On a chilly New England afternoon at the start of May, I made the drive up to Stockton Springs, ME to begin a week-long journey at Roots Photography Workshop. Roots is a small photojournalism workshop that is designed to be highly personalized in its pursuit to make photographers better documentarians. No stylizing, no arranging, no photoshop, no filters, no interference, just BE READY and get the shot.
You’re probably wondering why a family and wedding photographer like myself would be interested in a photojournalism workshop. When I started Karen Kelly Photography, I did so because I loved the reaction I got from friends when I captured their true essence. Who they were when they forgot about the camera in the room. It’s in the little gestures, touches, looks and postures that you can FEEL who someone is through a photograph. When we create a scenario and push ourselves into it, it’s not the truest record of who we are, or what our dynamic is as a family. The things that make us truly unique are left behind, and often, these are the things we’ll want to remember most in 5, 10 or 20 years.
When you’re practicing true photojournalism, your images can’t look like anyone else’s images, because they aren’t YOU. And that’s what makes adopting a photojournalism style of documentation so valuable: there’s no pretense, there’s only the beautiful, inimitable story of your family in that moment. Recording these fleeting personal, signatures is what makes my eyes go wide, and keeps me hungry to continue my work.
When I walked into the spacious farmhouse we stayed in, a waft of sugar and red wine hit my nose, and I could hear warm laughter echoing down the hall from the kitchen. Emilie, the founder of the program, immediately greeted me with a hug (she signs all her emails “hugs,” so this shouldn’t have been a surprise) and ushered me into a room filled with the 14 other faces I’d spend the next week with. That’s one of the things I loved about Roots: checking your ego at the door was a requirement.
Our keynote speaker on the first night was Ed Kashi, a photojournalist, filmmaker and educator dedicated to documenting social and political issues for the last 35 years. His images have been published, exhibited and awarded worldwide, not to mention 7 book publications. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic, and has spent a good portion of his time documenting strife in the Middle East and Africa. So, I was a little excited to meet him. His talk that evening did not let us down, and lit a fire in me for the rest of the week.
The next few days we spent with two cameras strapped to us, finding and following A Story. Each night we returned to the farmhouse with our images, scarfed down some dinner, and dissected what we had produced alongside our instructors, until the wee morning hours. I was lucky enough to have Jennifer Domenick and Paul Morse as mentors for the week, both of whom spent years as photojournalists at places like The Washington Post and The LA Times, and now run their own wedding photography businesses. Paul also served as a White House photographer from 2001 – 2008, and continues to document additional Presidents, their families, and their post-Presidential initiatives.
I am not going to discuss the exact course of the workshop (it’s more fun if you don’t know what’s coming :)) but let’s just say each of our Stories were not handed to us on a piece of paper. And these Stories could be anything from an elderly woman running a hardware story, to a yoga instructor’s sun up to sun down routine, or a father-son duo running a shoe store. My Story involved a family of five, living on a self-sustaining farm in rural Maine, who also grow and sell medicinal marijuana. Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.
When I arrived at the Callow’s on Day 1, I had two, Nikon D4S cameras on my hips, with the 35mm f/1.4 and 105mm f/2.8 lenses attached. In my bag around my shoulders was an 85mm f/1.4 and the 50mm f/1.4, as well as a flash. Below is the home and the three children (Sylvia, Ivy and Simon, left to right)) I documented.
As a photojournalist, our role is to not interfere in any way with our subjects. This was an incredibly difficult task for me as I followed these children around the acres of their farm and surrounding woods. I had to ignore my instincts to create connections or play babysitter as I observed their immense freedom and attempted to be one step ahead of them on this rugged land. Sylvia was incredibly shy, and often used her red cape to hide her face from me. Snagging shots of her when she was unaware of the camera was hugely challenging.
The first day I showed up in a red coat. It took me all day to figure out why the cows were so reactive to me. I had boots on up to my knees, and very quickly every inch of them were covered in something brown. Children don’t have inhibitions, so neither could I.
This is the owner of the farm, Pete Callow, who allowed me to document them for two days, and shared quite a bit of his background and life philosophy with me.
This spot is about half a mile from the Callow house, and down a ridge. The children found a cow’s skeleton and pondered whether it was coyotes or a wolf that got him. They gathered the bones as a potential lesson during home-schooling with their mom. Bald eagles swirled overhead.
The Callows disavow most technology, with the exception of basic cell phones, a weathered laptop (but no internet), a printer, and some simple farm equipment. One day I asked mom (Bonnie) where they put their garbage, and she explained that there’s very little trash to deal on their sustainable farm, and what little waste they do create gets burned as fuel in the stove.
Mom read to her babies every day, often times Harry Potter. The girls took turns reading as well. Simon just liked to play and cuddle.
