This month’s PDN cover features Ernie Brown Jr., aka The Turtleman, posing in a swamp with a large, irritated snapping turtle on his knee. For photographer David Yellen, the shoot–to promote Animal Planet’s Call of the Wildman–was more harrowing than it looks.
It took place last February on the edge of a swampy pond in northern Florida. Location scouts had certified the pond as alligator-free. But Turtleman announced upon arrival that there was an alligator about. “We called bullshit on him, but he said, ‘See those air bubbles over there? They’re going to start moving.’ And five minutes later we saw the alligator’s eyeballs,” Yellen recounts. Animal wranglers took up their guard with alligator nooses. Turtleman, who specializes in ridding people’s backyards of unwanted reptiles, started diving for the gator. “He was saying, ‘I’m going to get this guy,”” Yellen says. “Luckily, he didn’t. It was a nine- or ten-foot alligator.”
With the alligator lurking around, Yellen struggled to get just the right picture of Turtleman holding the 80-pound snapping turtle. “I kept getting closer, wider, and lower,” Yellen says. “I was really pushing it.” Yellen, who had never worked with a snapping turtle before, didn’t know that large snapping turtles can extend their necks 12 inches or more. Behind him, the animal wranglers, the producer, and eventually Turtleman’s manager issued increasingly urgent warnings for Yellen to “watch out.” He was also looking through a wide angle lens, so he was getting closer to the turtle than he realized. “I thought they were being paranoid,” he says of the worried crew.
Finally the turtle got Yellen’s attention by taking a lunge toward the camera, and missing by not much. The resounding snap of its jaws unnerved Yellen, but he pressed on. “I was like, I don’t care, I’m going to get this. I just didn’t feel like I was getting it. I felt like it needed to be more intense, and I needed to try harder. So I got lower and closer.” He got so low that pond water finally flooded into his waders. “It was disgusting,” he says. With his camera—a Hasselblad H2 with a Phase One back—within half an inch of the pond’s surface, he finally got the image he was after. “It’s not an intense stare-down” with the camera, he says. “[Turtleman] is not totally connecting with me. He’s just out there in the wild, and it kind of feels like that.”