As the California wildfire season comes to the end we look back at one of the most damaging to date. The devastation that ripped through the state did the same to so many of our friends and family and at this point, the destruction from the fires can be seen from space. When thinking about our defense against the out of control havoc most only know of firefighters, but these selfless heroes arrive when damage has already begun. Now with flash floods rampaging through the fire-scarred earth, many are left to wonder what can be done to prevent such massive ruin?
It seems like a delicate match and Mary Lata has made a career striking that balance. As a Fire Ecologist Mary’s job is to observe and monitor the Tonto National Forest to decide when a fire should burn or be put out. At times she prescribes controlled burns as a necessary strategy for the health of the area.
Yes, sometimes fires are set for the betterment of the environment. Like most of us, Mary too didn’t realize that this was a job she could have until she was working at Badlands National Park as an Interpretive Ranger. It immediately became obvious to her that fire ecology was what she should do. She finds it hard to imagine a life that doesn’t involve working outside with fire and natural lands.
To understand how fires become out of control you must first understand the natural impact they have on the ecosystem. Fires are a necessary part of nature. It’s a disturbance just like flooding, wind-storms, and landslides. Many environments like savannahs and prairies require regular burning to allow many native plant species to germinate, establish, or to reproduce. Wildfire suppression not only limits these plants to thrive but could potentially eliminate them all together. Wildfire prevention also exacerbated the lack of control we have once a fire takes hold.
A natural wildfire will create gaps in the vegetation, which help to contain and not allow them to become massive fires. So, when we prevent mother nature’s failsafe and allow plant life to grow uncontrolled we give a flame the fuel to thrive. Through controlled burns, we create the ability to limit the damage of fire can do. Mary, like a master chess player, watches over our terrain as if a well played board. Observing and planning her next move.
When we heard about Stryker Farms and Nancy Poli we envisioned the next perfect Women’s Work shoot. Nestled just two hours outside of Philadelphia is where Nancy and her son, Nolan Thevenet run Stryker Farms. Unlike the traditional large pink pigs from Old McDonald’s farm, their Farm specializes in heritage pigs.
Nancy and Nolan raise a mix of 6 different breeds; Tamworth, Berkshire, Hereford, Yorkshire, Gloucestershire Old Spot, and Large Black. These old-world breeds have a tendency to grow slower than conventional pigs resulting in a more flavorful pork. Stryker Farms takes pride in the fact that their pigs are raised outdoors and enjoy a natural diet of non-GMO grains and grasses without the use of antibiotics or hormones.
After a bit of pre-production, handled by Robert Luessen, we were ready to visit Stryker Farms on April 17th, 2016. With a sunrise call time Chris, Robert, Jared Castaldi, and Sam Green hit the road north towards Stroudsburg.
With every mile, we drove the more the urban landscape drifted away leaving room for lush wooded landscapes. After a few music albums and several random conversations, we arrived at the dirt road of Stryker Farms.
Once at the farm we were greeted by a little shop selling their wares, such as cheeses and sausages. We drove past the shop, knowing we would return to stock up of delightful treats to take home. We continued to drive towards the buildings that housed the livestock. In a addition to pigs, Stryker farms also raises beef and dairy cows, chickens, turkeys, and goats.
I don’t know if you have ever been on a farm but you can’t visit one without experiencing a particular smell. This time was no different and the stench was unbearable. The muck created by the animals was everywhere, as expected. We need to set gear down on the ground but had no intention of anything becoming covered in manure. So we planned ahead and added plastic bags to the gear prep list. The plastic bags were wrapped to the bottom of all stands and power packs were placed in them. Of course, this was a time before we used battery powered lights so the farm quickly became covered with cords. To make things more difficult we wanted to keep the wires above the manure-covered ground. So we strung them like festive Christmas lights throughout the space.
Once all of the lights, extension cords, and power packs were prepped and ready to go it was time to set up the shot. Chris came to Skryker Farms with a strong image in his mind’s eye. The vision was there and it was time to make it a reality. There was a path that directed the pigs from a lower housing location to an upper feeding area. This was the space that would allow Chris’s vision come to life. To create the illusion of Nancy calmly standing in the middle of stampeding pigs we realized it needed to be two separate pictures that would be combined in post.
