Travis and I were on our way to a job when I got the call. It was a girl’s voice and she sounded pretty excited. “Nate! Please tell me you’re not booked on the 24th of March!” She obviously knew me because she called me by name. I had recently changed phones and many of my numbers were lost, but I soon recognized the interrogator as our good friend Skylar Reese, a fellow photographer based in Austin. I looked over at Travis, “We got anything on the 24th?” Travis quickly used some state-of-the-art satellite cloud technology crap to check our calendar. “We’ve got a few holds, but nothing solid.” Back to Skylar, “Seems like I’m open, I’ll take the assignment… now, what is it?” “I need you to help me shoot a wedding in the Cayman Islands,” she says. “Hmmmm, sounds dangerous” I say… “And I like the sound of danger.”
Once in a while Travis and I are asked to come on as 2nd shooters for someone else when we’re not working together. It’s generally a decent paycheck without all the hassle of editing afterwards, and if we get to travel, bonus! So wheels were set in motion, tickets booked and with passport in hand, I rolled my camera bag and carry-on through security at the busiest airport in the world. Note: If you learn to navigate the maze of terminals in Hartsfield-Jackson International smoothly, any other airport you ever visit will seem like a cakewalk.
My mission had begun. It was a quick jump up to Charlotte, customs, then on a plane towards international waters. Whoever booked my ticket apparently had some pull; I was Zone 1 all the way and had preferred treatment with my baggage. I took my aisle seat next to a little girl. Next thing I know, a very large man leans over the seat in front of me staring me down and nods at the seat I’d just taken. “Is this yours?” I ask, gesturing to the kid beside me. “Yeah, mind if I sit by her?” It didn’t really sound like a question, so to be cordial, I agreed to trade seats. Turns out the man was in business class, seat A1. Winning!
Wearing a white linen shirt and some hip 70’s sunglasses I felt a little like Johnny Depp in the Rum Diaries headed into unknown tropical territory. As the plane circled the island and approached the runway I could see the white beaches, sail boats, and crystal clear waters all up and down the coast… this is gonna be tough. I glide through (like funny quote?) customs and the next thing I know, I’m in an old beat-up van with a taxi sign screwed on top. Irma, my driver, had one good hand and the other looked as if it had been gnarled in an unwarranted gator attack. But she whizzed through the traffic circles and back roads of Grand Cayman like nobody’s business; I had to use both hands to hang on. To add to the surrealness of the moment, traffic flows on the left side there. With many quick left turns and the feeling of being on a crash course with every oncoming car, I decided to just relax and trust Irma. After all, she was a professional.
I checked in to the Sunshine Suites, a beautiful little hotel on 7 Mile Beach, a block away from the ocean. Bag still in hand, I walked into the Sunshine Grill and sat down at the bar next to a drunk Irishmen. (No stereotype or redundancy intended) After a few introductions, the Irishman sized me up; called the dark beer I ordered “sissy water” then demanded a round of whisky. My contacts, Skylar & Brice (the videographer), wouldn’t arrive for a few hours so since I had some time to spare, I figured this was the best way to waste it. Turns out my new pal was some infamous back room brawler with fists the size of grapefruits. Obviously the black sheep of the family, he was here with his 97 year-old disapproving dad, and they were making amends. We traded a few war stories then I notice the frail old man sitting out by the pool, “Daah, he just doesn’t respect me, calls me a bad Christian” I looked back the Irishman, and it could have been the whiskey taking hold, but he was deeply disturbed and his eyes began to water up. “Well,” I said, “Who’s the sissy now?” Then I challenged him to arm wrestle. We were pals.
Skylar and Brice soon arrived, we got our rooms and the next morning we hit the beach. On the way out, I noticed the little old man sitting again by the pool. The brawler was sitting beside him… passed out. The only assignment we had for the day was to shoot a ‘White Party’ at the Tiki House that night. The beach was beautiful and the water amazingly clear. We befriended a resident who loaned us some fins & snorkels, so Skylar and I swam out to a small reef to check out some (fishy) locals.
Back on task, we tracked down the coordinator from the Ritz Carlton and arranged transportation. (I didn’t suggest Irma.) The White Party made for good photo ops. The bride’s parents had rented out the place and there were close to 100 guests all dressed in white in a beach-like cabana setting. I expected a rowdy crowd, but it was obvious that many of them had also spent the day on the beach, and the sun had taken it out of them. Nevertheless, the food was incredible, the steal drum band impeccable, speeches were made and everyone left drunk and happy.
Saturday was a mad rush of extremes, but Skylar, Brice, and I were on point at every turn; this wasn’t our first rodeo. Rule #1 about wedding photography, “Be prepared, anticipate the moment”. Things never go according to plan, but if you’re ready, some pretty amazing moments can be created in the chaos. The wedding was beautiful, the food again was amazing, and as we went deeper and deeper into the night, the rowdy crowd came out. It was perfect. If I were a different man, blackmail photos from receptions could be my retirement plan.
Recovery: Sunday we laid around at the Sunshine Suites pool licking our wounds and piecing together the different events of the night. I guess that’s why we were hired to document this whole crazy event. We planned to stay a few extra days to recover, & why not? We were through working. My friend Liz flew in and the next day we chartered a boat (Dexter’s Fantasea Stingray Tours) out to Stingray City. If you go to the Caymans, you must go there. Capt. Jake and his one-man crew were great hosts and they motored us out to a shallow sandbar in the gulf. Standing in 4ft deep water, I felt like I was at a dog park in the city… except I wasn’t in the city, I was on an island. And I wasn’t on land, I was in the water… and I wasn’t surrounded by dogs looking for treats, I was surrounded by stingrays looking for treats. It’s all about the treats. The stingrays blew my mind, their dark reputations and misunderstood nature couldn’t be further from the truth. These “Devil Fish” were incredibly tame and just looking for a squid handout: we were able to feed them, pet them, and even hold them. Certainly one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. (“Sorry, Irma.”)
Bags packed and images secured, the mission to the Cayman Islands was accomplished; I have pictures to prove it. I’d certainly recommend going & spending more than just a few days. There was so much we didn’t get to see; so much trouble we didn’t get in. As I waited for my taxi, I looked over and saw the Irishman and his dad having breakfast together. The brawler was obviously sober and just as charming. There was a small crowd gathered around them as he told his stories, and the little old man was smiling.