Jennifer Brindley isn’t afraid – of living life to its fullest, changing careers in search of purpose, or moving across the country for love.
As a professional photographer and storm chaser, she’s also not afraid to seek out some of the world’s most epic and awe-inspiring severe weather; she estimates she has seen 54 tornadoes since she started chasing in 2007. She spends time each spring and summer in search of the rotating thunderstorm called the supercell — and its elusive and prized counterpart, the tornado — to capture on camera, and as part of a research team studying near-surface wind data.
Jennifer spoke with Nongirly about deliberately creating a life full of meaning that she loves, experiencing the rush of being in front of a behemoth supercell, and the growth that can come from tackling fear.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Brindley
How did you get into storm chasing?
Most storm chasers have some kind of encounter with the weather, or an experience they had with severe weather when they were younger, that lights them on fire and makes them want to learn more about severe weather and tornadoes and storm chasing, right? I was not one of those storm chasers.
I am from Colorado, and I lived in Denver for most of my life. So, it would have made sense that I would have seen some landspouts or some tornadoes or things like that. But the first time I was ever exposed to storm chasing was in the movie Twister – and that immediately, and absolutely was the thing that hooked me on the idea of storm chasing, and the idea of seeing a tornado. When I watched the movie, I didn’t think that storm chasing was even a real thing that anybody did in real life. I completely thought it was in the movies only. And it’s a female lead in that movie; she’s a strong female lead — and I connected with that, obviously, because there’s not enough of that. And I wanted to be her, and I wanted to see the tornado, but that’s just fantasy land as much as it is that I want to be in Moulin Rouge and dance on the stage.
So, fast forward a couple of years, and I ended up meeting somebody who was a storm chaser. His name is Tony Laubach… and he was doing some storm chasing with the local Channel 7 news. “Wait, is that real? You’re really actually doing that in real life?” And he was like, “Yes.” And then I begged to go along with him. I said, “Oh my gosh, this is something I didn’t know people did. I have to experience it. Is there any way you would be willing to take me with you?”
And so fast forward, he ended up taking me out to my first several storm chases. I would consider him to be my first chase partner. I was working a full-time job and saving up my paid time off to be able to go, so I didn’t get to go a lot. And I ended up seeing my first tornado with Tony in 2007. And then, it’s all downhill from there.
Like, once you see the first tornado you are hooked. And, supercells and storms are magnificent and amazing. And the experience of being out there is amazing. Like, just seeing some clouds out there, some lightning, I was completely satisfied with that… And just being out there in the middle of nowhere was amazing to me as a normal person, living in the suburbs, working your daily job, like this was really great. It was something I had never experienced.
And THEN you get the tornado and you go, all bets are off. I need to do this forever now.
So, you dropped everything to become a chaser then, right?
So in 2008, I quit my day job, which was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. And I decided I was going to move to Milwaukee to be with the love of my life, and try to be a full-time photographer.
And so it was lots of big changes at once: I moved to a completely different state out in the Midwest, and I was trying to develop a business, and create a brand, and support myself through my photography. I didn’t actually pick up a camera in any kind of professional way until maybe 2006 or 2007… And I should say my work was very bad when I first started. So, the first several years of my running a photography business, I wasn’t very good.
So, I moved to Milwaukee and I said goodbye to storm chasing because I had a lot to do. I said goodbye to Tony, and so I said goodbye to my avenue to pursue storm chasing, and I said goodbye to my access to storm chasing. And honestly, I thought chasing was going to be a thing that I did once, a long time ago; it was going to be a neat thing that I got to do a couple of times, and I was going to be a photographer now. And that’s where all of my energy and my focus went — which was into building this skillset, so I could have a career doing this thing that I really enjoyed. So I just hunkered down and focused on my career for three years.
And then I heard from Tony, and he said, “Hey, I’m chasing a northwest flow event in Iowa, Wisconsin. Do you want to join me?” And I said, “Heck yeah, I want to join you.” I was elated, and I was ecstatic, and it was an April chase. But we did not see a tornado that day. Nevertheless, that day I met Skip Talbot —a well-known storm chaser— in a parking lot of a McDonald’s or a gas station or something.
And then Tony went back to Colorado. Although we didn’t get a tornado, I got underneath a supercell again for the first time in three years. Afterward, I was whining to Tony: I miss it, I wish that I could do this more. And he said, “Well, why don’t you just send Skip an email and ask him if he wants a chase partner?” And I said, “No, that’s not how that works. You don’t just approach a virtual stranger in the chasing community, especially one with that kind of name and reputation. And you don’t just say, ‘Hey, take me storm chasing…’ That’s not really how that works.”