The composition that Chris envisioned was with Nancy centered with the pigs running on both sides of her in the path. To achieve this it would require the camera to float in the middle of the chute. We decided that we needed to create a rig. Something that would allow the camera to stay in the space while the pigs ran through. The team devised a metal bar that attached across the path where the camera would be secured.
While shooting Nancy, Chris would use the rig as a tripod but of course, he too couldn’t be in the chute once the pigs were set loose. It was decided he would use a remote to fire the camera while standing safely outside of the action. After a few tests of the remote to ensure it would fire we were ready to begin.
We were truly lucky to have such a charming and captivating subject as Nancy. We quickly got what we need from her and were ready to move on to the unpredictable part of the day. The pig run. We only had one opportunity to get this shot. Once the lower pen door opened the pigs without direction would instinctively run up the hill for their anticipated meal. Once Chris and Nancy climbed out of chute we were ready.
Release the PIGS!
With great excitement, the pigs rampaged up the hill running underneath the excellently placed rig/camera setup. At the same time, Chris was fiercely pressing the remote to fire the camera as to capture the thrilling moment. Once all of the pigs were clear of the chute and happily eating, it was a wrap. We began to clean E V E R Y T H I N G and then did another thorough cleaning once back to the office. Our time at the farm was quick and unforgettable. Nancy and her corkscrewed tailed co-stars were a delight. They gave us everything we needed to create a beautiful photograph that focused on the moment. We found a little piece of magic on this shoot that helped us create something unique and memorable. We hope you enjoy it.
No one ever believes me! When I talk about what I saw everyone thinks I’m just a crazy old man who has lost his mind. I usually wouldn’t waste my breath on retelling the tale but you are here so I should just tell you what happened and you can decide for yourself.
I have lived and worked this land my whole life, the last of 7 generations. We have always been farmers and I am the only one left. We took care of the land and the land took care of us. I was born in the bedroom right off of the kitchen. The youngest of 4 siblings. From the moment I could walk I was feeding the chickens, helping any way I could. The comfortability of the routine quickly became my standard of life. My family worked together like a well-oiled machine. Each person had a specific role needed to keep the farm running smoothly. Then one night when I was 6… everything changed.
I was in bed when a sharp light struck me in the face from my window. The unusual light was something that I had never seen before. It was a light that filled the room but there wasn’t any light outside. To this day I still don’t know where it came from. Oddly enough I wasn’t afraid. Instead, I was curious, uncontrollably so. I had to know what was causing this phenomenon. I quickly put on my galoshes and coat to protect me from the late night chill as I went to explore outside. The moment I stepped out into the cold evening I felt a pull towards our fields. It literally felt like a line was attached to my pelvis and with quick forceful pulls, I was tugged along. Finally, when the need to mindlessly move ceased, I found myself surrounded by stalks of corn and silence. I quietly looked around to determine why I was in the field. There was nothing, not even a breeze. Just a still cornfield. Then the light had returned. It was harsh, relentless, and overwhelming. I was paralyzed left helpless and terrified. I could feel a foreign energy fill my tiny body. The force vibrated through me like a jolt of lightning. The intense sensation quickly became too much to handle and with a whimper, I blacked out.
The morning rooster woke me laying on top of my messy bed. I frantically searched around my room looking for evidence of what happened last night. My only evidence of last night was a piece of a blue fabric clutched in my right hand. I remember the swatch felt so important to me and radiated a comforting warmth. After dressing for the day I carried the precious piece down to breakfast. The family gathered around our large wooden kitchen table but someone was missing. My older sister, Sarah, her seat was left empty. My mother told me to investigate and I quickly sprinted up the steps to stop at Sarah’s room. I gently rubbed the soft blue fabric in my hand as I hesitated from fear of what was behind the door. I slowly opened it with a familiar creak. I would hear that noise everytime Sarah left her room and it was the first time I heard it that today. Entering the room I teased her about being late for breakfast “Sarah! Wake up sleepy head!” She was laying in her bed with her back to the door and I quietly called her name. Still she didn’t move. I walked over to the bed to shake her awake when I noticed her blue nightgown. I looked down at the fabric in my hand and knew where it came from. I reached out to touch Sarah and found her cold to the touch as if all of her warmth was in the tiny fabric in my trembling hand. I rolled her over to find an expression of open-eyed horror.
