There is nothing like securing a contract to photograph an event like the one I was blessed with in June.
Nik Wallenda was going to walk a high wire across the Grand Canyon, untethered, and the Discovery Channel was going to broadcast it to more than 200 countries with an estimated viewership of 200 million people.
I had been hired to document the event, Nik’s family and friends who were there, and add to the already-vast Wallenda family legacy, archives and heirlooms. I would also feed to Getty Images.
All in all, it would be a demanding, pressure-filled shoot, four-day shoot, yet with a built-in cushion: Great visuals guaranteed. How could it get better?
By taking my near-80 year old father along.
Nik Wallenda is a nice, kind, sweet, friendly, talented, charming, devoted family man. I didn’t steal that line from any press release. I learned it on my own. This year he let me photograph him nearly a dozen different times.
His family is always there. Most times it’s the physcial presence of his wife and three children, his mother and father and many other family and close friends who rig his cables, handle his media calls, guarantee his safety and hundreds of other details that go along with being part of the most recognized high-wire family in history.
Always present is the shadow of his great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, and others who carved out history in the 200 years the Wallendas have been performing.
I really like breaking rules. The big one on this trip, if Nik would allow it, would be to bring my father along. It’s not professional to have family and friends along on shoots. We all know that.
When I thought about Nik’s devotion to family and legacy, I couldn’t help but think how great it would be to have my 78-year-old father, Marvin, along with me. He was a truck driver for most of his adult life. He’d never seen a TV stage in real life, much less one that crossed the Grand Canyon. But, he is in good shape, he is warm, smart, funny, charming and very sweet. He is devoted to his family.
He is much like Nik, in other words. I had to ask.
“Nik, can I bring my dad along?” I wrote in an email two weeks before our journey was to begin. “I’d be honored to have your dad along,” Nik wrote back.
So, for three of those days, my father was at my side as we followed Nik Wallenda and his family and crew to press conferences, training sessions, meet and greets with fans, rehearsals, meals, horseshoes and hijinks, and finally to Sunday, the day Nik was going to create history and put his life on the line in front of 200 million people on live television.
My father became a minor celebrity himself along the way. His hometown newspaper, The Altoona Mirror, wrote a story. Dad said he couldn’t go anywhere without people asking him about his trip with Nik Wallenda to the Grand Canyon.
He developed a true friendship with Jack and Suzi Hanna who invited dad to visit them at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. (We went this month)
I think a lot of people were moved about seeing my father and I hanging out together at the biggest event in the world.
Two other photojournalists there told me they had lost their own fathers recently. One teared up, I believe from the wish that he could have been in my sooty shoes, with his own father. I was reminded how blessed to have mine there.
The successes were huge. Nik finished the record-breaking walk despite immense heat, windy updrafts from the Canyon floor, slippery desert dust on the wire and a thousand other challenges he and his team faced and conquered.
My dad and I had a great time, bonding and making memories and photographs that will be around long after we’re all are gone. One thing I didn’t plan on, but was incredibly satisfied to find out: Not only did I add to and enhance the Wallenda family heirlooms and legacies, but those of my own family as well.
iPhone shot of note we received from Jack and Suzi Hanna. I sent them a 20×30″ print of their choice. He said he wanted it signed. I told him, “you know Nik, you ask him to sign it.” He said, “I want you to sign it.”
Thank you to Scott Kelby, David Hobby and Joe McNally for showing me the light.
Thank you to Nik Wallenda for saying yes to just about anything I ever asked him and for always giving me something interesting to shoot.
Thank you to my Jack and Suzi Hanna for treating my father like he’s the most important man in the world.
Thank you to my father, Marvin, for always having a sense of adventure and my mother for things I could never put into words.