My mother is exasperated that my husband and I still haven’t made a dime from our famous photograph. “Couldn’t you at least print up some t-shirts?” she says. “You can sell them on www.turtlefrogspiderphoto.com.” I explain to her that it seems exploitative to profit off something that—for whatever reason—inspires people. It’s like selling $5 bottles of Barack Obama water on the Washington Mall. I also explain to my mother that I don’t want to abuse or overextend my 15 minutes of fame. But in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “If I play my cards right, I can ride this photo all the way to the top.”
My husband and I never aspired to make a full-fledged career out of the spider on top of a frog on top of a turtle that we rescued from my parents’ pool filter last August. How could anyone sustain that kind of celebrity? We never dreamed that the photo phenomenon would go as far as it did. In fact we thought it would go precisely as far as our personal blogs. But the turtle/frog/spider mutant took on a life of its own. First local website cVillain picked up the story and photo. Then it went viral on the internet. Then it went international in OK Magazine and the Daily Telegraph. Then it went epidermal with a giant back tattoo on a California woman. Then it went full circle with Brian McKenzie’s Daily Progress column. Then it went statewide with Sandy Hausman’s WVTF radio story. Here on One Star Watt I will try to prolong the story for at least another week.
All my previous fantasies about being famous involved the New York Times or the Oscars or the White House or (on bad days) the Darwin Awards, not accidental drownings. Granted, the three critters survived their ordeal, but that didn’t stop an irate Albemarle County woman from writing into the Daily Progress. According to Marlene Condon’s editorial, the photo “epitomizes the cruel impact that humans often unwittingly inflict upon the Earth’s creatures.” Since when is it cruel to go hunting for animal carcasses in your bikini? Pool filters are the middle class’s version of raccoon traps baited with Friskies cat food. And I doubt that the chipmunk living in the neon-green Funoodle on my parents’ pool patio would exchange its happy home for personal safety. But Ms. Condon alleges that “[b]y maintaining an uncovered swimming pool, people bring about the deaths of numerous kinds of wildlife that are attracted to the water but then can’t escape the consequences.” Tell that to the three creatures that are in the woods right now writing the Disney/Pixar screenplay of their lives. At least I think they are. I’m a little afraid to return to the place where my dad finally released them after the photo shoot. What if I discover three small skeletons stacked one on top of the other, delayed victims of chlorine inhalation? I would bury them in formation. But that’s neither here nor there. What’s important is that I’m famous.
On the internet especially, I’m surprised the goodwill has endured so long. Usually it takes a much shorter time for a cyber backlash to begin. It’s a credit to the New Age websites that have featured the picture that few people make negative comments. Even the “This is clearly shopped” comments are rare. But please—if I were to Photoshop an image, it would probably be of me and Mick Jagger partying together on the island of Mustique. I have a hip, unfeeling reputation to uphold; I would never choose to be known as the woman who took a heartwarming picture which Chicken Soup for the Nature Lover’s Soul will one day option. (Call me anytime, Chicken Soup.)
But I’m not embarrassed by being the author of the picture. Fame is always cool, no matter how lame its origins. At least my mom has been really impressed with me since the photo started generating buzz. And I’ve discovered that it’s not really how you get famous that matters, but how you deal with the fame once you have it. Once it’s in your lap, do you reject it (no), freak out (no), gloat (yes), start judging your friends “pre-turtle/frog/spider” and “post-turtle/frog/spider”? Certainly. Do you become full of yourself, thinking “I can stack any three things on top of each other—magazine, turkey sandwich, remote control—and they will be transformed into high art when I take their picture?” Of course you do. In the morning I’m going to lay my bowl of yogurt on top of a cat on top of a dictionary and then sell the photo rights for a million dollars.
But at what price fame? Sometimes fame can tear a couple apart. I should know because I was engaged to my husband when I found the turtle/frog/spider and now we’re happily married. All because he remembers that I took the picture so technically I own the rights. Every time I open our freezer and see the preserved topping from our wedding cake—the sugar turtle/frog/spider that Frank Cappellino made for us—I understand that love is the turtle that holds up the frog bride and the spider groom. Or maybe the spider bride and the frog groom? Or maybe humankind? I’m determined to find a deeper message in my photo. In any case someone has his fidgety legs in someone else’s eyeball and someone else is feeling seasick and the ground seems to be constantly moving underfoot. But in a good way. In a way that says one day God will pluck us out of the pool filter of life and unleash us in heaven after having a good laugh at our expense. Or that we will simply succumb to the fumes. Or that I should apply for a photojournalism position at National Geographic Magazine.