Photo Stories.

Photos and story by Tom Demerly for


I didn’t move to Tucson, Arizona by choice. I was a refugee of the American Recession.

In a migration that mimicked a modern day “Grapes of Wrath” I took a job with the world’s largest triathlon retailer in Tucson and moved there after losing my own business in Detroit. flew me to Tucson for an interview. Following the interview I was convinced I was finished in this business. The founder, Seton Claggett, asked some tough questions. I left with my head down.

But I got the job.

I did a little of everything at’s massive headquarters. Marketing, sales, promotion, writing, photography, video commentary, employee training, managing, sweeping floors, bike fitting, driving stakes in the desert and cleaning up trash by the roadside. Working there was immersive. The H.R. director counseled me that I couldn’t work as many hours as I did because it wasn’t good for me. But in reality, it was exactly what I needed: self imposed exile to the desert gulag.

Today we’re on a photo shoot.

I saw a road headed south from Mt. Lemmon, Freeman Road, that makes a lumpy black beeline toward the Mexican border. It looks like a black snake laid across washboard desert sand. It will be perfect for a photo shoot.

There are a few problems. Firstly, it is beastly hot in Tucson. Shooting in natural light with the sun overhead means working in the open desert at noon. Temperatures are well over 100 degrees. There are rattlesnakes, ill-tempered desert pig-bears called “javalina”. Every plant on the shoulder of the road is wearing knife-like thorns that pierce clothing and implant flesh with barbed needles.

Secondly, I have a clear vision of what I want the photo to look like, but without an aerial camera platform that shot is impossible. I want to show a cyclist riding south on the oddly rolling black road set against the desert backdrop. I chat with a couple local private pilots about the possibility of flying me over this road for the shoot, but the logistics and expense of getting a small aircraft over the road while coordinating with the cyclist/model on the ground make that impossible. We don’t have camera drones yet, and even if we do, getting the resolution and type of image I want would be tough from a small drone.

So, we load up the tallest stepladder from the warehouse, grab one of the big company trucks and recruit Debbie Claggett, a founder of the company, as fashion/action model for the day and head into the desert.

Debbie is a dream to work with. She is pretty, fit and knows how to ride. But it is a little awkward giving photo direction to one of the founders of the company you work for.

I describe the photo I want. We set up the stepladder on firm enough sand to keep me from falling into a prickly cholla cactus, and Debbie sets off south on her bike.

“Ride for about thirty seconds past those lumps in the road then do a U-turn and come back toward me. Keep doing those loops.”

Debbie does a few out and back circuits. I shoot a few frames. It looks pretty darn good. I’m careful to frame the photo so there is space to drop text in the upper left corner. It is a lot of work for a pretty simple photo. That said, the weird looking lumpy road is kind of cool, but it could be anywhere. Something is missing.

We need something that defines this photo as being distinctly Arizona. Distinctly Tucson.

We need a cowboy.

On queue a man who looks like he dropped out of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western rides a beautiful horse onto the road. We could have spent hours in wardrobe and costume and not done as well. When you look up “Cowboy” in the dictionary, there is a photo of this guy. He is John Wayne, The Marlboro Man and Clint Eastwood all rolled into one with a dash of Boss Hoss for good measure.


Debbie recognizes the opportunity instantly. Without a word she wheels around, glances over her shoulder to check if I am getting this (I am…) and she makes a few riding passes by the cowboy. Smoke is coming off my cameras this is so good.


She stops and pets the horse. More incredible images that say, without a word, “Cycling in Tucson is extraordinary, there is no place like it in the world.”

We thank the cowboy and horse, load up our gear; brush off the dust and race back to the warehouse to see the photos.

This one photo describes riding a bike in Tucson, Arizona better than any single image I’ve seen, thanks to Debbie and the mid-day rider of Freeman Road in Saguaro East.

Photo and Story by Tom Demerly for


It’s less than a month from a divisive Presidential election that has drawn dark lines between Americans.

This is Detroit, Michigan, a city in the midst of reinventing itself after devastation by the longest recession in U.S. history. We’re rebuilding by improvisation and inspiration. We’re making it up as we go along. It’s the rise of a fallen empire to a new beginning, a new ethic. Young, questioning, unconventional, accepting and experimental.

And it is time to party.