…After what might’ve been two days, honestly, I said, fine, I’ll send Skip an email. And he [responded and] said, “Yeah I’m actually chasing in two days with another storm chaser. If you want to join us, you can.” And, and so I did, and that was the Mapleton Iowa tornado day, in 2011, and we saw multiple tornadoes. There was an evening tornado outbreak that night with clear air tornadoes with tons of lightning, so we could see the tornado and the storm very safely. And, wow. It was that balmy evening air and the tornado at night. And it was like magic. It was like, this is fate.
So he invited me along again on another chase after that, and we saw an EF3 tornado at close range – and from then on, we’ve been chase partners and it’s been over 10 years.
Moving across the country and starting a business from scratch, which required skills that you had to develop as you went, is a big life decision and a lot of commitment to the unknown. Can you describe the mental process you went through to feel confident that those were the right decisions for you?
You’re asking how I designed my life. And I love that question because I think it’s something people forget they have the power to do sometimes. And we don’t all have the power to do it, but a lot of us do and we don’t realize it.
…I think it’s really empowering to listen to yourself, to listen to your intuition. I feel like as women, especially, it’s super important to listen to our intuition. Our intuition is strong and it will rarely steer us wrong. I also think it’s important to remember that our lives happen for us, not to us.
So, I have this one precious life, and I have an opportunity to make it whatever I want it to be. I look around, and I see my friends and people I love and people I know, and I see them trudging through life, doing a job they don’t love because of commitments they don’t want. I feel like it’s really important to look inward and to think about the things that bring you joy in your life and the things you want to be spending your time on. We only have this one day, 365 days a year. This is a limited amount of time to be alive and to experience the world around us. So what do I want out of this life?
And these are like super basic questions that I feel people forget to actually really think about and answer for themselves, because it’s really easy to go to school, and then to go to school again, and you have to pick a thing in that school that you’re going to do for the rest of your life. And then it’s like a funnel and you get funneled into the workforce. After that you are in this job because of a decision you made when you were 18 years old. Also, the average college student changes their major seven times, last I read. So, I am not a fan of the idea of letting my life experiences be dictated by something I chose when I was a younger person, because I’m a different person now.
And I feel like it’s helpful if we can remember that we have so many tools and opportunities available to us, to just make other choices and to follow different paths. And, it is scary. Like, when I quit my day job to start my photography business, that’s terrifying – because I say goodbye to insurance, I say goodbye to a 401k matching program, I say goodbye to having a paycheck every week and just being able to just show up and get the money. And so there’s risk involved, but when you deeply want something and you are desperate to have it, and you put in the hours you would have spent at your day job every day towards the thing you want instead, the thing you want is going to happen.
We have so much power as humans. We have so much power as women. And we can put our minds to a task and accomplish it. You can envision any life you want, and you can literally build it.
Is chasing… a job? How do you balance paying the bills and chasing?
So in the first five years of chasing with Skip, I was a weekend warrior as a wedding photographer. I was shooting a lot of weddings, and wedding season is chase season. It’s the spring, you know – and in Wisconsin, we were essentially shut down from the end of fall to the beginning of spring. And so I would sit and not make a lot of money for that whole time period, and then have to come up with the quiche to pay for the storm chasing. And so it was a lot more of a struggle back then.
I could chase only on the weekdays, but I had to be back in enough time to make sure I could go shoot the weddings on the weekends. And so it was like the opposite of what the average 9-5-er wants if they’re chasing; they want the weekend setups. I was railing against the weekend setups because I would also then be attached to my phone, the whole wedding, looking at the radar, you know, trying to pretend like I’m not distracted by whatever [weather] setup is happening. So I did that for five years.
Then in 2015, we started chasing with Dr. Anton Seimon, his wife Dr. Tracie Seimon, and Dr. John Allen. It’s a small research crew that we were amazingly invited to work with to try to capture near-surface wind data. And it was such an amazing opportunity that I wanted to commit myself to the team chasing time period. They were limited on vacation time and so was I, so we started with one week of chasing that we were able to do as a group. And if you can imagine what that’s like — trying to preschedule one week or two weeks of time, to chase and potentially capture a strong tornado — I mean, it’s just virtually impossible. And so we had three years without success because we were so limited by our time and exposure to storms.
So, alongside that project, I stopped photographing weddings in 2017. I decided that it was too high-anxiety for me; I was actually feeling physically ill the night before weddings. Lots of tummy issues and nausea, and it’s just high, high anxiety. And I decided to listen to my body and to consider it my intuition; weddings were no longer serving me and they weren’t what I was supposed to be doing anymore. I needed to change my trajectory as a photographer. And at that same time, I became very passionate about portraits. So, I shut down the wedding studio. I took only five weddings in 2017. And from then on, I’ve only been doing exclusively portraits in the studio.
