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Chasing lightning: an interview with Kuwaiti stormchaser Sarah AlSayegh

Updated: Feb 6, 2023

Sarah Hasan AlSayegh is the September/October featured artist for the Stable Planet Alliance Earthlings Gallery. She is the first female Storm Chaser from Kuwait and a member of the collective Girls Who Chase, on a mission to "diversify the face of weather and science."

--Interview by Kathleen Sweeney

Supercell and Lightning, Texas, USA, May 2021

What is the most ineffable experience you’ve had as a storm chaser ?

It was actually three ineffable experiences. The first was the one that got me into storm chasing at the beginning, in March 2011, when I had my first encounter with a big haboob, a dust storm, a wall of dust clouds across the desert in Kuwait. Dust storms, we usually see them here every year, something we are used to. Over 365 days of the year, there are like 300 days of dust storms, so that’s normal to me, but that was the first time I photographed one.

The term ‘haboob’ is being used now more often in the States but it is an Arabian word. Usually in the States you see them when cold air produced by the clouds meets warm air to lift the dust from the ground. Here, in Kuwait, the haboob dust storms occur with a completely clear sky. Basically, the wall of dust approaches from the north towards the south. Seeing the wind just lift the dust and the dust rolls, it’s amazing.

Haboob (Dust Storm), Kuwait, April 2018

The next time was when I saw the tornado in McLean Texas in 2017. At that point, I had been coming to the States since 2015. Seeing a tornado for the first time was mind-blowing. I watched the cone producing this funnel cloud. It was just in front of me, not like on TV, something unforgettable, the birth of a tornado from a storm cell which then just ropes out, stretching and spiraling with the rain.

Tornado in McCook, Nebraska, May 2019

The third time was last year, in 2021, the most active season. I have now checked off almost all of my bucket list images as a Storm Chaser. Seeing those low packed spatial clouds, they look like big muffins. I’ve been wanting to see this for the all my years of chasing in the United States and I had that experience in 2021. They were all severe storms but not always tornado producing ones. Last year, in Texas, we were at a very nice distance and we saw that this huge super cell like a big muffin that we realized was tornado producing, and my guide, Mike Oblinski was yelling “tornado!”

Low Precipitation (LP) Cloud, Texas, May 2021

Have you ever reached the edge of extreme danger?

We Storm Chasers always make sure safety comes first.

Each year, I travel solo from Kuwait to USA but I join Mike Olbinski on his Plains Storm Chase tour. In 2017, it was a miserable year to chase, we were following any marginal storms we could find. We ended up 14 miles away from Mexico in La Mesa, Texas and we were standing beneath the power lines which is a ‘no-no’ for us, but there was a storm and we were shooting photos and taking images and selfies, then all of a sudden the lightning sounded so high, so close, like zsst and we were all ducking down. It was so close, you could hear the electricity of the power lines, zsst, zsst and we could feel the heat.

We all just ran back to the car with all of our stuff as fast as we could. You thank God you’re still alive, but you just laugh because it’s something you don’t expect, you don’t know where the lightning will hit and this one happened just a few feet away. The hair on your body stands up. It is dangerous. I mean, you get scared but then you just laugh, you end up laughing.

What have these experiences awakened for you about climate change? Have the landscapes been altered?

It did awaken so much about climate change knowledge. Every year you either expect rainstorms forming in your region but some years it ends up very dry and nothing very interesting happens. And some years you get to see some first time cloud formation encounter.

I remember in November 2018 the season in Kuwait was so unusual that I ended up seeing my first shelf cloud in Kuwait and I remember seeing an image of a big supercell (A UFO like cloud) behind the city. Two years ago, I saw on social media there was a tornado forming in Saudi Arabia, and this morning someone told me on Instagram that there was a storm making a land spout in UAE (United Arab Emirates), which is something we don’t see, at all. It’s happening now in this region but we don’t even have good radar to predict them, because it’s new.

There are people talking about climate change in Kuwait, but most people don’t really listen. They say, it’s a myth, it’s nothing happening. But last year, winter was so short. We didn’t get the cold we used to get. And we didn’t get very much rain, we didn’t get any storms at the beginning of this year, the monsoon season. Somehow it's connected.

