

Reed, who is based in Wichita, Kansas, spent the past fall and winter in Minnesota, where he’s been photographing odd things, like flowers blooming on March 9.

“We also had flowers still blooming here in the second week in November. So that’s a pretty short winter,” he says. The mild winter followed a long summer: Reed says he was surprised to see grain combines working in the northern fields as late as October last year.

“The locals told me it had never happened before,” he says.

Reed, who shoots for the National Geographic Creative agency, has been working on a project about climate change, gathering what he calls visual evidence of new weather patterns. Flowers blooming in March in Minnesota may or may not be significant — Reed notes that this year’s mild weather in the Plains is likey related to the large El Niño that brought rain and snow farther west. But over time, he adds, the images and the stories he hears from people add up to something.

“It’s like being an investigator — you put all this stuff up on a wall and a bigger picture starts to emerge,” he says.

Over the past two decades, weather, as a subject of perennial interest, has evolved. Once it was just a facet of daily life, the part of evening news that came on after sports. That changed with 24/7 cable TV channels looking for content. After a faltering start, the Weather Channel’s dramatic live reporting of nature’s fury caught on. Now weather is reality TV. And with the advent of the Internet, videos of thunderstorms and tornadoes shot by storm chasers have become a viral staple of YouTube.

More recently, the interest in weather has shifted again: Climate change has gone from being an inconvenient truth to something that people are living with in their daily lives.

“I do a lot of my traveling by train or car, so I'm able to talk to people from all walks of life, and the discussion has definitely increased about climate change,” says Reed. Consequently, his business plan has changed.

“An editor of mine at National Geographic Creative began asking for more subtle approaches to covering climate change,” Reed says. He also redesigned his own website, adding a separate category featuring images of climate change alongside his portfolios of dangerous storms.

“People can debate climate change, but as a photographer I’m in a good position to just witness it,” Reed says.

Rattlesnakes From the Sky

On May 22, 2011, a tornado formed over eastern Kansas, touching down first near the state line near Missouri and then tracking east and north. Late in the afternoon that day, it blasted its way into the southwest corner of Joplin, Missouri, intensifying as it moved. At its maximum, the tornado reached a width in excess of one mile. In its wake, 161 were left dead.

Days later, Reed arrived in Joplin to document the damage. “It was some of the most ferocious and absolute destruction I have ever witnessed, and I've walked with survivors through some very horrific settings, including Hurricane Katrina,” he told Pro Photo Daily in 2012.

Reed has photographed 17 hurricanes and enough tornadoes to understand what made the one that hit Joplin so deadly.

“Typically, large tornadoes take a little while to get their act together,” he said. “You have time to evaluate and adjust. But the Joplin tornado just started out scary—multiple vortexes appearing out of the sky like rattlesnakes hanging down from the clouds, rotating and snapping at things on the ground.”

Reed talks about storms with a certain intimacy, which is understandable since he’s been around them his whole life. He was born in Georgia but raised in Springfield, Illinois, in the midst of tornado country. In 1969, when he was eight years old, he and his mother unwittingly drove through the outer bands of Hurricane Camille, forming one of his earliest memories. By age 11 he was shooting home movies of massive thunderstorms.

He later attended the University of Southern California and went to work as a filmmaker and writer of TV commercials, but in 1992 he returned to the Midwest to indulge his fascination with extreme weather. His 2009 book Storm Chaser: A Photographer’s Journal, is an ode to the strange beauty and allure of killer skies.

For years he was part of a small cadre of professional photographers who studied the weather and photographed storms. It’s different now.

“Back then, my colleagues and I might be the only ones getting into a hurricane and getting really strong pictures. But once we got into sophisticated smartphones with cameras and web platforms for sharing, the world changed,” he says. “If we have a high tornado risk, it’s not uncommon in April and May to see hundreds of vehicles out there chasing storms. You’ll see locals get into the family pickup truck to go to the storms, and you’ll have people from all over the country and outside the US in rental cars chasing the super cells and tornadoes out on the Great Plains. If you watch the nightly news or the Weather Channel, instead of seeing photo and video credits for professional photographers, you’ll see credits for Facebook and Twitter. So the business is tougher in that respect.”

Eye-Witness Weather

Shifting his focus to the larger issue of climate change has been one way to move his work forward. Reed now also looks for what he calls “wild-card storms,” the ones that don’t come with national headlines and storm-chaser traffic jams. “Often I don’t get much, but when I do, it’s extra satisfying to know I’m the only one to document the complete genesis of the storm,” he says.

He also travels lighter. “In the first 10 years of shooting storms, I would take three or four camera bodies, all the lenses, tripods, and Hi-Hats — I wanted to be ready to shoot anything,” Reed says. “I have fine-tuned that. Now I would probably go out with a Nikon D800 and D700 — which remains one of my favorite cameras. I also shoot video now.”

On top of that, he may be testing out Nikon’s new KeyMission 360 action camera this season, creating  immersive 360-degree images and videos from directly under super cells. Virtual reality may be the next big thing in storm chasing.

“I picture myself saying, ‘What if I got really close to a tornado and created something so that the viewer could tilt up and see it like they’ve never seen it?’” he says.

In photographing storms or evidence of climate change, Reed tries to put himself in the position of the viewer: “I’m the man in the field, the eye witness,” he says. As a witness, he’s been getting a first-hand view of a new kind of planet.

“When I first started doing this work there wasn’t some record-breaking weather every week and wild temperature swings. Now it seems like there is. I can't cover it all anymore,” he says.

Reed has adapted his career to the new normal of weather. Likewise, he says, people will have to adapt their lives to it.