Around that time, the group brought Hank Schyma on. And also, right about that time, I started saying, I’m closing the studio from mid-May to mid-June. I’m going to take a month. I’m going to work my patootie off for the entirety of the rest of the year. And I’m going to dedicate four weeks to be available, to chase whatever I can chase. And then that became six weeks and then it became two months. So for the last two seasons, I’ve shut down the studio entirely for May and June, and Anton and Tracie have also had some more flexibility in their schedules. So we were able to be out for three weeks this year, which was amazing.
…I love the studio work. I am thrilled to photograph people. But the other part of me is so obsessed with photographing storms and being a part of this research team, and the tornado experience, that I need more opportunity for that to happen in my life. And that gives me that balance. So by the time storm season ends, I’m burnt out from it and ready to shoot portraits. And by the time I’m in the middle of January, I am so ready to get back out under a supercell. And I think that’s pretty cool. It leaves me desiring the different parts of my life deeply.
A lot of people have never gotten to experience storm chasing. What is it like?
Storm chasing is so many things. It’s road trips… Okay, storm chasing is mostly driving and waiting. If we’re looking at the 100% of the time that I spend storm chasing, 95% of that is spent driving and then 4% of it is spent waiting. And then 1% of that is actually enjoying the amazing, severe weather that we’re hunting for, that we’re desperate to see.
There are all kinds of emotions you experience when you’re chasing and going through that process. There’s a ton of anticipation. I think the thing that makes storm chasing so amazing is that you never know what day is going to be THE day. You know, you can go out and chase a moderate risk or a high risk setup [those are the highest risk severe weather days]. And everyone’s hyping it through the ceiling and they’re expecting wedges and big tornadoes, and then you bust [see nothing], and then there are the quiet days where you’re just out and you happen to chase the 2% [low risk] and you get the most beautiful photogenic tornado of your career.
That’s one of the things I think is most magical about storm chasing, is that we never know what mother nature is going to grant us with. And that’s also part of what makes it really hard, because it’s easy to get tired and burnt out because of all the hours on the road. But as soon as you get in front of that storm and that supercell and that tornado, it just fills the tank all the way back up to the top. And you’re like, yep, this is why I do this. This is what the sacrifice is for.
And storm chasing is a sacrifice. You sacrifice your time and your money and your sanity and your physical comfort to try to witness one of the rarest things on planet earth. And we’re so lucky here in the United States, we have the opportunity to see tornadoes close to home.
…You know, there’s lightning and thunder and rain. And sometimes there’s a little hail if we’re really lucky. But one out of a hundred of those [storms] is a supercell and that’s a massive, massive storm that… you can’t comprehend its size until you’re standing underneath it or in front of it. It’s like seeing a mothership in the sky. And so there’s something so awe-inspiring about being that small person staring up at this massive thing that’s bulbous and it has texture and structure. And, it’s a thing in the sky. I mean, it’s so silly to say it so simply, but it’s why it’s so magnificent. Like, you feel like you could jump up and slide down the beavertail of a supercell. You feel like you could reach out and pluck the layers with your fingers. It’s so visceral and textural and beautiful. It’s such an amazing visual experience.
And then when you’re in front of a tornado, that’s a whole other thing. It’s visceral as well, because I’m feeling it in my body just thinking about it. Your adrenaline spikes, and some people love that. I hate that. I have to fight the adrenaline and the fear so I can enjoy the tornado. It’s like nothing else. You hear it. Sometimes you can smell it. It sounds like a really loud rushing waterfall, which is the best way I can describe it. Some people describe the sound of a tornado as a freight train. You’re watching it and sometimes you see it just saunter along the landscape, and sometimes you see it destroy something, and that’s even scarier and visually magnificent. It could be trees, it could be an abandoned barn. You know, we never hope that it’s a home. If it is, we stop the chase and we check the house. The dream chase for us would always be beautiful tornadoes over open land that don’t affect homes, people, properties, or crops. And that’s what we wish for every time we’re out there.
What has your experience been as a female storm chaser in a male-dominated field?
I get this question all the time, and I’ve been getting it for a lot of years. It used to be that there were far fewer female storm chasers that I knew of, or that there were fewer storm chasers who were women. But there are so many more female storm chasers than people realize — so many more.
There are female storm chasers in Canada, there are female storm chasers that have come together and created this amazing community on Twitter… Every woman who is a storm chaser has had a different experience… I just always felt like another person who was storm chasing. I never actually looked at myself as a woman who was storm chasing or as a female storm chaser. Every time I was ever out, even from the beginning, when I looked around, I saw women in other people’s chase vehicles. They’ve always been there. We’ve always been there.
I think it’s only really been that there are more men, and that the men in storm chasing had better exposure on television. And honestly, I think that’s all there is to it. There have been plenty of theories as to why there are more men, but none of them hold water in my opinion, because we’re all just humans.
