I bought my plane ticket to Nevada early. Carefully placing bottles of Axe body spray and cans of Monster Energy in my suitcase already overflowing with graphic tees, I consider my first undercover mission.
Photography isn’t an easy industry to break into. To get my foot in the right door, I need an insider’s view of the event that inspired summer 2019’s most iconic memes.
It’s dawn, Sept. 20. I’m standing in my hotel room, tucking my hair into a DC cap and familiarizing myself with my new identity. My phone rings.
“It’s time,” I hear on the other end. “Are you ready, Kyle?”
I’m not used to hearing that name yet. I take a deep breath and punch a hole through the drywall.
I wasn’t ready. It’s afternoon, complete chaos. Everything’s happening so fast. My shutter speed is set as fast as it will go, the environment changing too often to keep white balanced.
My camera bounces against my chest as I “Naruto” run through the gates with more Kyles. Flanked by the Karens, we’re out of view of the guards. For now.
A bullet whizzes over my head. But before the guard can fire off another, a Karen stops him and demands to speak to his manager. The perfect photo opportunity presents itself.
I’m buried in my viewfinder, about to press the shutter when I’m pulled behind a nearby building. A grenade lands where I was just standing.
“That was a close one,” says the Kyle who saved my life. “Now hop on. Let’s see them aliens.”
I jump on his back and his Heelies engage, propelling us through the melee. Our ranks grow until we’re an impenetrable crowd of people with nothing better to do on a Friday. The guards can’t stop us now.
Main base has been breached. From my vantage point on Kyle’s back, I hold my finger over the shutter, ready to snap a burst of photos of whatever lies behind that door. The barrier falls to reveal nothing. Not an alien nor gorilla in sight.
For a brief moment, it’s silent. Then, laughter echoes through the crowd in a crescendo until we’re all lying on the ground in the wake of the destruction, tears streaming down our faces. It’s time to go.
It’s dusk, Sept. 20. At a corner booth in a Nevada bar, I reflect on the day with the rest of the Kyles. We drink, we laugh, we exchange Instagram handles. Thoughts of my alien photos in major magazines cross my mind no longer.
I’m on a plane back to Michigan. My memory card contains countless blurry, out-of-focus photos of anime nerds darting through clouds of smoke. I laugh to myself as I wipe the card clean.
The Area 51 raid wasn’t about the photos or the aliens, but the friends we made along the way and the now mended holes in the drywall of my heart.