Sometimes work can be a drug. In my career as a fashion photographer I can get high on photo shoots without drugs or alcohol. I think maybe that's why I pursued this particular line of work. It started with the high I used to get in the darkrooms where I first learned all about photography. And it was not from the chemicals. I got high in the darkroom because while I was there my focus was 100 percent occupied with what I was doing. The mixing and stirring and the precise chemistry and alchemy of the photographic process hooked me from day one. I loved the fact that when I was absorbed in all the scientific minutiae it took to develop my own negatives and print my own photographs my mind was silent. Completely silent. No complaints, no fears, no anxieties. Just the slow steady methodical and yet exciting work that is photography. I still get that on photo shoots. With a camera in my hand I disappear into the zone and I love being there.
But I digress. Last week I was in Florida on a photo shoot. This was a job for a brand new client which always makes my pre-shoot jitters even worse. Also we were working with a model whom I had fought valiantly to use for this project but I had never actually seen her in the flesh. "Dear God", I prayed the day before, "please let her have the requisite number of limbs when she steps off that plane". I'd been burned before when a model I had booked for an important client showed up with an infected eyebrow piercing and a partially shaved head. I'm scarred by that experience to this day.
As I was fretting away I got a call from the editor. "All set for tomorrow?" she asked cheerfully. "Yes" I said, successfully acting as if I was not in the least bit nervous. “I'm concerned about the weather" she said, "have you taken a look?" Yes! I had taken a look. That's all I had been doing for 24 hours, maniacally toggling between Accuweather (inaccurate but generally optimistic albeit wrong forecasts), The Weather Channel (only slightly more accurate and pessimistic - the storm of the century seems to be their favorite line) and Dark Skies which is data-driven but often tells me what I don't want to hear. But I feigned nonchalance. "Oh no, what does it say?" I drawled lazily. "Well, the wind is really picking up" the editor informed me. "You might want to go down to the beach now and check it out." "I'll do that" I told her. "Don't worry," I said breezily, "tomorrow's going to be a great day."
But I was not so sure. For all I knew it could be a horrible day. A disaster. An embarrassment. My mind, being my mind, was happy to focus on those aspects of tomorrow's shoot. The potentially awful, embarrassing, career-ending aspects of what "could" go wrong.
I went down to the beach and was almost blown sideways. It was, in fact, a disaster. The sky was thick and grey, the sea some horrible shade of puce. If nauseous was a color, the ocean that day was it. And so I prayed. A foxhole prayer. "Dear God" I began, "please let tomorrow go well." I have never asked God for a particular favor like that. I usually ask for the health, mental and physical, of loved ones and if feeling greedy I might also ask for internal peace for myself. But this day I was asking for specifics. I walked a bit further down the beach trying to find a place where it might be possible to be shielded from the relentless wind. There was no shelter. I began to get more and more worried and then I did something that I had never done before. I asked God for a physical sign that everything would go well the following day. I asked God to prove to me that I was in his care and that all would go well by sending me a shark’s tooth.
This was a ridiculous ask, a fool's request, an ask that was surely setting me up for failure. I knew this stretch of beach well. I had been there at least 20 times for work and play. Once, years ago, I had indeed found a shark’s tooth on that beach. But that was an anomaly. Even the lifeguards had been full of joyful surprise at my "very rare" find.
So I asked for a shark’s tooth, knowing full well that finding one there, in a windstorm, at high tide was next to impossible. I took 4 steps and as a wave rushed over my foot I looked down and there, resting in the sand by my foot, was a tiny black shark’s tooth. Unbelievable. It had happened. And I got scared. I grabbed the tooth and ran from the beach. Afraid that now God would be mad at me. Furious at me for asking for a material sign of his care. "Oh ye of little faith" I imagined him rumbling in the heavens before hurling a lightning bolt my way. God was gonna smite me now, I was sure of it. "That's terrible" I thought to myself. "Who asks God for material proof of his existence?" I doubted him. And now I would have to pay the piper. "I've cursed myself" I despaired as I scurried back to my hotel. But then another thought came to me, one much more typical of the way my mind usually works. I said to myself "What the hell? I can't believe this. If I'd only know earlier that God is available to answer specific prayers with specific objects I would be sitting pretty. All this wasted time!!! I could have prayed for a zillion bucks, a pony, a private island in a turquoise sea. How am I just learning about this now?"
The next day the shark’s tooth worked its magic and we had a fabulous shoot. It was amazing. I showed the tooth to my team and told them the story. Thankfully there were a few God-squad members on the crew and they were unfazed by God's gift from the deep. "Ask and ye shall receive" they laughed.
Days later I went to the same beach and I had the audacity to ask God for another shark’s tooth. He came through again with a stunner. A perfect white, devilishly sharp shark’s tooth. "God is on my side!" I told myself, gazing at my treasures. "God is on my side.”
I decided to spend a few more days in Florida. I coerced 2 friends to join me for the weekend but I spent the entire time praying to God and looking for sharks’ teeth. In fact I did find 2 more. So I found 4 teeth in 3 days time. Unheard of.
Here is where I have to come clean. I found those first 4 teeth in 3 days and I spent the remaining 3 days feverishly scouring the beach for hours at a time. One day I got back to my chair somewhat despondent. "What's wrong?" my friends asked. "God has forsaken me" I whispered dramatically. All heavy sighs and big eyes, the back of my hand pressed listlessly against my forehead, like a silent screen actress of yore. Yes, I had already found a whopping four sharks’ teeth in three days but I wanted more. MORE MORE MORE. More sharks’ teeth. Bigger sharks’ teeth. Brighter sharks’ teeth. Those four amazing teeth I had dug out of the sand were not enough for me. I imagined God looking down on me beyond exasperated. "Humans" he would tell the angels floating devotedly around him "are NEVER EVER satisfied."
"I don't think God works that way" my agnostic friend said. "What way?" I asked. "I don't believe that God heard your prayer for a shark tooth sign to let you know that your photo shoot was going to be a success. That's just not how God works." "How do you know?" my God-squad friend snapped in retort. "God works in mysterious ways. If He wants to send Blenderhead a shark’s tooth or 2 that's His business" "Yeah!" I said to Mr. Agnostic, like the petulant child I can be. "That's God's business. Not yours." And I harrumphed off down the beach to look for more teeth. Teeth sent from God.
Who knows where those sharks’ teeth came from? There had been a storm the week before so most likely the angry ocean had tossed them to shore. I'm not going to question the teeth’s origin too much. I'm going to keep those teeth and make jewelry out of them. Wear them around my neck on a chain. So that I can always be reminded of God's grace and the unexpected magic of answered prayers.