This is the annual masquerade sensation “Theatre Bizarre”, a performance art celebration and costume party held in the remarkable Masonic Temple built in 1920. The monolithic concrete building is one of few to survive the destruction of Detroit in the automotive collapse. It’s a natural location to raise the dead, celebrate the living and push the boundaries of acceptance toward a new norm that is anything but normal.


The event is maze-like and massive. There are 1037 rooms here, from closet-like secret offices to massive, high-gabled ballrooms, theatres and galleries. Tonight almost every one of these hosts some type of act, display, or performance. They range from people suspended by hooks piercing their skin to mime-acrobats delicately negotiating a suspended steel gantry in an aerial ballet with no safety net. There are people twirling flaming torches, contortionists defying physiology and performances bending gender well past the breaking point. A nude performer produces an effigy of tonight’s mascot, “Zombo”, a mad clown icon, from her vagina during an exotic dance. Red light and smoky fog pervades the passageways. Centerpieces of taxidermic goats and candelabras garnished in candy corn are everywhere.


Because this is a costume affair it eliminates the distinction between spectators and performers. Everyone here is performing. And while some of the performances and exhibitions initially smack of disgust or revulsion, the line between fear and prejudice breaks across the anvil of amazement. Like it or not, you are drawn in to worship the formerly bizarre, and now remarkable.

I am here mostly to see one performer: Roxi Dlite.

Roxi Dlite is a performance artist and burlesque performer from across the Detroit River, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. She is also an icon, an unlikely hero who has revived the old art form of burlesque using the new medium of multi-media with a purity and elegance that won her the World Championship of Exotic Dance.

But more than anything else, Roxi is a knock-out.

Jet black volumes of curls like shiny black lava erupting from a volcano over a liltingly seductive innocent round face that transitions to guilty inference with her trademark smirk. And from there, an opulent shape like luxury itself, round and perfect in defiance of gravity at every turn, and there are a lot of turns…

We’ve secured a high balcony opera box to view Roxi’s performance tonight as the headliner of the event. Following a litany of musicians, performers and curiosities Roxi will do one of her trademark dance recitals in homage to the event’s icon, Zombo, a kind of horrific clown figure.

Finally it is time, and Roxi emerges in a black satin ball gown soon to be removed. Her apparel, first layer formal and subsequent layers increasingly intimate, are discarded in a cyclone of dance and centrifugal force, garments being flung from her opulent body in time to the music as she whirls. Her energy and force are breathtaking.

I suddenly realize that, while Roxi Dlite is a physically beautiful woman beyond measure, it is her incendiary vitality that makes her so beautiful and desirable. She gives off heat, and this city is drawn to her flame.

Her performance is… well, you get the idea. And I am breathing harder now. I note my wristwatch heart monitor recorded a spike at the exact time of her recital. Now we walk down from the balcony through dark, misty passages crowded with masked voodoo priestesses in repurposed wedding gowns and men clad in leather harnesses like roman gladiators. There are more exhibits to see, more oddities to ponder, more unique talent to remark at.

One of the downstairs medium sized rooms is packed with people. Negotiating the crowd is tricky because some of the costumes are so elaborate. And then suddenly, next to one of the tables, holding court with fans, is Roxi herself, in the flesh. Mostly flesh.

Roxi wields around, and in an instant, despite my mask, recognizes the stunned stupor induced by her charisma (and curves). She is accustomed to seeing it from little boy-men like me. She subtly juts out a pouty lower lip as she sees me, dark eyes like tractor beams. She takes a sauntering step, wraps her arm around me, presses boobs to my body and then skillfully uses her opera-gloved right hand to clear away a trove of encroaching fans so Jan Mack, my girlfriend, can get a photo of Roxi and I intertwined as such.

You won’t see that photo here, as it is an honest depiction of a star-struck 55-year old little boy who grew up socially awkward and remains so. I look like an idiot. Roxy, well, Roxi looks like a star with enough poise and confidence to fill a city.

This is my one chance to say something feigning intelligence to her. One instant to thank her for bringing all of us together, for challenging us, shocking us, uniting us, inspiring us, turning the bright lights back on in Detroit when they had been dark for so long.

But all I can get out of my mouth after releasing my delicate grasp of her corseted waist is, “….Thank you….”

And she is gone. Off to work the room in a flurry of selfies and fan photos and winks and curtsies with men and women wishing a brief audience with the new Queen of Detroit’s comeback.

