Photography is the art of capturing the one picture that best defines a moment. It is used to distill the pure beauty of nature into a single serene image. It is used to portray humanity's deepest sufferings and greatest triumphs. And occasionally, it is used to capture the exact second that mankind reached into its giant bag of fucks to give and found it completely empty.
#5. Racing Fire
Adek Berry / Stringer
You may have already seen this photo circulating somewhere. It's usually titled something funny, like "Cool Guys Don't Look at Explosions," or something succinct, such as "Motorcyclist Flees Fire." It doesn't really matter, does it? Words are an afterthought here. That man is fleeing what is obviously a gargantuan disaster, and he is doing so with the kind of resolute jaw and steely-eyed gaze that can only be measured in magnitudes of Bruce Willis.
But while the image alone certainly tells a compelling story of determination (and possibly revenge? Dude sure looks like he's on his way to dropkick some terrorists), there are two important facts to note: First, that is a scooter, not a motorcycle. There's a big difference between fleeing certain doom on an agile, ground-based missile and doing so on one half of a clown car. Scooter Man up there saw the physical manifestation of the end times approaching him -- a giant, roiling, molten smoke cloud straight out of The Lord of the Rings -- and he looked at his 30 mph moped and thought, "Eh, I'm in no hurry." The second thing to note: That is not a factory explosion or even a forest fire behind him. That is an erupting volcano. And a friggin' huge one at that. This photo was taken during the 2010 eruption of Mount Merapi in Central Java, which looked like this:
Sonny Tumbelaka / Getty
Jesus Pogo-Dancing Christ. Both of those pictures look like they'd be shot down as overkill for the cover of a Slayer album, not like actual events that unfolded in reality. If that shit was happening behind me, I wouldn't be calmly motoring away on a moped. I'd plane-jack a fighter jet and get about 20 feet down the runway before dying of dehydration from the incessant crying and fear urination. And yet here is Scooter Man, mounting up a glorified lawnmower and gently commuting out of the way of volcanic destruction with an expression valued at 11^Bruce Willii.
#4. Mastering Lightning
That is the forceful urinary stream of Thor. It is the accusing finger of Zeus. That photograph up there is exactly what old-timey Christians pictured when somebody said "May God strike me down if I'm lying!" You may have seen similar images billed as lightning rods in action, but that is not at all what's happening here. What's happening here is way more awesome. What's happening here is perhaps the most hilariously reckless abuse of science in mankind's short intellectual history. What's happening here ... is the launch of a lightning rocket.
Of all the possible meanings that the phrase "lightning rocket" can imply -- a lightning rod attached to a rocket, lightning that just happens to be hitting a rocket, a rocket that you fire at lightning in a desperate bid to finally kick-start a war with Valhalla -- the reality of an actual lightning rocket shames them all. A lightning rocket is a rocket fired into the tumultuous sky with the intent of triggering and controlling lightning strikes. There are a variety of methods a lightning rocket can employ, from a simple copper wire to a smokescreen of super-conductive liquid, but the end result is always the same: Mankind can now control storms by kicking their goddamn asses.
Too often, science boils down to subtle effects, microscopic results, and careful balances of forces and chemicals. But every once in a while, science boils down to "Fuck that thing, hit it with a missile." And every once in a while, the Fuck-It Missile works. The Fuck-It Missile works like goddamn crazy.
#3. Standing Ground Against a Tsunami
This photo is from the 2004 Indonesian Tsunami. How does this exist? Did the photographer have time to text this image to his loved ones, with the caption "I'm sorry for everything I've ever done," before the water reached him? Did the camera wash up on a beach in Nova Scotia two years later? Look at that: All of those people are either dead or the spoiled secret identity of Aquaman. Right? They have to be. The Indonesian Tsunami was one of the deadliest natural disasters in history, and all of those folks are standing close enough to ground zero that, if this was a party, it would be considered rude not to introduce themselves to it. And it looks like they were caught completely off guard, too. They're all just turning to flee the monster wave ...
Well, all except this guy.
He looks like he's about to bust out the popcorn and enjoy the show, not realizing that his doughy torso is the set piece for the climactic action sequence. Or maybe he's just confident that his giant balls are going to act as ballast and float him away to safety when the water comes in. Or maybe we're all just focusing on the wrong man here. It's true: Everybody else in the photo appears to be running, except for the balding buoy of badass up there, and this guy ...
... who, upon discovering that he was standing on the breaking point of a biblical apocalypse, apparently ripped off his shirt and adopted a surfing stance.
Where is his board, you ask? Where he's going, he won't need boards.
Wait, he's not dead now? How can that possibly be? Well, this photo was taken in Ao Nang, Thailand, and somewhere behind that explosion of water, there is a wall serving as a breakwater. The pictured wave is actually the second one to hit Ao Nang -- the first was so destructive and dramatic, that after it was over, all of these people wandered down to the shore to gawk at the aftermath. That's when the second, bigger wave hit them right in their rubbernecking faces...and killed precisely none of them. Suck it, Darwin.