Story written by: Sheri Radel Rosenberg
If you are reading this, chances are you’ve been on a photoshoot. So how do you prepare? You make sure all the flights are booked, the passports updated, the equipment rented, the talent and locations are client-approved, and the wardrobe prepped. You order enough Diet Coke for the fussy art director that only drinks Diet Coke. Your producer orders enough beer and wine for the wrap party. You stop at Trader Joe’s or the local equivalent for enough turkey jerky to keep the crew happy, and you make sure the client has sent the purchase order and advance check. But if you ask Kevin Steele how one prepares for a photoshoot, his answer would most likely not include beverages or casting links. Because on one recent shoot, Kevin Steele was most certainly not prepared for what would occur one afternoon near Cabo.
One of Steele's favorite images — it encapsulates the "go for it" spirit.
Steele, a Santa Barbara based photographer was happy that sunny day in February. He was shooting a job for a client he loved, an agency who was fun to work with, and a great crew who enjoyed production as much as he did. The 4-day shoot was a success on all fronts. The talent (a family enjoying themselves by the beach) was on point on the last shoot morning- two boats were taken out to sea and the “family” went tuna fishing for one of the final shots of the shoot. There was one shot still needed at the end of the day, but until then, there was lunch- a wrap meal of sorts held at a sweet little spot on the rocks. With about two dozen people celebrating the end of a great shoot, Kevin went to take a picture, and fell backwards. 15 feet backwards. Onto a rock.
Within seconds, the talent, client, and ad agency were surrounding him, and telling him not to move. He couldn’t move his broken left hand but could move his fingers and toes- and though he was in a state of shock, he couldn’t stop thinking about the sound his landing had made on the rock. Having been on wilderness rescues and backcountry adventures, he knew enough not to move until the paramedics came.
Fortunately, they came quickly, because in Cabo there’s enough expats and tourists for the hospitals there to be well equipped and fast. This particular hospital has an affiliation with LA’s Cedars Sinai and fortunately, the spinal surgery center in Beverly Hills, whose top surgeon flew down. As his wife boarded the next plane from California, the CAT scan and MRI showed that there were some broken bones in his back, 5 vertebrae to be exact. With a supportive client and an agency that did not leave his side, Kevin was lucky to be alive, and with a good insurance policy, he could focus on his recovery- the ad agency produced the job on his behalf and had fortunately taken out an insurance policy to cover his medical expenses as well as pay for his wife’s flight. Amazingly, the way he fell prevented his spinal cord from being impacted (Steele credits his high level of athleticism for instinctively knowing how to fall, and ultimately land- he’s an ultra-marathon runner and lifelong climber), and after some surgery and time off, he is back and strong and where he belongs- behind the camera, albeit with a little extra help from his crew, who help get everything set up to minimize strain and make sure he is not overexerted as healing continues.
“With so many things that can go wrong on a shoot, you can only be so prepared”, says Steele,
so you have to be ready to roll with it and go with the flow- anything can happen- from a passport expiring to a life threatening injury.
And with so much support from a community of Facebook friends and fellow photographers, his current state of mind is one of gratitude for his career, family, and friends. A lifelong optimist, Steele is excited that his 19 year old son is following in his photographic footsteps- he’s now his dad’s first assistant- and loves “those moments when everyone is having a great time working together- it’s all a team effort, and I don’t take a single thing for granted”.
What’s inspiring him of late? An amazing project he just photographed: a series of survivors for a healthcare client. There was the 9-year-old girl who kicked leukemia to the curb, a cyclist who survived an accident and was now back on his bike, and other subjects who survived strokes, illness, and all kinds of life challenges. As a fellow survivor, Steele found common ground and was able to create iconic and heroic portraits of people who defied some serious odds. “Making great work is all about bonding with your subjects, and going through something this big takes it to a whole new level”. And there’s also inspiring heroes in pop culture too- Steele claims watching Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” series while in the hospital in Mexico helped him realize that if Uma Thurman could endure that amount of pain, then so could he.
When asked about which of his images on his website best encapsulated his current state of mind and the journey of the past few months, he points to a beautiful black and white image of a triathlon. With wet suited athletes running into the water in the background, we see a woman diving into the water in the foreground, in nothing but a bikini. To Steele, the image encapsulates the “go for it” spirit he strives for and to dive into life, regardless of what it may have in store.
Steele is looking forward to a busy 2014 and balancing a busy shoot schedule with family time. He’s also recently gotten his first tattoo the length of his forearm, a reminder every day, a quote from Rilke that reads:
“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final”.
Incidentally, his camera and lens (a Nikon D800e/58mm f1.4) also survived the fall. And as Steele plunged backward, he threw it forward, and clicked. The result? A stunningly composed (and perfectly blurred) sky. Beauty and terror- it’s best to prepare for both.