While this divisive political season has torn us apart, Roxy Dlite and her exotic, erotic circus have brought us back together in a new era of tolerance, acceptance, understanding and amazement.


Photo and Story by Tom Demerly for


I lost everything.

House, business, car, belongings, every cent. Then I lost my health to a stroke and heart surgery. The Great Recession of 2008 gutted the United States’ economy and Detroit in particular. I owned a successful small business there for 17 years. When the General Motors bankruptcy and the banking collapse hit they devastated businesses in the Detroit area. Nearly every business on the road I was on closed. Mine was one.

After the economic collapse I took a job in Tucson, Arizona. I had nothing when I moved there. I was barely able to arrange to get my two cats from my abandoned house in Dearborn, Michigan to Tucson. Then one of them died.

It was as though the entire world was collapsing. The ominous weight of what felt like an endless succession of gut-wrenching losses weighed on my soul. I was calling on survival instincts I had not used in years. The world was dark, and all that ugly darkness had come home.

Then a co-worker told me about a kitten he rescued near the Air Force base.

The kitten’s eye was hanging out of its head. It was dying in the desert next to the airbase. My friend told me he found it while he was running. I went to the vet where the little cat was being fostered. A veterinary student had practiced surgery while removing the little cat’s infected eye. He hadn’t expected her to live at first.

But she did live.

When I met the little cat she was initially shy. The vet student left the room. It was just me and the little one-eyed kitten. So I started talking to the baby cat. Clearly I had hit some kind of bottom, sitting in a room in a run-down veterinary clinic on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona having a conversation with a one-eyed kitten.

But as I talked the kitten crossed the exam table, climbed into my lap and laid down, looking up at me as if listening intently to my story. I asked the little cat, “So, what’s your story?” She rolled over in my lap, started purring, and went to sleep.

I took her home that day.

MiMi the Cat has been with me every since. She is the kindest, sweetest, most loving little girl I have ever known. Every night, like clockwork, she climbs into bed with me. In the morning she jumps out of bed for breakfast, waiting patiently as second in line behind our other cats for her breakfast. In the evening if I get a chance to sit down, she is in my lap. At night sometimes she puts her paw in my hand when we sleep.

When I brought MiMi home she was fascinated with the sink and with running water. What cat who grew up in the desert wouldn’t be? When I ran water in the sink she would jump up on the counter to see the magical liquid flow, then stick her little head under it.

I shot this photo at my house in Tucson the week MiMi moved in with me. She loved to sit in the sink while the water trickled, and she seemed to enjoy to the water on her fur. It made sense since she had never experienced running water in the desert.

MiMi restored hope and faith in me. She showed that things like running water in the Arizona desert were a miracle, and her story reminds me every day the truly valuable things to be thankful for, and, whether you are dying inside from losing everything or dying in the desert with your eye hanging out of your head, there is always an opportunity for a new beginning.

Photo and Story by Tom Demerly for


Always be ready for that perfect photo, a remarkable shot that stops people on the page and tells a dramatic story.

It is March 14th, 2011. I live in Tucson, Arizona. Just two months ago on January 8th, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others are shot by a mentally ill man at a strip mall about nine miles north of this bus stop. The President of the United States visits Tucson four days later on January 12th for a memorial service to the victims. I attend his speech in person. He makes an impassioned plea for a review of gun laws.

The argument about gun laws in the United States is raging. There are very few laws governing gun ownership in Arizona. If you want to carry a gun, you simply strap it on your hip.  There is a dangerous border crossing with Mexico to the south, and drug trafficking is widespread. Tucson truly is the “wild west”.

I don’t own a car in Tucson so I either commute by bus or ride my bike. I worked late tonight so I am taking the bus home. Tucson has no street lights. Riding after dark can be dangerous.

This bus stop is crowded. Another bus has just dropped off passengers making a transfer. Civilian employees from the nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base are leaving work. There is also a secondary vocational training facility at this intersection that has just let out.

A man in a dark grey hooded sweatshirt is carrying a backpack. He is accompanied by a child. He seems nervous and fidgety. He keeps looking for the bus to come, but there are at least ten minutes until its scheduled stop. He removes his backpack, places it on the bus stop bench and pulls a cell phone out of the open pack. He tells the girl to sit on the bench, steps toward the curb and begins texting.

