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This photographer captures lighthouses threatened by climate change


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Judy Woodruff: As both climate change and rising sea levels put historic lighthouses in imminent danger, photographer David Zapatka has a sense of urgency to capture as many as possible.

He's published a book, "USA Stars & Lights: Portraits From the Dark," to showcase what is at risk.

Michelle San Miguel of Rhode Island PBS Weekly profiles Zapatka.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

David Zapatka, Photographer: If you think of a lighthouse, it does its work at night primarily. To not have that recorded in history is a shame.

Michelle San Miguel: David Zapatka has been recording history for more than three decades. He's an award-winning videographer, but his biggest project yet has him picking up his still camera.

David Zapatka: And I didn't realize that this was a project until I was 15 or 20 lighthouses in.

And that's when I was doing more research on more lighthouses, realizing, wow, there's no pictures of this lighthouse.

Michelle San Miguel: He's photographed more than 175 lighthouses in the United States, including many on the Eastern Seaboard.

David Zapatka: Well, we got stars. That's a good thing.

Michelle San Miguel: His goal? To capture every working lighthouse around the country at night.

David Zapatka: What the digital camera has allowed us to do was to open up to photographers this whole new field of shooting when the sun goes down.

So these are the slick ones. Not too bad, because they're -- the tide is on the way in, so they're a little bit dry.

Michelle San Miguel: What you can't see in Zapatka's photos are the great lengths he goes to in order to capture these images.

It's not a stretch to say you're putting your life at risk on some of these shoots.

David Zapatka: Early on, I realized that it's dangerous at night.

Almost there, a little bit further out. Then we get the reflection. That's always the bonus.

Michelle San Miguel: Zapatka often wades knee-deep into water to take a photo. On the night we went with him, it was this one, the Ned's Point Lighthouse in Massachusetts.

Other lighthouses are only accessible by boat. To get an image like this, Zapatka put his 20-foot tripod in the water.

David Zapatka: So, I can launch it off a boat, stick it down in the water and get a shot of the lighthouse from the water that you couldn't normally get because your camera has to be completely steady for 20 seconds during a new moon phase.

Michelle San Miguel: Arriving at night to these lighthouses is not for the faint of heart. Zapatka and his friend Sean found that out on a trip to Thacher Island to capture twin lighthouses.

David Zapatka: We're like right by the lighthouses. They're like right there. It's like, there they are. Let's keep going. Let's shoot it.

So we tie the boat off at a mooring, and now we're ere facing to the wind. And now waves are coming over the bow of my 15-foot Boston Whaler. And it's -- all hell is breaking loose. The water is coming over. It's filling the back of the boat. We're getting hit by wind.

I'm at the bow of the boat, like, getting slammed. And I'm like: "You know what, Sean? We got to go. And he was like: "Dave, you know I'm with you, man."

Michelle San Miguel: Never one to give up, he came back another night and captured the twins in all their glory.

David Zapatka: That's slick.


David Zapatka: Just when you think you are done.

The thrill is, I'm creating this history right in front of my eyes.

Michelle San Miguel: Zapatka times his photo shoots around the lunar calendar.

David Zapatka: So, now, here's what you need, new moon or close to it, low tide, slack tide, which means the tide has stopped, and no clouds.

So why do you think it's taking me eight years to do only 175 lighthouses, roughly?

Michelle San Miguel: Your eyes are not deceiving. Still, don't expect this starry sky to look quite like this in person.

David Zapatka: The camera sees more than our eyes can see. So when you're standing here looking at Beavertail Lighthouse in the middle of the night, the Milky Way is there, and you can barely see it with your eyes, but the camera can see it better than you can, because it's seeing in this long exposure.

Michelle San Miguel: Zapatka has driven up and down the East Coast in this R.V. photographing lighthouses, but he says the effects of climate change with rising tides present a real and present danger.

The work you're doing is really a race against time.

David Zapatka: Totally, in many -- on many different levels. The levels -- talking about levels, the levels of the Great Lakes last year were higher than they have ever been. They're down again this year, but if it gets higher again, there are several lighthouses that are threatened, because the foundations will just start crumbling. And, potentially, those lighthouses could just fall into the lake.

Michelle San Miguel: It's with that sense of urgency that Zapatka approaches his work.

David Zapatka: To me, it has called out and said, this needs to be done. And so I guess I'm the person to do it.

Michelle San Miguel: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Michelle San Miguel in Jamestown, Rhode Island.

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