Let Sleeping Crocodiles Lie. Cautionary Tales from a Freelance Life

Crocodile by Sally Wiener GrottaDaniel and I enjoyed strolling. Wherever we were, whether near home or on some other continent, we’d go for rambling walks. Often with no destination in mind, turning where our feet and curiosity pulled us, stopping when something demanded our full attention, or to simply sit and absorb. It was our way of connecting. With our surroundings, whether it were nature or a cityscape. With the rhythm of life and culture. With each other. Every walk was an adventure, an exploration, a learning experience. And fun.

More often than not, I’d have a camera in hand. When we were away from home, Daniel usually carried my camera bag, which would be packed with lenses, various camera bodies, model releases and the other paraphernalia that fill such bags, including dozens of rolls of film. (Yes, this was in the pre-digital era.)

On this particular walk, the sun slanted on the arid sub-Sahara of Kenya’s Samburu National Park. Golden light and long shadows mottled the parched landscape, creating unexpected shapes where I had seen only a flat and near featureless expanse in the midday overhead sun. Dotting the far flung vista were occasional groves of trees, indicating probable water sources.

Our only companion was our guide. Unlike the lanky statuesque men of the local Samburu tribe who moved through their domain with the graceful lope of a gazelle, our guide was compact, with a center of gravity that seemed to keep him in constant contact with the earth under his feet. The air was alive with almost subliminal sounds that I couldn’t really identify — probably bird calls, perhaps insects and far off animal calls. The sky above was as wide as any I’ve ever seen, stretching from horizon to far horizon, devoid of any sign of mankind’s imprint on nature. No wires, no buildings, no vehicles or sounds of traffic. Not even the contrail of a high altitude plane.

As we rounded the edge of a comparatively large grove of trees, we saw a small river which had carved a crevasse in the dry soil so that the embankment seemed to tower over the waterway like a tiny cliff. At the bottom of the near embankment slept an enormous crocodile. He was motionless, a stunning sculptural figure composed of dense shadows and pools of light.

Fascinated, I held my camera to my eye, and moved forward to the edge of the precipice just above the crocodile. Carefully composing as I walked, I focused on f-stop and shutter speed, and on the angle of his beautifully grotesque body in relationship to the muddy water and sandy soil. I crouched to adjust my view to get a larger portion of the river and far bank in my frame. I was unaware that the guide had crept away into the grove until Daniel yanked me away from the embankment, pulling me toward our guide, and ruining my shot.

It all happened so quickly, perhaps a couple of minutes between sighting the crocodile, composing the picture and Daniel hauling me away more roughly than I had ever seen that gentle man be. Then he explained in a calm, conversational tone, “That croc is 25 feet long, Sally.” He paused. I supposed he expected me to make the leap of logic that was so obvious to him and our guide. I didn’t. I was still too focused on the image of textures, shadows and light that I had formed in my mind and had not yet captured.

Daniel held my arm gently but adamantly, forcing me to hear him. “That embankment isn’t even 20 feet,” he added.

I did the math. I had been crouching just above that granddad of a crocodile, within a single quick lunge of his fearsome jaws. And when a croc lunges, it can be fast! If he had awakened, I could have been minced meat.

That memory came to mind recently, when I saw a reader’s comment on one of my essays in which she called me brave. There’s brave, and there’s stupid. Bravery is a choice you can make to go forward despite your fears. Stupidity is being unaware of danger and going forward with no thought as to where you put your feet or what the consequences might be.

I was stupid. But Daniel was there to cover my back, to pull me from the precipice. Daniel was always there. My ballast and foundation. That’s why I wasn’t fearful, and therefore couldn’t be brave. (At least, I had no fears about the important things, the essentials. I’m not talking about the “normal” insecurities that are synonymous with being an artist and writer.)

That incident with the crocodile was one of the more dramatic examples of my photographer blindness — i.e. being so focused on an image I wanted to create that I notice nothing else. But I have many other similar stories of my stupidity. In each case, all that mattered was getting the right angle and exposure, and filling a camera frame with the composition I saw in my mind’s eye. Only after the shutter button was pressed and the picture was in the can would I look around and see what trouble I might have gotten myself into this time. Then I’d call Daniel to please help get me down from the rock formation or pick me up in the car or help me talk my way out of the current messy situation.

Even when I don’t have a camera in my hand, I continue to see the world in photographic terms. How else can I explain some of the crazy stunts I’ve pulled or participated in that had nothing to do with creating a picture?

Like that time Daniel and I were on assignment at the winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Sarasota, Florida. During one of our interviews, I was asked if I wanted to participate in the circus. I said I would love to try the trapeze. (Full disclosure: I am scared of heights, but I have always dreamed of flying.) Unfortunately, at 5’8″ I’m apparently too large a woman for the trapeze. Instead, the circus rep suggested I try the high wire. What the heck? Why not? After all, they would strap me into a safety harness and a really big net filling the ring below would catch me if the harness failed.