Suddenly the girl is holding an automatic pistol on him. A red spot of laser light- from the pistol’s aiming device- appears exactly center-mass on the man. He does not see the girl is pointing a gun at him.

Her finger is on the trigger.

The gun may be a toy. It may not be. Having a real laser sight on it suggests it is not a toy. It is heavy because the little girl has a difficult time handling it.

I raise my Apple iPhone and shoot one photo. You see that photo here.

There is a panic when the man looks up, a woman next to the girl recoils in stunned reaction. The man wheels and crouches away from the red laser dot, then advances toward the little girl, scooping the gun away from her.

I retreat back across the street to a convenience store as voices are raised. I am not sure if anyone saw me shoot the photo, and, I would prefer not to be shot.

My photo runs in a CNN article about gun control. It is widely circulated on social media, seen by millions of people. the debate about gun laws rages on in the United States.

Years ago I read a National Geographic book about photojournalism. It showed Robert Capa’s famous D-Day photos, blurry and indistinct. The book used those examples of how the technical merits of a photo are sometimes secondary to the subject matter. That book was why I decided to shoot this photo with my phone. Because, while that real or toy gun at a Tucson bus stop scared a few people, my smartphone snapshot scared millions.





Photo and Story by Tom Demerly for


Ambergris Caye Island, 13 miles off the eastern coast of Belize, sits just inside a reef line separated from the deep, open Caribbean. The waters that surround the island inside its barrier reef are shallow, calm, warm, clear and protected. Beyond them lies the wild sea.

I’ve been to Ambergris Cay several times. It is one of my favorite places on earth. I shot this photo the day I was flying home from a dive trip there. It’s an old photo, shot on film maybe 20 years ago, but it remains one of my favorite because it says so much about life, adventure, decisions and this place.

Several young lads native to the island were playing in the water, as they always do. The kids on Ambergris Caye grow up with a respect for the sea, but they do not fear it. Sharks are stray dogs, rays are friendly cats. The sea gives in the form of tourist dollars, and it takes in the form of hurricanes and accidents. It is a part of life on the island.

The boy trudged through the sandy weeds out into the water, flopped himself underwater in an exaggerated splash, then ran back to shallow water and did it again. He was experimenting with going farther out into the unknown, into the deep water, toward the open ocean.

When I got home I looked at the photo, one from a sequence, and realized it was breathtaking. The sky vaulted above in a moving expanse that inferred the infinite. The sea changed colors from light to dark as the sand plunged over the reef and dropped into an abyss. And the boy trudged into the unknown with a youthful assertiveness that suggests courage.

And so the image of this young lad bravely walking out to sea has become an inspiration to me. The sea, like life, is a frightening and unforgiving place. But it is also filled with wonder and beauty, bounty and abundance.

I have no idea who the boy was. He is probably nearly 30 years old now. He may still live on the island, he may have left. I do not know what happened once he continued his metaphorical journey out to sea. I know my journey has taken me through terrible storms, across deep water and to remarkable paradise. And so the journey out to sea continues.

Photo and Story by Tom Demerly for


I moved to California five years ago to take a job with Felt Bicycles in Irvine. Didn’t have a car there so didn’t get around much. Friend and co-worker Dave Koesel asked me if I wanted to go with him to the Dana Point Gran Prix bike race not far away in the seaside community of Dana Point. It seemed like a good photo opportunity and a decent way to spend a day by the ocean.

I lived in Mission Viejo, California. It was dreadfully boring, with million-dollar houses and apartments packed together near manmade lakes ringed by planted palms. Living there is like being trapped inside a titanic, city-sized strip mall. Southern California is really one massive strip mall that begins north of Los Angeles near Santa Clarita and extends for miles south below Mission Viejo where the giant strip mall is briefly interrupted by the U.S. Marine base at Camp Pendleton, then the huge, connected strip mall of manufactured houses, condos, apartments and retail gallerias begins again north of San Diego. Viewed from space its a massive tapestry of buildings crammed together like a human ant colony. The freeways are slow-moving ant trails of BMW’s, Mercedes, Porsches and an increasing number of Teslas that skirt the coast moving at a crawl. It’s perforated by the San Andreas Fault at the base of the San Gabriel mountain range to the east. One day the “Big One” will hit and the entire thing will submerge in an earthquake likely to be the largest natural disaster in human history. But this is L.A., and people only think $2500 weekly paycheck to paycheck, an income which is lower middle class in this area. So no one cares that geology and plate tectonics has guaranteed that one day they’ll be swimming with the fishes.

