Stephens Gap Cave, Alabama

Nashville native Sean Fisher, with the red flare, explores Alabama’s Stephens Gap Cave, and captures one amazing photo. (Photo courtesy of Sean Fisher)

Culture + Style

Sean Fisher Goes Underground in Alabama for the Perfect Shot

Photographer Sean Fisher doesn’t draw his inspiration from typical places.

Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Fisher’s images are a product of his environment, influenced by both the grass roots country music of his home town as well as the awe-inspiring nature just outside the city.

“There are so many photographers that’ll shoot the Rockies, the Pacific Northwest — you’ll see it day in and day out,” Fisher says. “But there’s a really cool, small group of photographers here in the South that shoot with that same eye for lifestyle, and really make it work down here.”

What does that look like?

We caught up with Fisher to discuss one particular image that represents his style. No, it’s not from the set of an Indiana Jones film. It’s just a tiny piece of what the South has to offer adventure seekers.

Looking at his work you would never guess Fisher first picked up a camera less than two years ago.

“I jumped in at level 20 when I should have started at the bottom and learned the basics!” Fisher told Marriott TRAVELER. “My skills have come gradually through shooting with better photographers than myself. I finally made the investment in some great gear and it’s really propelled me steps further down the road.”

Where was the shot taken?

It’s a spectacular cave called Stephens Gap Cave just outside of Huntsville, Alabama. The photo is rather deceptive because, while that sinkhole looks like the only way in or out, just to the right of that shot is this second entrance that you can walk right down into.

It’s definitely not your touristy cave, though. It’s run by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, and is really something that is very well preserved.

You definitely want to get a permit if you go visit from the Southeastern Cave Conservancy because they’ll ticket you. They’ll write you a fine — that actually happened to me on my first trip there!

It was right when I was done clicking the shot when I looked up and there he was and I was just like did we just get that on camera?!

Sean Fisher

What’s going on in the photo?

So I went (rappelling) with my buddy Henry. He’s actually the rapeller in the shot. He’s a member of the Southeastern Cave Conservancy so I was like, “Alright … not going to get ticketed this time. I’ve got one of their own in here with me!”

I am actually the one on the pedestal in the shot down below. I took the photo using a Bluetooth remote on my camera. I think the coolest thing about the shot is that I had no clue he was coming down above me when I was taking it! I thought I was just going to get myself up there with the flare. So I feel like I can’t take full credit for it because he just decided to sneak on down there himself!

It had rained the day before so there was a lot of water coming down the falls in the background. On a sunny day there are some amazing light rays that come down that shaft, but on that particular day, because of the road flair, it gave the light this amazing haze. I’ve never seen more incredible lighting than in that cave.

Had you seen people rappel down like that before? What gave you the idea to do that?

I had heard of people doing it, but I’d never seen a picture of it before. Henry, my buddy in the photo, has got the highest master class ropesman certification, and so he was the perfect guy to bring along to get the shot. He actually runs a really cool group called Hold Fast Adventures. He’s definitely the type of guy you feel 100% safe with doing this type of thing.

It’s so interesting with Instagram: things just become so much more visible. I was like, “I gotta get this shot before anybody else does!” So we booked it down there on the first available weekend and got it!

How did you find out about this place originally?

It just started showing up in pictures. North Alabama is amazing as far as the outdoors scene is concerned. You’ve got the southern end of the Cumberland Plateau which I think is the best kept secret of Tennessee, and the southern tip of it sneaks into Alabama.

So I’d seen pictures of it. I actually didn’t realize it was a cave at first. All I saw was that pedestal and the rock. But then when you see the full perspective you realize it’s a sink hole and it’s like, “Oh my gosh, this place is magic.” I think it’s a great showcase of what the South offers as an outdoors scene. There’s so much around that flies under the radar and this is the perfect example of that.

Any word of advice for people looking to visit other than to obtain a permit?

Good boots. You definitely want to wear good boots. I would say if you want to get the full experience definitely bring someone along with solid ropes skills.

It’s a short, mile-long hike from a little gravel parking lot. You’re in a little slot canyon going uphill a bit until you see the sink hole. You’ll notice to the left as you’re approaching it this giant mouth that you go down into, and that’s the one that’s just out of the shot.

It’s a relatively small cave even though it’s about 100 or so feet tall. It’s not that big of a cavern that you have to do any spelunking to – you can easily hike in and hike out. It’s definitely very doable, just a little slippery so you’ve got to be careful!

Any other recommendations for people visiting Tennessee?

So of course everyone knows of the Smokies. They’re spectacular. Gatlinburg is a good jumping off point. Mount Le Conte is the tallest freestanding mountain in the Nashville area. LeConte Lodge is a real rustic lodge on the top that you can stay the night at for around 90 bucks.

You can catch some great clifftop sunrise and sunset views from there. Chimney Tops used to be the crème de la crème of the Smokies but that’s where the wild fires actually started, and they’ve got it all roped off now. It’s still a great hike, though.

What’s really kind of Tennessee’s best kept secret is the Cumberland Plateau. In Nashville it’s relatively hilly, but when you drive about two hours east you go up pretty starkly about 1,500 feet on the plateau.

That’s where you’re gonna find these 1,000 foot canyons with incredible cliffs, waterfalls, caves and sink holes. Fall Creek Falls State Park has got a 200-foot waterfall and some incredible caves.

Some of the rooms of the caves are 13 acres big! The Rumble Room is one that’s a real cave adventure if you’re looking for one.

The Cumberland Plateau is really where I think most of the outdoor scene in Tennessee lies. Rock Island Waterfall is one that’s really interesting. It’s a river that comes out of a cliffside and goes down about 100 feet. It looks like our version of Iguazu Falls.

You can see all these spots too, especially if you’re a resident of Tennessee. You can hit them all in a year pretty easily by planning regular road trips.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

It’s recently come from music a good bit. There’s this big debate going on over what really is country music. I don’t think it typically derives from your Top 40, Luke Bryans or your pop country music. It comes from a folkier sense.

I think it’s Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson — really roots-y country music. The bluegrass scene here in town is exceptional and really flies under the radar. I want to showcase Tennessee in that light — a little more rustic, a little more folksy.

And of course I get inspiration from all the great photographers on Instagram. Garret King is a great one. Another one for sure would be Samuel Elkins. Those are some great Pacific North West photographers that have seemed to go global.

That stuff permeates through Instagram and gets to us down here in the South, and it’s neat how a lot of those photographers have inspired photographers down in this realm as well.

So I definitely plan to include more music in my work using musicians as subjects. I’d like to showcase more groups around a campfire and that folky-er musical lifestyle.

Tennessee’s big new tourism pitch is trying to showcase itself as the musical state. “Where music meets adventure” is their big push, so I’m actually trying to take my brand in that direction as well.

Other than that I just need a road trip every other week. That’s my trick for staying grounded.

Do you have anything down the pipeline that you’d like people to know about?

I definitely try to tell my story through Instagram. I’m trying to do a better job of posting a little more intimately telling about myself and such. I do have my website posted there. It’s for Fisher Adventures and Imagery. That’s just another means of showcasing a photograph and telling my story of it. I think photography for me is all about telling my story.

For Snap Chat, Marriott TRAVELER is connecting with photographers around the world to capture the backstories behind some of the best images posted on Instagram.