Partnering with fellow photographer
"You're just getting closer and you know there has been a tornado there, and there is not enough information to know that there is not a tornado there now," said Willett, now 50.
Storm chasing is a puzzle.
So is photography. Willett's interest in imagery developed with his first batch of photographs.
He traces his interest to a family vacation in
"He always liked to see how things were made and would take things apart like vacuum cleaners and motors to see how they worked," said his mother,
Willett joined the yearbook staff at
"I would just go out and give myself assignments," Willett said. "It's just like the newspaper, but I would just look through the newspaper and they had a column that said what's happening today. I would go in there and circle the things that looked interesting."
Today most people know him for his storm-chasing work, but like any good puzzle, Willett's career has many parts, from freelance work to a current film project on love.
For a May show at the
It was shooting stock photography -- taking photos for commercial use -- that led Willett to storm chasing. They sold well, and in those early years, not many people chased severe weather.
"Tornado chasing became this puzzle of all the information, and 'Let's see if you can solve this puzzle and get an interesting photo,'" Willett said. "It was a challenge."
Today, Willett sees people take unnecessary risks, even with so much information available about dangerous weather. He sets up cameras and keeps his eyes on the storm.
Although he began storm chasing in 1987, he did not see his first tornado until 1991. With little information to go on, Willett and Faidley would spend hours in cable company lobbies in small towns, taking advantage of the lobby television's access to the Weather Channel. They would go for a month at a time.
Willet first encountered tornadoes as a child living in
All of it -- even tornadoes, lightning and thunderclouds -- connects to people.
"Storm chasing is like
1 percent what you experience when you're out there, and a lot of what you experience is talking to other people and meeting other people," Willett said.
Here are some excerpts from a conversation with Willett about his career, his photography and some harrowing escapades with severe weather.
Willett took this photo as a
"This was shot before I worked at the paper. That was shot because I had gone down the street, and I had always wanted to do something interesting with the mural, and I didn't know what it was until I saw those people walking down the street, and I asked them if they would pose for a picture."
As a Tucson Citizen photographer "I would photograph five to eight things a day, and you would get all these assignment cards, but it was also really cool, because you would meet all of these people that you don't know and learn about their little snippets of life."
After working as a photojournalist for the Tucson Citizen for two years, Willett, only 22 at the time, moved to
"It was so difficult. I would talk to all those people and take my portfolio to all the magazines like Newsweek, Time, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vanity Fair and Forbes, and the thing is, all of them said, 'If you lived in
"My bedroom was like six feet wide, so the bed would fit from end to end on one end of the bedroom, but when I would lift my head, there were two pillows there, so I would be looking out over lower
--"Dawn at the Saragosa Tornado Disaster," 1987
Faidley and Willett met photographing a trailer fire in
One evening, they hopped in Faidley's car at
"You're thinking you're going to see a tornado lit up by the lightning as the lightning flashes, and we're on the road between
"It's pitch black and they have these piles of rubble that were houses, and there's all these firefighters digging through this rubble looking for survivors. This was our first tornado chase. We weren't even there for a day to adjust to being in
"(This family) came back to where their house was before...and they had left with their pajamas on, and there was nothing left of their house, and they're just standing there in their pink pajamas so completely dazed, so I'm trying to think of what to shoot. There were full-sized pickup trucks that were completely smashed flat where the tornado threw them a mile and a half, tumbling over. You look at that and go, 'There is no way to survive that inside of a car,' so it was a really good wake up call. It was a rude awakening about how dangerous things were."
--"Gruver Texas Twister," 1993
Willett and Faidley saw seven tornadoes form out of this same storm.
"We're driving 70 miles per hour down this road and winds are going 70 miles per hour into the storm, and I'm like, 'I see this windmill coming up,' and I say that would be a good thing to show scale, so I grab my camera and just go click click click and got three photos of (the tornado) and this ended up being the best photo."
"I'm driving down this road that was closed off because they were repaving it. It had these big 'road closed' signs, and I'm driving like 60 or 70 miles per hour down a 55 zone ... I look in my rear view mirror and there's a cop with flashing lights behind me, and I'm like holy s---, and the cop goes around me and passes me, and he was just following the storm, too, because he reports back to the (
(c)2014 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)
Visit The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.) at www.azstarnet.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services