The autopsy said that Sarah died of asphyxiation but I knew the truth. It was the light. But at the time I had my doubts until the light came back when I was 13. The next day I woke with a white piece of fabric and my brother Thomas dead. Asphyxiation. The summer I turned 15 the light came back. I awoke with a gray piece of fabric in hand and Stephen, my last sibling, died. Asphyxiation. The light once again came back, I was 25. When I rose the next day with a piece of my mother’s nightgown and I knew it was just me and Pa. The only two survivors of the relentless light that had picked off my entire family for unknown reasons. The last time the light visited me was when I was 45. Unlike every time before when I would wake up in my own bed this time I found myself standing in the middle of the cornfield. In my right hand was a piece of my father’s nightshirt. It was then that I knew I was alone. My entire family was stolen and I am to blame. While watching the sun climbing up the sky I realized the truth. I am the light and the light is me.
When Anna Valer Clark first arrived at South East Arizona, a place she would call home, her first question was “What do the cows eat, rocks?” The land she stood on was exhausted and the only thing thriving in the unfortunate barren landscape was the tiny rocks scattered across the view. She had left her life as a New York City socialite to become a Permaculturalist. She wanted to stimulate or directly utilize the patterns and features observed in the natural ecosystem to revive the terrain. She saw the potential of the land and dreamt of restoring it back to its original grandeur. Many years of poor management, over-grazing, and logging in the hills had left the earth unable to hold the rainfall causing monsoons like floods and severe erosion.
Valer believes where there is water there is life and with barely any life remaining on her land the key was to avoid further damage. She realized she could hinder the erosion and capture water in the hills by putting rock dams across the places that been affected in hopes to return this area to its former glory.
As she suspected the areas where the dams were established prevented further devastation. The soil did not wash away and that gave the native plants an opportunity to grow roots and thrive.
With each year the natural vegetation grew and established itself with vigor. To see the lands today one could not conceive that this was once a place of dust and sun-soaked earth. Anna Valer Clark has brought back balance to her lands and the harmony is magnificent.
My life has been a continuation of applying these same principles of harvesting water, revegetation of the land, and the restoration of water to dry areas. My mission has been to take severely degraded land and restore it. If one can accomplish this under the seemingly impossible conditions, then one can do it anywhere.
The natural fear of a stinging bee is a threat that we often face when retrieving our desired honey. This fear was not lost on our team when we were faced with the challenge of working with these tiny soldiers. However, there are many different roles that bees have and the bees we often see are the foragers. They have a crucial role in the hive and in nature in general. It is their job to search up to a 3-mile radius to collect nectar from the surrounding flowers while simultaneously pollinating the area. The nectar is then brought back to the hive to produce honey. They are the bees we typically see flying in and out of a hive and it is those bees that co-starred with Christy Wihelmi on our shoot on Cal Poly Farm.
Christy in her own right is a keeper of bees. She is an avid gardener and has become the rescuer of bee swarms that develop in her community garden. The word “swarm” sounds overwhelming and terrifying but it is a natural instinct for bees. Once the population grows too large for the hive, the colony divides. This process involves a new queen to develop and the old queen leaves to start a new home. A swarm is created when a gathering of bees surround the traveling queen. The bees are particular docile during this time and their sole goal is to protect the queen. At this time it is easy to handle them to relocate or just wear them on your face like a beard of bees.
Even with Christy’s bee handling knowledge, they are as unpredictable as the weather and they don’t follow direction very well. This is a challenge you face when working with animal talent. That being said, we had a game plan, all of the techniques first developed by ancient Egyptians, and a lot of PMA (positive mental attitude) which is always a good start.
This project was especially challenging for Chris and Robert who both faced childhood trauma regarding bees. Under any other circumstances they would have been with the rest of the crew some distance away, but instead, the two had to suit up and get acquainted with our tiny stars.
With the on-set beekeeper managing the bees with perfectly timed puffs of smoke to subdue, we accomplished beautiful photos that inspire. There was only one stinging incident which, ironically happened to one of the far away crew members. When we finally wrapped, we left that day with new found respect for bees and the people who keep them.
As the sun dragged itself from under the horizon we arrived at Front Street Gym. The gym sits above a north Philadelphia beer store. Its graffiti-covered metal entry is flanked by two signs distinguishing it from the other storefronts on the block. Once the heavy door swung open, the sunshine poured over the worn down steps created by the athletes climb to becoming the next champion. Whitewashed brick walls were layered with 50 years of boxing posters that tell its history throughout the years. The posters serve as inspiration for the younger generation to push a little longer and hit a little harder with the goal to one day join their ranks.
