Up-close Encounters With Crocs And Tornados Bring Photography Prizes To Two Chicago-Area Women

Alex Rose National Wildlife Federation photo winner
Photographer and aquatic enthusiast Alex Rose is the Grand Prize winner of the National Wildlife Federation and National Wildlife magazine 2020 photo contest. Courtesy of Alex Rose
Alex Rose National Wildlife Federation photo winner
Photographer and aquatic enthusiast Alex Rose is the Grand Prize winner of the National Wildlife Federation and National Wildlife magazine 2020 photo contest. Courtesy of Alex Rose

Up-close Encounters With Crocs And Tornados Bring Photography Prizes To Two Chicago-Area Women

Two Chicago-area women took top prizes in the 2020 photo contest held by the National Wildlife Federation and its National Wildlife magazine. For this year’s contest, more than 3,000 people from around the world submitted nearly 30,000 entries.

Here’s a look at the two remarkable local winners, their prize-winning pictures and the stories behind them:

Alex Rose

Alex Rose
Alex Rose, an editor, writer and photographer for Ocean Geographic magazine. Courtesy of Alex Rose

Rose, who lives in west suburban Woodridge, was the Grand Prize winner for her stunning sundown close-up photo of a crocodile in Cuba.

Rose is an editor, writer and photographer with Ocean Geographic magazine, and in a typical year she spends about six months on scuba dives and assignments.

Rose was in Jardines de la Reina, an archipelago off the southern coast of Cuba, for a shark conservation project when she snapped her winning shot six inches from the face of the crocodile. She took the photo in a mangrove area familiar to dive guides who visit so often that they know the crocs and call to them. Rose said the reptiles are calm and come over to check out divers in the water.

Alex Rose National Wildlife Federation photo winner
Alex Rose, 2020 National Wildlife® Photo Contest.

Rose was using an underwater camera housing she likened to a big bubble that allows for the above-and-below water effect. She said the water depth was about 10 or 15 feet, and “you just kind of slowly swim your way” up to a crocodile.

She got in the water and took some shots but thought there was too much sun, so she waited a while for what she described as a “sunset moment.” Then, as she got close to one croc, it opened its mouth to take a breath, giving Rose a clear view of its rows of teeth — and the moment she wanted. She took a single shot, then the croc swam away.

Rose takes a lot of underwater images and has a critical eye toward her own work, but when she looked at her photo she thought, “I’m going to have to do something with this.” She didn’t show the image to anyone and waited six months for the right photo competition to come up.

Rose credits Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium with inspiring her interest in the ocean. She worked at the Shedd for 10 years as a diver, doing demonstration feedings in the circular Caribbean Reef exhibit well-known to visitors.

Rose has an advanced degree in aquatic biology and has even started her own nonprofit organization that supports ocean conservation and exploration.

Laura Hedien

Laura Hedien
Laura Hedien, retired firefighter, storm-chaser and photographer. Courtesy of Laura Hedien

Hedien, of northwest suburban Grayslake, won second place in the “landscapes and plants” category for her photo of a lightning strike in Kansas. Hedien, a retired firefighter, is a storm chaser — something she started in 2005 and even took a stormchaser class at the College of DuPage.

Her award-winning picture came while following a storm in western Kansas for several hours. It put down an anticyclonic tornado, a twister that rotates in a different direction than expected, but it wasn’t exceptionally photogenic. Hedien said it was a fast-moving storm, and she was taking shots before she and her storm-chasing partners decided to move away from it on the backroads of Kansas.

Laura Hedien National Wildlife Federation photo
Laura Hedien, 2020 National Wildlife® Photo Contest.

As nightfall approached, the storm began producing some strong lightning, and that’s when Hedien got her winning shot. She also remembers hustling to change a flat tire after she got back to a hotel, so her group could get moving again if there was a tornado warning.

Hedien said with a good storm, she’ll take hundreds of photos, and that lightning shots are just a matter of “taking what Mother Nature gives you.” Even then, lighting presents focus or composition problems. In a typical storm, Hedien keeps only 15% to 20% of her shots.

After retiring as a Waukegan Fire Department lieutenant five years ago, Hedien spends most of May and June each year looking for storms in the Great Plains, joined by two friends. She drives and takes the pictures, while her two “Ph.D. friends” work the radar and logistics.

Hedien was hit by lightning in 2008 and concedes that storm-chasing can be risky since bolts can come out of the blue. But she’s never felt in imminent risk from a tornado and said “besides the little lightning thing that I had, we usually stay pretty far away.”

Hedien sells her outdoor photos on her website, but her passion for storm photography receives more recognition in contests, since many people may think lightning is cool but don’t want a photo of it hanging in their home.

“I don’t think people realize how beautiful these storms are,” Hedien said. “They feel like they’re alive. It feels like it’s a being, a creature.”

Jerome McDonnell covers the environment and climate for WBEZ. Follow him @jeromemcdonnell.