And so I don’t really look at it as a binary thing. I think storm chasing is non-binary. Also, I think any person who wants to be a storm chaser can be one. I think any person who is interested in storm chasing can have the amazing storm chasing experience exactly as they are. And it just requires an interest and obsession and a dedication to storm chasing.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned that you wish you’d known when you started storm chasing?
I’d say if there’s one lesson I’ve learned in storm chasing, it’s that it’s okay to feel what we feel, and we can’t control our reaction to a big event or something that impacts us strongly. It’s okay to feel those feelings and it’s okay to feel fear in chasing, specifically. In fact, fear is a good thing to feel — fear is the thing that keeps us alive when we’re storm chasing. It’s the thing that maintains our respect for the storm. I always say this, but it’s true. The thing we want to make sure we don’t do is let fear control us.
…There was a period of time in my storm chasing experience, or my career as a storm chaser, where I experienced debilitating anxiety and fear during storm chasing. And not just during storm chasing — even in the pre-storm chase preparation; like it would be the night before a high risk and I would be sick to my stomach.
All of this happened after El Reno; I was very affected by that event and it put a lot of fear in me. On May 31st, 2013, I documented the largest tornado on record in El Reno, Oklahoma. That tornado was 2.6 miles wide, and it took the lives of some heroes in our storm-chasing community: researchers Tim Samaras, Carl Young, and Paul Samaras — that’s Tim’s son. That was a very impactful event in the world of storm chasing. It was the first time a storm chaser had died from a tornado, in history.
And being present at that event, and surviving, and then having heroes and friends killed in that tornado really forced a lot of discussions with Skip and I about: What are we doing? Why are we storm chasing? Do we want to keep doing this? Is this too dangerous? We had a lot of questions. The whole community had a lot of questions, and I think it caused a lot of reflection for a lot of us. It was like one of the dark days, the darkest of days.
And so, we realized that Tim, Paul, and Carl would want us all to keep chasing. They would be mad at us if we didn’t; they knew how precious and special it is to all of us. And we realized that the best way to move forward as storm chasers after this great loss and this great lesson was to prioritize safety — to dissect the event and find out what went wrong, where we could learn, because there were a lot of other storm chasers who were impacted by that tornado — vehicles rolled, injuries…There was even a hobby storm chaser — I guess we’re all hobby storm chasers — but a very amateur chaser who died in that tornado as well. So, we dedicated ourselves to safety after that event.
…So my first big chases the following year, I felt almost paralyzed in front of a tornado because I was having real trouble just taking myself away from that El Reno moment where the giant tornado was coming at us, and being in front of another giant tornado and not thinking it’s coming right at us. Or if it’s coming right at us, being cognizant that we have multiple escape routes, this is nothing new, we can chase safely… So I was just hyper-obsessed with safety and I felt like we couldn’t be safe if we were in the path. And everything turned out fine; it was one of the most amazing chases of my life.
But yeah, it’s really hard to balance these horrible feelings of sickness and fear. And I don’t want to say terror, but it was borderline like, I’m here to see this thing I want to see, but all I feel is fear. And so it just took recognizing that, and I had to do two things to overcome it: I had to control my breathing, and I had to mentally remind myself that everything was okay. Like I had to literally tell myself, we’re fine. Everything’s fine. We are smart. We are experienced. Everything’s going to be okay.
…And so I wouldn’t say I’m a hundred percent out from those challenges, but I’m definitely on the other side. And finding ways that work for me to manage those feelings was really important and it could be different for anyone else. It could be meditation; it could be listening to classical music on headphones while you chase. In reality, it could be any number of things, to just double, triple-check your escape routes and make sure that you don’t chase too close. There are lots of ways to get around those feelings and to help calm yourself.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My photography mentor used to quote Paul J Meyer, who said: “Whatever you vividly imagine, ardently desire, sincerely believe, and enthusiastically act upon, MUST inevitably come to pass.”
That’s probably the best piece of advice that I’ve ever heard. And it ties into my life outlook, right. That if you desire something deeply enough and you’re willing to put in the work for it, it’s going to happen for you. And so that has given me extra confidence to fearlessly pursue the things that I’m interested in, to fearlessly shut down my photography studio and build a different photography studio to design the life that I want. It just really put that idea in my head, and I’ve never let go of it.
Never be the smartest person in the room — that might be the other best piece of advice that I’ve ever received. Because if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. Like, I want to be learning from everyone around me as often and as much as possible — that’s me in the research group. I mean, hello: to be in the research group… like to be around these amazing forces, you know I’ve been doing nothing but learning for the last decade from Skip and these people. And it’s the same with photography; I want to just try every day to be a little better at what I do. And before I know it, I’m gonna find myself more masterful than I could have imagined, but it starts with learning from the best. Absolutely.