A hurricane. A surging ocean. And a pool table.
The photographer who made one of the most memorable images in recent Outer Banks history explains how he got the shot, and what it's like to take pictures in a place where nature and humanity collide.
A NOTE: I am hereby declaring this to be Outer Banks month here at the Rabbit Hole. Why? Because why the hell not, that’s why. North Carolina’s barrier islands are a fascinating, weird, unique place, and I so happen to have a few great stories lined up about the crust on the sandwich that is this state. The last one, about a house in Rodanthe that FELL INTO THE OCEAN, did fairly well, spawned this TikTok, and landed me on the Weather Channel. We got a good thing going here. So let’s keep rollin’.
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I first saw this picture about a year and a half ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since. At first, I didn’t know much about it, other than it had been taken on the Outer Banks. Because it’s high on vibes but low on context, it’s a great vessel for your feelings about, well, any number of things. One person might look at this and see the folly of humanity’s insistence that it can bring nature under control. Another might feel bad for the homeowner who has to clean up and start over. Still others might just think it’s a cool picture.
I started following the photographer who took it, Daniel Pullen, on Instagram, and for a while now, I’ve been enjoying his view on Outer Banks life. Recently, I saw him out taking pictures of a house that collapsed into the ocean at Rodanthe, and it brought me back to his pool table picture. I figured now was as good a time as any to find out who he is, and how he got that shot.
Growing Up With A Camera
Daniel Pullen doesn’t have a traditional Outer Banks last name, even though his mom’s side of the family grew up there. “They’re all Barnettes and Jennettes,” he says, laughing. He was born elsewhere, but his family moved back to the area in 1978 when he was two, and he’s lived on the Outer Banks ever since.
Daniel liked art and photography, and he first started taking pictures with disposable cameras that he bought from Conner’s supermarket in Buxton. He’d use one to document Hurricane Dennis in 1999. Eventually, his parents bought him a point-and-shoot. Later, when his dad was working on a book about the Civil War, he met the photographer who was taking the pictures. “Buy a DSLR,” he told Daniel. So, he did.
Soon, Daniel was tailoring his work life around his hobbies. “I thought: What allows me to do the most surfing? A restaurant job!” He did that for a bit, then worked at the Natural Art Surf Shop in Buxton. When he wasn’t working, he’d take surf pictures. Then he got married and started shooting weddings at a time when destination weddings on the Outer Banks were beginning to boom. Thirteen years ago, he became a full-time photographer, and now, some 95% of his business is weddings and portraits. “I used to do some surf projects,” he says, “but the surf publication industry is all but dead.”
Images of people getting married brings in the money, but pictures of life on Hatteras Island bring something else. When he’s not on the clock, Daniel roams the Outer Banks, taking pictures of its people and its predictably harsh weather.
It can be hard to figure out how to stand out in one of the most-photographed places in North Carolina. “This is gonna sound corny, but it helps to be in tune with the weather. It helps knowing tides,” he says. Plus, he likes to zig when others zag. “At the Avon Pier, for example, there are, like, 5 or 6 photographers there at sunrise,” he says. “How can I do something different?”
Often, being different starts with focusing on people in his pictures. “What I’m trying to show in my work is people interacting with their surroundings,” Daniel says. Sometimes those surroundings—homes, cars, humans—act as timestamps, firmly grounding a picture in time and space. It also doesn’t hurt that when the weather gets bad on the Outer Banks, it gets bad. “There’s a rawness to it,” he says.
Even so, if seen one picture of a hurricane, you’ve sort of seen them all. The bent trees. The crashing waves. Roofless homes. People tromping through high water. Through images alone, it’s hard to tell where one storm ends and another begins.
That’s why when you see a truly great picture from a hurricane, it jolts you to attention. There are the images of pigs standing on eastern North Carolina rooftops during Hurricane Floyd. There was an image of a weary looking man being evacuated from New Bern during Hurricane Florence, with a kitten sitting on his shoulder. And then there’s Daniel’s shot, of the ocean coming into a house and enveloping a pool table.
When The Ocean Came In The House
Hurricane Teddy is a storm that most people forget about. It never came close to shore, but it kicked up the ocean in September 2020, and sent water across Highway 12, closing it for five straight days. It also pushed the ocean up into homes on Hatteras Island. Daniel was checking his Instagram feed, when he saw a video of a friend doing something… unique. It opens with water rushing in through an open doorway. Then it pans over to show a man playing pool with the water flowing around his ankles. “Solids,” he says before lining up a shot.
Daniel hopped in the car and headed over to Avon to see if he couldn’t get a few pictures of that place. Turns out, the house he found was a different house with a pool table on the ground floor. Daniel stuck his head in the open door, asked if anyone was home, then stepped inside. He took, maybe, 20 to 30 pictures over five minutes, then left and kept walking down the beach. “Others show more power,” he says of the pictures he took, but the one Daniel chose is more subtle. “You can see a curtain being pulled,” he says.
After he got back, Daniel included the picture in a set of images he posted to Instagram. It was sort of hidden: The fifth image in a set of nine. But friends saw it and shared it. Then, as Daniel puts it, the right people saw it. “Photojournalists I looked up to shared it,” he says. A photo editor from Time got in touch a day later. He initially tried to get the shot into an upcoming issue about climate change, but it didn’t work out. Instead, a few months later, Time made it one of its top 100 photos of 2020.
The image seems so unusual, but Daniel says you could make this sort of picture almost anywhere along the Outer Banks. “Pick a village,” he says. For one thing, if a home has a view of the ocean, that ocean will probably be under the home in a storm. For another, a lot of rental houses and cottages that have finished ground floors also tend to use them for game rooms. Again, Daniel set out to find a specific house where the water had lapped up against a pool table, and ended up in a completely different house where that exact same thing was happening. Hatteras Island is an isolated place, but there are plenty of houses where this sort of thing can happen. Hence, Daniel says, his picture is “not a one-in-a-million shot.”
Even so, hard to say why the picture became as memorable as it did. Daniel has one theory. “People say it’s the perfect depiction of the boogeyman,” he says. “There’s this unspoken monster coming into the room.”