This is Cape Kiwanda on the Oregon Coast. If you’ve joined me on one of my photography workshops along the coast, you’ve probably stood beneath this stunning sandstone bluff and shot similar images. Cape Kiwanda is without a doubt one of Oregon’s most photogenic spots. A quick Google or Flickr search will give you thousands of wonderful Cape Kiwanda images to look at. Most of those images will feature views from atop the cape, with spectacular waves breaking against the cliff faces. A climb up the sand dune at the foot of the cape will bring you to a handful of trails that skirt the fences placed atop the cape by Oregon State Parks. To reach the really good photo vantages, you will need to enter the “stay back” parts of the cape and walk out onto the tip of the headland where the sandstone takes the greatest beating from the relentless Pacific swells. Trust me, the view from out there is really amazing. Amazing and pretty damn dangerous. That’s why my workshop participants and I are found down at beach level shooting the sunrise and sunset from safer ground.
This past weekend a Portland photographer slipped at Cape Kiwanda and ended up in the water at the foot of the bluff. He was fortunate enough to climb to safety, but he was pretty beat up and his camera gear was ruined. Google+ today is filled with best wishes and efforts to help him replace his damaged gear. A few months ago another Oregon photographer had his gear damaged beyond repair by a wave on the end of the cape. In both cases, the photographers were beyond the warning signs and in clearly risky terrain. The desire to get “the shot” can be incredibly powerful, and photographers often put themselves in danger for compelling images. I’ve done it many times, and I have wonderful stories and a few nice pictures to prove it, but I find myself less and less interested in such risk as I get older. My Risk Appetite just isn’t what it used to be.
My wife, Julie,is an actuary. Much of her work confounds me and despite her best efforts over the years to educate me, the truth is she is just far smarter than I am and what she does for a living is dark arts as far as I can tell. One aspect of her work that I do understand is the risk management tasks she handles. She works for a large Portland-based insurance company with financial dealings in diverse fields. Part of her job is to assess the company’s exposure to risk and calculate the potential losses and gains certain products and services may yield. In the world of Enterprise Risk Management, they quantify a company’s willingness to accept risk as Risk Appetite. The idea being the more risk a company is willing to take, the greater the reward they stand to profit. In landscape and nature photography, one’s Risk Appetite might lead to decisions that carry potential for loss of life and/or equipment. The reward may be a composition that no one else has made and images that light up social media feeds with comments, likes and +1’s.
When a photographer heads out onto a cliff, stands on the side of a busy highway, or inches closer to wildlife, they should do so with a full and clear understanding of their risk and how it measures up to their ability to mitigate risk with safety equipment, experience, knowledge, and physical ability. There is no such thing as a safe place to take pictures, only safe enough places. Standing on the beach below Cape Kiwanda is a risky place to make images, but far less so than atop the bluff. As an outdoor photographer, I have worked hard to develop a healthy Risk Appetite that combines courage with restraint. For the most part my Risk Appetite has given me great photographs, but I have to live with the knowledge that better shots lie out there in the dangerous areas where I no longer wish to tread.
And this truth frustrates me to no end. I see shots younger, fitter, and more risky photographers are getting and it hurts. I know there are some amazing shots to be made up on top of Cape Kiwanda, but there’s no way in hell I’m taking my groups up there. The risk is too great. When I take people to Thor’s Well, I put The Fear into them before we walk down there. Part of my job as a guide and educator is teaching people how to evaluate a scene for hazards and rewards. I try to teach them to find the “safe enough” spot that will give them shots worth taking. I know I hold some people back, but I also know that I pull some people in. I don’t mind getting my legs wet for a great photo, but for some that’s just too far. My Risk Appetite is mine and mine alone.
I feel for these photographers who have lost their expensive cameras and lenses at Cape Kiwanda, but I also want to express my grumpy disdain for their choices. When you plant your tripod on bare rock on the Oregon Coast, you need to ask why it’s bare. The coast receives up to ten feet of rain each year, so if there’s any chance for green things to grow they will. When rock is bare near the ocean it’s usually because waves keep it that way. If intertidal life is living on the rock, that is a solid clue that the ground you are on will indeed get wet. If you are standing on grass and fluffy dunes, you are probably going to stay un-doused. Make choices with knowledge, not hubris. Anyone taking photographs in nature should take some time to get to know why things are the way they are. Our responsibility to ourselves as outdoor photographers is to manage our risks and enjoy our rewards. When things go sour and cameras die, that sucks but it’s the price we pay. It’s our risk tax.
This past July I chose to wear some comfortable slip-on shoes for a walk on the beach in Yachats. I know the geology of Yachats is rocky and yet I chose shitty shoes for the job. I slipped and fell and ruptured a tendon in my knee. I had to be carried off the beach on a backboard. I had surgery. I spent a lot of money on a scar and a knee that still doesn’t bend right. I’m paying my tax every day for that poor choice. My wife would like to blame the rocky beach at Yachats, but she knows the truth. I have walked on that beach numerous times without incident. The beach isn’t to blame.
Let’s be adults and take responsibility for our actions and the consequences. When a wave claims a camera, it’s not a “sneaker”, it’s a wave. A big, salty slab of water that couldn’t care less about you and your gear. If you want to capture the drama and grandeur of the ocean, go forth and do so with clear eyes and the unshakable understanding that you are taking risks. Try to be safe and come back with great shots. And for the love of all that is holy, get some damn insurance!