Robert Lewis and his wife, Keats Lewis, team up Tuesday to photograph a juvenile cottonmouth spotted at the Noxubee Refuge. Keats holds a speedlight with a diffuser as Robert patiently composes the shot. Robert is experienced with snakes. "What’s best about photographing them is the education aspect of it," he said, "kind of normalizing the animal, because they’re very demonized and they’re very misunderstood." Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
So here we were, Dispatch photographer Luisa Porter and I, trailing Tuesday in a second car behind Robert Lewis and his wife, Keats. The waning sun was headed to bed, draining light from the thick forest lining the Noxubee Refuge roadside in Oktibbeha County. We were cruising for snakes, not sure what to expect. Suddenly, brake lights ahead flashed red and Robert, the snake hunter, pulled over. He’d spotted something. He often does.
This time it was a juvenile cottonmouth, making its way across the warm asphalt to verdant foliage ahead, where hiding and dining awaited. But first, a brief photo session.
Robert and Keats quickly exited their car with camera equipment, snake tongs, snake hook and know-how. Robert, almost 29, has been doing this a while. As a commercial freelance photographer, he often shoots real estate, but when shooting for himself, he’s usually in the woods. Nature is his subject of choice.
Growing up in Selma, Alabama, and Hattiesburg, Robert got pretty comfortable with creatures most people avoid at all cost.
"My dad was a land realtor and doing catfish farming and timber, and he would bring home all kinds of snakes all the time to show us," he explained. "Me and my brother would just go around flipping logs and finding everything we could find behind our house."
Robert spent a lot of time fishing and hunting, "but the killing aspect lost its novelty to me; more than anything now I just like to see," he said.
When he eventually moved to Caledonia in Lowndes County, Robert attended Caledonia High School his junior and senior years before joining the U.S. Air Force. Then, about six years ago, that affinity for nature and a keen interest in photography caught fire, turning him into an explorer with a lens. In that pursuit, he’s currently a Bachelor of Fine Arts candidate in photography and art at Mississippi State University. That’s where he met Keats.
Snakes on a … honeymoon
"I think on our second date he took me to the Refuge and we got up close to animals out there," said Keats, who graduated from MSU last year with a major in graphic design. "A few dates after that he caught a little snake, and he let me hold it."
The experience was an awesome one, she said. "I’ve been interested in nature but never out in it as much as he had been. I liked that about him — that he was passionate about it and was able to help me get out there and that he knew so much."
They married in March 2017. Their honeymoon was, one might say, unconventional.
"We went on a 17-day road trip out west driving around the wilderness looking for reptiles and snakes. It was so much fun," said Keats.
On Tuesday’s snake quest, Keats was at Robert’s side in the familiar role of "trusty assistant." That can involve positioning a speedlight, focusing the snake’s attention, finding just the right stick for a prop, and "sometimes maybe a word of caution."
The young cottonmouth, about 18 to 20 inches long, coiled in place as Robert composed detailed images with a Nikon D750 camera with a 20mm f1.8G lens, and a Fujifilm X-T1 with a 23mm F2WR lens.
His goal always is to create interesting photographs while respecting the subject, treating it gently, with minimal invasion into its day.
He hopes his images can be educational, "kind of normalizing the animals, because they’re very demonized and they’re very misunderstood."
Don’t do this at home
Photographing snakes safely requires education and experience. Robert has studied them intensely. He knows readily which are venomous and which are not, knows their habitats, habits and best handling. He can recite genus and species with ease and approaches each shoot with precaution and patience.
Has he been bitten? Yes, once, in the finger when he was about 13. It was a "dry bite" (no venom released) from a very small copperhead. What Robert remembers vividly is being stuck at the hospital after a family friend took him in to be checked.
"They wouldn’t release me without my parents unless I promised I wouldn’t mess with snakes any more." But Robert wasn’t about to make that pledge. "I thought, I can’t lie to this man," he chuckled. A stand-off ensued, but he finally got to go home, to continue developing a "collector mentality." "If you get in, you want to get all the way in," he described it. That means he’ll continue to seek out species he hasn’t photographed yet. Sort of a snake bucket list.
"I still haven’t photographed an eastern diamondback rattlesnake," he said. "It wouldn’t be that difficult, I just haven’t taken the time yet. If I really want to find them I would go to north Florida, but they do occur as far north as a little south of Jackson."
Robert’s eye and camera lens aren’t limited to snakes. He captures images of turtles, frogs and some of the forests’ smallest inhabitants, spiders, at close range. His website, picturesbylewis.com, also displays landscapes, posed portraiture and more.
"His photographs are just really something special," said Keats. "I’m his biggest fan."
After the brief waylay Tuesday, the juvenile cottonmouth we encountered went on its way, having given all those who will see the images a more intimate look at its species and, perhaps, a bit more understanding.
Even after photographing so many, Robert still feels the charge. "Every time I see something, especially if I’ve never seen it before, it’s a big adrenalin rush … probably seeing a mud snake or a corn snake, or the hog-nose — they like to play dead — they’re really cool to watch."
His fascination is genuine. "Snakes are beautiful animals, they just don’t have legs."