What has your experience been as the first female Kuwaiti Storm Chaser? Have you met with resistance from men in the field?

Being a female landscape photographer I at first experienced some resistance, especially from men. Because most females in this region tend to stick to commercial/studio/wedding photography, not going out to enjoy capturing landscape and nature photography.

Most of the people here do not believe that we women can be storm chasers. One guy said I photoshopped my storm images, or that I gave my camera to a guy photographer to capture the images for me. It did not make me angry but it did make me sad, knowing that some people think that women can’t do what men do.

Sarah Al Sayegh: video still from "Girls Who Chase"

Tell us about your connection to Girls Who Chase, who have gotten a lot of press recently. How did you connect with the collective?

It was last year when I found about Girls Who Chase. Jen Walton started an instagram page as a serious group and I started to tag them on. From there, Jen contacted me for video footage to help launch the official page. It was a pleasure for me to be part of this outstanding group. Most storm pictures on social media are by men for men, but this collection is by women for women.

There are women in the group from all over the world, Canada, US, Slovenia, so many women doing this. We tag Girls Who Chase and the founder Jen Walton spreads the word. It’s a great support network, a group of women united all together. I also learn a lot from them.

Jen puts all these videos on their website teaching women how to read weather maps and how to stay safe in storms. They have the best energy when it comes to chasing storms. We get so excited seeing the structures and also sharing knowledge when it comes to predicting weather.

I am trying to help people recognize that hey, I’m an Arab, I do this and so do other women in other countries, and they are really good at it. They can predict weather and some of them are even better than the men. Girls Who Chase really support me and they want all the world to know that girls can do what guys can do.

When I met Jen in the U.S. I learned that women all over face the same challenges. The difference here, I explained, at least you have open-minded men who support you as women, and are trying to help spread the word. They are becoming known. They reached the Today Show and National Geographic because it began with world of mouth, from a woman to a man to man to a man to woman. It goes like a circle.

What advice do you have for aspiring storm chasers? What can they learn from tracking weather power?

Just do what you love to do and learn as much possible information about weather and always capture it. Never miss a moment of learning and seeing nature’s beauty.

Recently a woman approached me on Instagram: ‘My daughter is 16 years old, she’s a big fan of yours and she had this school assignment to write about someone they look up to. She chose you. Is it okay to use your images to show the class?’ I said, "Of course."

If I can influence a young woman like that I might be influencing others.

I have been called names, really bad names. It didn’t stop me. I have even been accused of photoshopping my images. I didn’t cry, I didn’t go to my mom and dad, I just took my camera, took the photos and I even videotaped myself on site to show this is me, I am alone, I am doing this.

This is what I am trying to tell everybody. If you love it, just do it. Don’t let anyone stop you.

Sarah Hasan AlSayegh is a Kuwaiti-based landscape and cityscape photographer and storm chaser. She captures the beauty of Mother Nature and the shifting skylines of urban cityscapes in an era of climate change.

A member of the global women's storm chaser photography collective, Girls Who Chase, recently featured in National Geographic, The Washington Post, YahooNews, Cosmopolitan and on broadcast media outlets including The Today Show and The Kelly Clarkson Show. Sarah AlSayegh's work has also been featured on many podcasts and broadcast TV. Listen to her Girls Who Chase podcast episode: "Sarah Al Sayedh: The First Female Storm Chaser from Kuwait."

Follow Sarah AlSayegh on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Kathleen Sweeney, Communications Consultant for Stable Planet Alliance and multimedia storyteller, teaches courses on creativity and social change activism as Assistant Professor of Media Studies at The New School, New York. Cited in Gannet News, The New Yorker and on radio, she has published creative non-fiction and photography in The Nation, Indiewire, Afterimage, academic publications and literary magazines. Multimedia projects have been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council for the Arts, and Ford Foundation. She is the author of Maiden USA and The Book of Awe (forthcoming, 2023) .

All photographs ©Sarah AlSayegh

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