I visited the farm during transitional seasons, so they were in the process of moving quite a bit of cattle and livestock. I noticed five or six people pitching in on the farm, so I asked Pete how many people he had working for him. He explained to me that they weren’t working for him – they were helping him. And he returned the favor in other ways. “It’s not about the almighty dollar.” Through several conversations with Pete, it became clear that COMMUNITY is their currency.
I wish I could add audio to this blog. The squeals of these swine were so loud, so ferocious. Dirt was flying everywhere as they pushed and hurdled each other to get to their trough. There was a fence between myself and them, but I was still incredibly trepidatious making these images.
Geography lessons with mom in their community room. The grandparents of these children live a few hundred feet up the road, and have been holding community pot luck dinners every Wednesday for the last 25 years.
While growing medicinal marijuana is legal in Maine, there’s still a lot of room for interpretation within the law locally, which has created tension between growers and the police. I found it interesting that there are strict rules around cultivating the plant itself, like keeping anyone except the growers tens of feet from the plant at all times. The sale of the plant has opened up unexpected economic opportunities for the Callows, like building greenhouses for other licensed Mainers to grow the plant.
I am only showing a teeny, tiny fraction of the images I took. My cameras were on and with me from 7:30am until 5:00pm every day. Trying to ANTICIPATE moments. Get ahead of their behavior. And WAIT. Waiting was and is the hardest thing for me personally, and as a photographer. Everything about who you are as a person gets translated through the lens, whether you like it or not. It’s incredibly revealing to have instructors break down every image you shot over two days. There is no editing or deleting, no hiding. Just your work, as you shot it. Your strengths and weaknesses laid bare.
Halfway through Day 2, we headed up to the top of the mountain in the family’s pickup truck so that Bonnie and Pete could replace some cattle fencing. Let me just say at this point that I was EXHAUSTED. Physically and emotionally, I’m starting to fail. This 10 minute truck ride was the first time I sat down during both days of shooting. For the last two days I’d been navigating my way through mud, rocks, brush, swarming bugs, animal excrement and emotional isolation. Waiting for shots. No. Chasing them down and missing. Then hitting. Bending, sitting, running, walking, reaching. Trying to make great compositions. Trying to keep things in focus. Trying to understand what was happening in front of me, and not influence the scene with my actions or my thoughts.
What I don’t know is that I’m about to finish the last mile of the upward mountain trek on foot. With all my gear in tow. Other excuses starting creeping into my mind too. I was only a month out from maternity leave, and my body was out of shape. I was fatigued from tending to a newborn. An unfortunate fall had left a portion of my vertebrae fractured a few weeks before this course, and back pain was constantly nagging me. But it’s here, in these dark moments in your mind, thinking of all the reasons why you could give up, that a photographer’s resolve is tested and strengthened.
When I made it to the top of the mountain with the girls, this was our view. A gorgeous payoff that sent me into an internal frenzy, trying to stay focused on the story of within these girls while in many ways ignoring the natural beauty in front of me. This is the discipline that great photojournalists have – identifying what the story is within the subjects in front of them, and staying focused on peeling back as many layers as possible to bring that experience to life for their viewers.
One-on-one training by your instructors is one of the great things about Roots, and it was shortly after I took this image that Paul was trying to locate where I was for a site visit. At this point, we were miles from any road and certainly there was no address to be had. So I dropped a pin on google maps and invited him on the journey to find me up the mountain. He succeeded in climbing the terrain in his SUV, and just as he arrived I was reaching the end of my emotional rope. I followed him over to his car, turned away from the children, and let the tears fly. He asked me if I was OK, if I wanted to bail. Let’s be honest, of course I wanted to bail. Every bone in my body wanted a hot shower. But I knew that’s not what I had come here for. “No,” I said. “But I do want to cry.” So this empathetic man let me cry for a few minutes. Then I picked up my cameras again, and finished the story I started.
I could feel the kids trying to work out my role in their life during the two days. Finally, at the end of Day 2, Sylvia (the oldest) looked at me and said, “So are you a kid or an adult?” I can understand why my presence was confusing. Are you here to play or discipline me? The answer of course, was neither. That gray area in your struggle to become invisible is a hard place to live emotionally and mentally for many photojournalists.
If you’re looking for a pat on the back, don’t go to Roots. But if you’re looking to throw yourself into how to be a better photojournalist and are open to learning from the best, please, please go. Thank you for taking the time to read my experiential diary. I would love to hear what you think about my journey or respond to questions, so feel free to leave a comment below.
Karen is a Boston-based photographer specializing in family history. You can see more of her work online at www.kkpforlife.com or on Facebook. If you’d like to contact her directly, you can find her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All images are copyrighted to Karen Kelly Photography and have been registered with the United States Copyright Office. Any violation of this will be pursued to the fullest extent of the law.