For the last two years, the first weekend in May has been spent running around Churchill Downs providing Derby coverage. As for most years of my life, however, this weekend has been spent running around the downtown area of my hometown, Fernandina Beach, FL, at the annual Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival. Due to a family commitment, I was scheduled to be in Florida on Derby weekend, and so I began planning some special coverage of the 50th anniversary of my hometown festival, thinking about some new ways of portraying this event that I have attended numerous times as a participant. As with most things, however, even the best-laid plans can be scrapped by rain, and we had way too much of it in Northern Florida this weekend!

shrimpfest13One traditional event that remained on the schedule was the dual pirate invasions, preformed by members of the Fernandina Pirate Club, a local philanthropy group that raises money through various presence at other Island events. One group of pirates “invades” the downtown waterfront, usually by shrimp boat or other craft, while others fight back from the docks. While this event is usually seen by festival participants from the shoreline, I was able to secure access to accompany the “enemy” pirates onboard the “Island Girl” shrimp boat to shoot them setting off their canons. Technically, it was rather easy to capture the photos – one second exposure and wait for the fireball to come rushing out of the muzzle. Finding and maintaining good angles to shoot from on a working shrimping vessel was the tough part. Navigating the many hanging nets, chains, motors and pulleys – in almost pitch dark – was the hardest part of making the photos. I came back to shore with a decent angle in time to shoot a family watching the fireworks.
Setting this up was based on establishing and maintaining relationships. Many folks who watched me grow up on Amelia Island know that I work as a photographer “somewhere else,” and welcome me into various events when I return home to visit my family. Others know me as that photographer that shows up in town every once and a while. Either way, though, these relationships are key in telling the stories of my hometown and maintaining my connection with a place I love dearly.


I just returned from Pittsburgh, PA from shooting the Presbyterian Church’s 220th General Assembly – the biennial national meeting of the denomination. Several thousand people found themselves at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, while still-thousands more awaited news of some controversial changes coming before the commissioners – the possible changing of the denomination’s definition of marriage being the most-awaited decision.

This was my first time shooting the event, but not my first time in attendance. A trip to the Assembly held in Birmingham, AL gave me some idea of the kinds of events that I would be documenting. This was probably the best asset that I brought along with me. While the location for this event changes each session, the traditions and events remain largely intact with only subtle changes. Working alongside long-time GA photographer Danny Bolin, we both worked approximately 18 hours days for eight days straight, moving from one event to another. With little time for editing, we covered most gatherings and every plenary meeting.

While the outcome of the Assembly’s voting retained many status-quo positions for the denomination, people advocating for various changes, as well as those opposed to them, left the city with plans for returning to the fight in two years when the Assembly convenes in Detroit, MI.

The politics of the denominational church have fascinated me ever since I can remember. The idea that two (or more) groups of people can hold that God wants opposite outcomes for the same argument is a fascinating process to watch, and photograph. The journey of keeping a historical denomination relevant to modern concerns is one that I am excited to document, however slow it may be!

Another Derby week has come and gone, and my feet are still throbbing! Watching I’ll Have Another steal the show was a neat experience, but those two minutes were only a fraction of the action at Churchill Downs this past week. This was my second Derby, and I spent the week getting to the track early to watch the Derby and Oaks horses workout, but also spent time covering the morning routine on the backside.

Ryan Althaus, right, has been ringing his Salvation Army bell for over 24 hours.

For the last twenty-four hours, pedestrians walking through Fourth Street Live in Louisville, KY have been greeted by the friendly face of my friend Ryan Althaus. Equipped with a mini trampoline, a broadcast set-up, and a strong and committed spirit, Ryan is ringing/hopping towards the hope of making Christmas a little better for a local family. Additionally, if he keps going, he will be a candidate for a new world record for the longest continual ringing of a Salvation Army bell.

While I wouldn’t normally publish an image with one of my strobes included in the frame, this moment was very nice. A group of kids walked by and one girl started hopping along. A great encouragement as Ryan faces his last few hours.

UPDATE: Ryan withstood the cold and constant bouncing for 36 hours and one minute, breaking the current record. Unfortunately, other ringers from around the country kept going. While Ryan will not have the world record, he still raised a ton of cash for charity!
Michael Whitman | Louisville, KY