Originally published in Carolina Shore. All words in italics are my notes to you, the reader.
An additional note: All photographs are mine, from a previous assignment. To see Jared’s incredible work, you can visit his website here.
Click, click-click-click, click, the camera’s shutter whirred quietly. All of the conditions were just right: high tide, a full moon rising just when the wild horses of Shackleford Banks decided to cross in front of the lens, a sunset with plenty of color still streaking the sky. One missing element, and it is not the image that photographer Jared Lloyd has been dreaming of for five years. When it all comes together, it is like catching lightning in a bottle.
Lloyd grew up on the coast of North Carolina and Virginia - the Inner Banks, the Outer Banks, and some of what he calls the four-wheel drive section of the beach near Carova. Maybe it’s the salt water that runs in your veins after living near the ocean, maybe it’s the year or two he spent hitchhiking around the U.S. between high school and college - he puts off an unflappable, easygoing, infinitely practical air not often associated with artists.
Lloyd is the sort of person who can tell you he spent a year between high school and college hopping freight trains and hitchhiking around the country (something he actually did) and it makes total sense.
Afraid that untold hours of rigid formal education would wring the love of photography out of him, Lloyd opted for a degree in environmental history, a degree that continues to inform his work as a wildlife photographer to this day. Lloyd explained that environmental history is about how human and natural history interact and influence one another (it is not, as it would be easy to assume, the history of the environmental movement). For instance: Today Outer Banks is one of the top destinations for the sun and surf, but when the resorts started appearing on the coast in the mid-1800s, it had nothing to do with the scenery - it was so wealthy planters from the mainland could escape malaria (the same is true for mountain resort communities). These studies gave him a deeper understanding of his subjects, their origins, and their place in the world from a broader perspective. After college, he dove head-first into photography, which has taken him all over the world - to remote Alaska, the Galapagos Islands, Peru and beyond - but he always finds his way back home. These days, he splits his time between Bozeman, Montana (where he can have quick access to the Yellowstone ecosystem and all its biodiversity) and the North Carolina coast, where he can continue a years-long personal project.
The first time Lloyd visited the Rachel Carson Coastal Reserve was back in 2009, when he hauled a kayak down to Beaufort and circumnavigated the reserve. This trip was followed by return trips at least once a year and a growing fascination with our coast’s wild horses. In 2015 Lloyd partnered with fellow wildlife photographer/cinematographer Doug Gardner to begin creating a documentary about the horses [note: They are horses, not ponies. These guys have adapted to be small so they can make due with the limited resources on a barrier island, but they are not ponies. The more ya know.]. Since the project is self-funded, it’s been slow going, putting together one small piece at a time.
For the last three summers, Lloyd has spent months filming from a home base in Beaufort. He says that an average day starts out too early, while the sky is still pitch black. Twelve cups of coffee brew while he packs up all of his video gear into tough waterproof cases (“caffeine is crucial,” he says), then he drags it all out to his 24-foot Carolina skiff and launches out at grey first light. He shoots until about eleven in the morning, when he packs up and heads to Beaufort to wait out the harsh midday light. While he’s waiting, he recharges batteries, downloads the footage he got, and - if he’s lucky - snatches a few minutes for a nap. By three he is back out on the water headed to the reserve, where he will shoot until about a half hour after sunset. In addition to the logistics of documenting wildlife, now he has the additional challenges provided by video work: it’s exponentially more expensive, far more technical, takes longer to set up and requires more equipment.
Lloyd explained the difference between documenting wildlife in still photos and film: “With photography, you’re just capturing this one moment, this one split second … something starts to unfold, you’re not quite ready, technically speaking you can grab a camera, try and throw yourself in position (whatever that looks like), and snap a photo. And maybe the Photography Gods shine upon you, and you walk away with a photograph from it. With video, you can kiss all of that goodbye.”
Finding one representative horse to tell the story of the whole sub-species has also proved more challenging than anticipated. There was a horse on Rachel Carson they had decided to follow - he was gorgeous, a natural in the water. Then he died. They went back to the drawing board. Eventually, they decided to focus the story on a Palomino named Bingo, who then died in winter of 2017.
“It’s a lot of trekking through the water, it’s a lot of pushing around in the mud, it’s a lot of sitting and waiting and baking and sun-burning,” and (with a laugh), “It’s a lot of suffering through the Plague of the North Carolina coast, which is No-See-Ums [biting sand flies] in my opinion. There’s the good and the bad of it, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
So a life of wildlife documentary is not just one of jet-setting, adventure and picture-perfect moments, not even on our beautiful coastline. What makes all of the slogging and toil worthwhile?
“I think it’s the story of the horses. It’s extraordinary to me. I mean, I’ve had some pretty incredible opportunities to experience this world, and to experience wildlife all over the planet. From the Galapagos Islands to Alaska, I travel about nine months out of the year chasing down opportunities, chasing stories of wildlife to photograph and stuff. And here, right off the coast of North Carolina, in all of our backyards is probably one of the coolest and most extraordinary wildlife situations in North America.”
The story of this scrappy species is one of adaptation to beat the odds, of animals much tougher than their romanticized image. According to Lloyd, the species’ original habitat “could not be any [more] different” than the barrier island. And yet if you look across Taylor Creek in Beaufort, there they are, drinking the brackish water and grazing contentedly on tough coastal grasses. Whether you believe the old stories of Spanish shipwrecks bringing horses to our shores or a ship under the care of Lord Grenville unloading on its way to the first colony at Roanoke, the horses are a tangible link to the past.
You can visit and photograph this piece of natural history for yourself any day of the week; just take a kayak or a ferry over from Beaufort. In order to protect the horses and park visitors, it is state law to stay at least fifty feet away from the horses (but that, Lloyd says, is why we have long lenses).
“That’s the most important thing - the safety and well-being of our subjects, before anything else, way before the actual photographs,” Lloyd explained. “The goal is to keep the animal always at ease … if an animal is responding to you, you’re not going to catch its natural behavior.”
Natural behavior and conservation is Lloyd’s goal morning after morning, as he treks through the water for another day of shooting. His aim is to show a remarkable species in their now natural habitat, exhibiting their usual behavior. To him, filming is a way of preserving a natural resource, and encouraging others to do the same. The horses are something of a natural miracle, one he hopes to show the world after years of blood, sweat, and salt water.
To watch a highlight reel of the footage shot so far or to help fund the documentary, visit seahorsesthemovie.com