Imagine attaching yourself to a rope and plunging down a 437-foot shaft into a pitch black pit. A "room" so dark you can't even see your hand in front of your face, and so immense that your friends can't hear you, even if you shout. Imagine trying to coordinate four other people dangling from walls to ignite magnesium flash powder (i.e. explosives) at the exact same moment so that for one split second, the space is brilliantly illuminated — like a burst of lightning — just long enough for you to click the shutter and say, "Got it!"
Stephen Alvarez/National Geographic
Stephen's Gap, Ala. Stephen Alvarez/National Geographic
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Stephen Alvarez does this sort of thing for a living. He's a National Geographic photographer, expert spelunker and, incidentally, a pyrotechnician. And he knows dedication. Each of his photographs, he says, can consume up to three days of his life. And in the end, only a few of them are published. Alvarez spent nearly 50 days in the field for a story in the June issue of National Geographic magazine, for example. The writer of the story spent about five.
But Alvarez really has something going for him: he's one of the few people in the world with the expertise for this rare genre of adventure photography. He's been all over the world photographing not only the most complex cave systems, but also all "places that haven't been cut down yet," as he puts it. This recent National Geographic story took him through the deep South: the caves of Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia — commonly known to cavers as the TAG system.
"It is uncharted territory," says Alvarez. "If you want to do original physical exploration, you don't have a lot of choices. You can go to the deep ocean, which is prohibitively expensive. All the mountains have been climbed; the whole surface of the earth has been mapped. So that leaves you the underground world."
An underground world that has been millennia in the making and, in most instances, has remained untouched by man. Which is why cavers are reluctant to talk about discoveries and why, one would think, they'd hesitate to share their secret spots with a national magazine. But, as Alvarez says, the cavers in this story "were very receptive to the idea that this thing that they love would be shared with millions of people." They're protective of their caves, but more than anything, they want to share their excitement.
Alvarez shares a few stories about his background, about his life as a National Geographic photographer, and about the making of this magazine story. Here's a video of some field footage from the making of this article.