Sam Abell knew he would need the luck o’ the Irish with him to have any hope of photographing the country for National Geographic in 1994. “Expectations for the story could not have been higher,” he told me when we spoke by phone last week. “Every editor had been to Ireland, and everyone had had some, like, leprechaun magic or literary, romantic time—with the language, the music, the whiskey, the landscape, whatever.”
Sam was no greenhorn. He had been photographing all over the world for National Geographic since 1970. By the time he retired from the magazine in 2001, he had produced more than twenty iconic feature stories. And yet, when Sam arrived in Dublin to begin photographing, he felt enormous pressure and very little magic. “The very next thing that happened,” he said, “was that I got mugged and robbed in Dublin. In the first week that I was there.”
Sam was in St. Stephen’s Green, photographing some musicians, when his assailants followed him to the edge of the park, beat him up, and stole his camera. The men were caught and put on trial, “but the point to me,” Sam remembered, “is that that’s a solid setback on your momentum, your love of the story, your involvement. Just a real blow.”
To recover, Sam and his wife, who traveled on assignment with him for 25 years, journeyed to Dingle, in the far southwest corner of Ireland, some 220 miles from Dublin. It was there that some Irish luck first struck Sam, but he wouldn’t know it for quite some time. John Doyle, who was the innkeeper for Sam’s lodging, knew about his trouble in Dublin. To cheer him up, John invited Sam out on his boat to get a look at a local legend. A wild dolphin, called Fungie by the locals, frequented the bay—and John claimed that his dog, Jock, had a special friendship with the dolphin. “I was not optimistic about this,” Sam said, chuckling. “I didn’t think there were wild dolphins around Ireland, number one. Number two, I didn’t think that a dog would have a relationship with the wild dolphin. And even if that were true, it would not come together in a photograph.” Sam had experience photographing dolphins in the Galápagos Islands, and he knew how near impossible they are to capture in an image. “They’re too unpredictable in their actions and movements and behaviors.”
In Dingle Bay, “for 20 minutes nothing happened,” Sam said. “And then out of the sea rocketed this dolphin, straight up in the air, looked down on the boat, saw the dog, the dog barked, the dolphin tweeted, and disappeared.” The unlikely pair continued to interact for 20 minutes while Sam clambered around the boat, knowing he wasn’t getting the shot he so desperately wanted. Finally, he realized there was only one way to have a chance at photographing this moment. Sam turned to a technique his father had taught him as a teenager, what he calls the “compose-and-wait” method. He crouched on the boat and peered through his camera, making sure Jock was in the foreground, and the coast of Ireland was in the background. And then he waited. John, the boat captain and innkeeper, kept watch, and then shouted, “Here comes Fungie!” Sam snapped the picture, just in time.
But even then, Sam didn’t know that he had it. It was the age of film, so even though he had done his best, he wouldn’t know until much later that he had succeeded—and so for the time being, he stayed in his funk. “I mean, I would’ve bought drinks for the whole town if I’d seen that image on the back of my camera,” he said laughing.
Whether he realized it at the time or not, the Irish magic that everyone had told him about was happening to him, too. There was the chance encounter with Bono at a restaurant that allowed Sam access to a U2 concert in Dublin. There was the house next to Sam’s on the Aran Islands, where a horse slept with its rear end in the door while moonlight cascaded over it. There was the time Sam was lost when he spotted a family scrambling over seaside cliffs. There was a breakneck sprint to an embankment to take one last picture of a horse race at low tide. There was the time a neighbor honked at a group of children and their pony, causing them to turn their heads just as a gust of wind blew and Sam clicked the shutter to create what would become the cover photo.
“They didn’t know National Geographic—clearly I was an American, I had a camera. And courteously, in a state of pure bewilderment, they stopped, stood behind their pony, and stared me down. I couldn’t get them not to stare at me. So I composed the picture and I’m waiting, but nothing’s gonna happen. And then some friend of theirs went by in a car, honked the horn, and shouted. At that moment a blast of wind hit the horse and hit their hair, a little bit, not much—and they are looking off camera to see who’s shouting at them. Click.”
All along, he was never sure if the film he was going to turn in to the editors would have what everyone had hoped for. For Sam, the whole pursuit was somewhat of a spiritual experience. “In retrospect,” he said, “I realize that it was spiritual in the sense that, with no proof that your cameras were working, or that you were working, or that the situations were working—you went forward the next day. And you did that day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. You went forward on faith. You had to.”
Sam Abell is a teacher, artist, and photographer who worked for National Geographic as a contract and staff photographer for thirty-three years. He has published three collections of his work: Seeing Gardens, Sam Abell: The Photographic Life, and The Life of a Photograph. See more of his work on his website.