The most difficult part of walking the high wire was stepping from the tiny tubular u-shaped ladder rung set near the top of the roof-scraping pole to the platform on the other side of the pole. To go forward, I would have to reach around the pole, hanging for a moment over empty air, while shifting my weight from the ladder rung to the small open platform. I might have stopped right then and there, and simply climbed down, but for all the people who were watching me. Besides, I had made it this far. Did I really want to give up without trying, and always wonder what I might have achieved?

In comparison, walking the wire itself wasn’t that tricky. Once I got my balance (almost entirely supported by the harness), I wasn’t scared so much as fascinated and curious. I could feel the wire biting into the thin soles of the acrobat slippers they had given me to wear. I’m not sure why the ringmaster bothered to mention to the audience that I was an amateur; my awkwardness was a dead giveaway. After I had taken a few steps, he announced (in hindsight, I realize that it was meant as a joke), “Now, in a death-defying feat, Sally will lift her leg.” And I did – holding it up in front of me for several long seconds – which clearly shocked him (and, well, shocked Daniel and me, too). I’m still not sure if the delight of the crowds below were for the ringmaster’s surprised double-take, or my clumsy attempt at a ballerina’s dégagé.

Only later, after I had climbed back to earth, back to Daniel, did the raging adrenalin in my blood plunge, draining and chilling me. As I leaned into Daniel for warmth and security, my mind raced with what-could-have-happens: What if I had fallen? Would the harness have wrenched my back? Or what if I had tumbled into the net? Nobody had bothered to instruct me on the correct way to bounce into a safety net so I didn’t break my neck. Why hadn’t I thought of those possibilities before considering such a foolhardy stunt?

I could reply once again that I was stupid. But now that I think of it, other elements enter into the equation — possibly the same ingredients that propelled me forward into this freelance life in the first place:

  • One part foolishness or stupidity, undoubtedly.
  • And one part the essential sense of security that Daniel gave me, knowing that he had my back and would pick me up if I failed.
  • Mixed in was the fact that my fear of not trying far outweighed my fear of failure (as much as I fear failure).

I have never been on staff anywhere. (That doesn’t include the times I waitressed or took other odd jobs early in life.) I’ve been a freelancer my entire career. Some might say that I’ve been walking a high wire for decades as well as had a lot of experience dealing with crocodiles, albeit mostly in human form.

Becoming a freelancer is not a rational choice. It’s something you can’t avoid; otherwise, you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) do it. Rootless, you have no safety net other than your skills as a writer/artist and your ability to convince the powers that be to allow you entrée and give you paying assignments.

In this era of shrinking and disappearing publications, a multitude of editors and other staffers have been thrown out onto the streets. For many of them, freelancing is the only answer to their difficult situation, a stopgap (or so most hope) between salaried jobs.

A salary was never on my agenda. I’m a freelancer because of my compulsion to write about a wide range of life experiences, especially people I might otherwise never have known. I ached to learn. No, more than learn: to understand. To explore the great diversity of our world — different cultures and tribes, large and small landscapes, the everyman near and the exotic far. Then to use the written word and my pictures to unearth what it might mean. Not that I always (or even often) found answers. The more I lived, the more questions I found myself asking.

In other words, like my encounter with the crocodile and that high-wire stunt, I don’t consider freelancing an act of bravery, because I never really had a choice in the matter. I was driven. Besides, being able to slip in and out of scores of magazines, newspapers and journals, on a story by story basis, allowed me to feed my addiction to new places, new ideas and new people, to discover stories without being tied to writing for a single type of audience.

Nor do I agree with those who call freelancing a gamble – at least, not the way Daniel and I lived and played it.

I have a friend who goes to Atlantic City frequently. He enjoys playing the slot machines and the “high roller” perks that every wage earns him. When Daniel was still alive, I used to say that I gamble only on sure things. Not that anything is assured when you must live from assignment to assignment. But I believed in Daniel and me, in our talent and professional skills, and in the fact that we would always be there for each other. A steady hand at the small of the back, an assist back up onto our feet when either of us fell, and a partner who made each day an adventure even when we woke up in our own bed.

But Daniel is no longer here. In many ways, all the guideposts of my life – of our life – have been torn down. Like those out-of-work editors, I’m suddenly in an untenable position. No longer driven by a blind, sometimes foolish passion, I’m still out here on the high wire with the crocodiles below waiting for me to fall. Without Daniel by my side, sharing the adventures, covering my back and, when necessary, pulling me back from the cliff’s edge, I’m now more aware of the what-could-happens, and they frighten me. All I know is that I can’t just stand here, with the wire cutting into the thin soles of my acrobat slippers. So I inch forward, one tiny step at a time.

If I don’t fall and if the crocodiles don’t awaken to me, eventually I may make it to the far end of the wire, to that tiny platform, then to the terrifying empty air between the platform and the ladder back down to earth. But when (if?) I get that far, I wonder what I will find there and who I’ll be. I can only hope that new stories await me, ones Daniel would have enjoyed sharing.

(*Drawing of a crocodile by Sally Wiener Grotta based on a photo by Leigh Bedford https://tinyurl.com/zvhytjg)

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