Boxing is a sport that is associated with violence and brutality but what is often overlooked is the beauty that is displayed in the ring. An athlete who dedicates their time and energy to the ancient combative sport learns to dance about their opponent, dodging thrown punches while countering with their own. The bouncy steps around the ring look more like a ragtime one-step than a battle. The precision of a one-two punch displays all of the hard work and dedication did before. This shoot was very much like a boxers creative collaboration of limbs. We wanted an experience that would start with a photograph and finish with video to add more depth to the visually engaging story.
Ezra Migel and Chris have worked together on still-video productions before. So when Chris decided to produce Front Street Gym he immediately contacted Ezra. The two had already developed a rhythm that had worked well. They have proven that together they can make great work and that always begins with a thoughtful plan. After sharing many videos and pictures to nail down the vision, they banged out a rough shot list that would guide them throughout the production.
What is truly special about Chris’ creative process is his ability to make the environment its own character. In this case, the Front Street Gym had a personality that was larger than life. The priceless charm of the boxing gym existed effortlessly and would be priceless in an attempt to recreate. Once the athletes step into that space they are transported to a place where there is hope of a better life and honor to be earned. We could not predict how inspired the space would make us feel.
With each shot, Chris began with composing a dynamic scene. While shooting stills, Chris bounced back over to the director role. With Ezra shooting video, he and Chris collaborate in capturing a more evolved version of the initial still shot. This workflow allowed them to knock out their shot list that ended up growing due to the complex dynamic and overall energy from our entire team. Needless to say, we were united and in perfect sync with each other. Working effortlessly together to achieve our goals. I don’t believe we could have been happier with the day. We were allowed to work with amazingly talented people in a magical space where we were able to create something special. I hope you enjoy viewing it as much as we did in making it.
A long narrow hallway lined with tiny barred cells enclosing angry men flinging obscenities is what we expected to find at a maximum security male prison. The entertainment industry depicts the American correctional system as a scary place. So, when we were given the opportunity to enter Oregon State Penitentiary we were filled with excitement and a bit of concern.
As you might have guessed, entering a prison is no easy task. There are several obstacles to navigate in order to be approved for entry. First off, background check for all members of the entire crew. Second, a thoroughly vetted equipment list. This list was scrutinized and whittled down three times. Each list included visuals of what was included. A location like this is only possible with the use of battery powered lights. Without them, it would be difficult to get down to three bags.
The third obstacle was squeezing two portrait subjects into a tight schedule during the facility lockdown. We reviewed the Tour Guidelines for visitors which informed us of their hostage policy that states there are inherent risks in visiting a correctional facility. After several weeks of back and forth with Oregon State Penitentiary, everything was set and ready to go.
Oregon State Penitentiary is nestled in the sleepy town of Salem. Driving through the town you wouldn’t expect a maximum security prison would live just up the road. If there was a maximum security prison, you wouldn’t expect it to be lined with large, lush trees and meticulously maintained landscaping. The stark difference from the picturesque greenery and the castle-like exterior of the prison is striking. We stood on the steps of the Oregon State Penitentiary with nothing but our gear, our IDs and just a little bit of nerves.
Once inside we went through a series security checkpoints. Every step of the process was efficient. The staff was friendly and helpful through it all. We quickly moved to our first location and set up to shoot in cell block D. Once we were in the heart of the facility, it was evident how calm and quiet space it was. Unlike our chaotic expectations, we felt comfortable in the space. Of course, there was a bit of excitement buzzing around, we were a photo crew, something completely out of the ordinary. Even with our unusual presence the men lounged in their brightly colored cells patiently waiting for the lockdown to end.
Our first subject was Megan Lowe, a Corporal Correction Officer at OSP. She began her career at the Oregon State Correctional Institution (OSCI) in 2014. She was inspired by her father to follow a career in correction. Megan’s petite frame was weighed down by the required gear but her presence was enormous. Watching her walk down the block you saw her confident control in the space. She was one of the reasons we felt so safe there. She provides the order needed for peace.
We spent a few short but fulfilling moments with Megan. She allowed us to collaborate in her domain and we could not have asked for a smoother experience. Wrapping up in the housing block it was time to pack up and move on to our next location to meet Patrice, another staff member of OSP. She is also doing amazing things but that is another story for another time.