Dana Point was probably a quaint SoCal surfer town before the marketing of Southern California made it a combination of a life-size PacSun, H&M and Forever 21 store with no parking. But nonetheless, today there is a bike race.

The Dana Point Gran Prix is a classic American bike race, a “criterium”, a race on a short, closed circuit with multiple turns per lap. It’s a great way to see a bicycle race since most criteriums are in a downtown area where there are crowds, restaurants, coffee shops and bars. The races are held in respective categories of riders based on age and ability level.

This race is the “Senior Pro, 1,2” race. It’s the fast guys. The low-level pros and the elite level amateurs and the local hot shot racers. Since this is Southern California there are a lot of hot shot locals, not all local to So-Cal.

The race progresses over successive laps and it looks like it will all stay together, no small groups or “breakaways” getting away today. Until the final laps.

One of the guys fighting for position at the front of this race is Karl Bordine. Bordine is bigger than most bike racers. He weighs nearly 190 pounds and is well over six feet tall. He is also a time trial or solo ride specialist and, even more remarkably for a bike racer in a criterium, Bordine is a triathlete. Mostly, Bordine is a little of everything. He can run, swim and bike, he can time trial and he can stay at the front of an elite level criterium like Dana Point.

And staying at the front is exactly what Bordine is doing right now.

I’m walking the course backwards from the flow of riders, the best way to watch a criterium, and shooting with two Canon EOS cameras. One camera has a 100-400mm image stabilized zoom lens, the other a workhorse 28-135mm zoom. With these two lenses you can do almost everything in sports photography.

There are three laps to go. There have been some breakaways and the group has just reeled one of them in. The race is now “gruppo compacto” or one big group of riders hurtling around the circuit over 30 MPH as they enter the penultimate lap.

In criteriums and track racing the final lap is signaled by ringing a loud bell, hence “bell lap”. While Bordine knows this he also knows his chances for a win are not in a straight-up bunch sprint. Those outcomes fall to the specialty riders with dare-devil bike handling skills and hair trigger acceleration out of the final corner on the last lap. That’s not Bordine. He is a “stayer”, not a “sprinter”. So he makes his try for the line early. Very early.

Bordine churns off the front of the pack by himself at 35 MPH. He has less than three laps to go. It’s unlikely he’ll survive without being caught. It’s the classic all-or-nothing gamble, but it’s Bordine’s best bet.

Initially it looks good. He is a bull of a man, beating his pedals and the air around him into submission. But at each turn he has to back off briefly to avoid crashing in the corners and then reaccelerate to full race speed. That effort does not suit the diesel-like Bordine. So his initially dramatic gap begins to slowly erode, the pack making progress like a virus toward healthy flesh.

Funny things happen to a bike racer at full effort. Blood is shunted to the muscles, their heart beats at 180 beats per minute, three full contractions per second. As a result the mind becomes very simple. There is only one thought; go.

So Karl Bordine makes a critical error, especially for a champion. He forgets to read the lap board at the start/finish line that counts down the remaining laps. He also fails to listen for the final lap bell.

As a result, Bordine believes he is winning on the final lap, with a big enough gap, just barely, to stay away.

Karl Bordine comes out of turn number 6 out of the saddle, the last of his legs being spent in final standing pedal thrusts slightly uphill toward what he believes is victory. The pack behind him has done the calculus and knows they will apprehend him on the last lap, somewhere on the backside of the course, where he will be unceremoniously spit out the back like trash in the vortex of a speeding train.

Bordine raises his arms in victory. And the bell rings, the bell signaling one lap to go. Karl Bordine has blown the lap count, sprinted a full lap too early, and lost the race before over a thousand spectators in dramatic style. It is one for the blooper reel.

When the USA Cycling Official raises his finger to indicate “one lap to go” as the bell clangs loudly Bordine realizes his error and that there is no use in even trying. Instead he clowns with the official, and I fire off a series of shots through my Canon.

This photo is the best one. And it shows that, no matter how fast an athlete is, no matter how good their legs and lungs are, that races also won between the ears.

Here is the entire original photo from that day: