By following a passion and creating her own “beat,” visual storyteller Anne Hamersky set the stage for a commission to photograph sustainable agriculture on farms across the country for a major book project. After intensive planning for the most efficient schedule and route, she embarked on a three-month, 13,000-mile journey around America. From sunrise to sunset and beyond, her images now form the visual centerpiece of Farm Together Now. Set for release in January 2011, half of the book’s profits will be plowed back into future food production projects.
Web site: www.annehamersky.com
Project: Commissioned project Farm Together Now for Chronicle Books.
All images in this article © Anne Hamersky
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
AH: My first photograph was published in October 1985. To learn more about shooting with strobes, I started assisting George Steinmetz soon after that. I began attending ASMP meetings to balance the Commerce and Art rails on my career track.
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
AH: I joined ASMP in 1989.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
AH: Here’s what my Web site says about me. “Anne Hamersky is a visual storyteller whose portrait, documentary and multimedia projects capture the humanity of her subjects with a vibrantly warm and graphically strong signature style. She specializes in photographing people who shape the social and cultural landscape of our times, showing us how they look, what they do and how they influence our world. Anne’s projects include commercial, editorial and non-profit clients, serving such fields as health, education, sustainable agriculture, green technology, travel and entertainment. When she is not chasing the light, Anne swims in the San Francisco Bay without a wetsuit.”
ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
AH: I began cultivating my passion for agricultural subjects in early 2000. Then in 2004, when I was driving down Highway One in pre-dawn darkness on my way to shoot Earthbound Farm for People Magazine, I listened to John Kerry’s concession speech on NPR. Rather than wallow in despair over this national political outcome, I decided to put more of my energy into shooting sustainable agriculture, for me a life-affirming subject. I started attending ag conferences, meeting lots of farmers, activists, distributors, gardeners, policy makers, researchers; getting to know the landscape, the language, the challenges, the issues, and the heroes within the community. By following a passion and creating my own “beat,” I set the stage for doing the Farm Together Now book project.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
AH: My eyeglasses.
ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
AH: My ability to connect with my subjects, to generate energy and have fun on set or in the field, and to produce great work on time and within budget.
ASMP: You mention that a friend asked you to make some photographs for this project. Did they have a book contract with the publisher at the time you were approached?
AH: Yes. Amy Franceschini (www.futurefarmers.com) had a book contract with Chronicle Books. She added another writer, Daniel Tucker (http://miscprojects.com) onto her contract with the publisher. Then the two of them hired me to produce the photographs.
ASMP: Please tell us about your request to shoot all the farms for this book. Did this require more extensive vetting of your skills with the publisher or with anyone else? Please describe how you presented yourself and your photography to get the green light for this.
AH: I knew Amy socially and through our passion for sustainable ag, urban ag, DIY projects, community efforts, and public art. Earlier that year, she asked me to do portraits of the participants in a huge public art project that she instigated, the San Francisco Victory Gardens. From that, she knew my work and my working style. When I pitched my desire to shoot all the farms, rather than just the West Coast ones, it was a matter of determining if the book’s photo budget could cover my travel expenses.
ASMP: What kind of commitment did you take on by assuming all the project photography? What kind of compensation did you get?
AH: More than anything else, I wanted to travel around shooting these farms and people, collaborate with these partners, and work with this publisher. I knew it would be a grueling schedule and I embraced the fact that this was going to be a labor of love. I was given a lump sum out of which I paid my production costs, travel expenses, and additional special equipment. I had our teenage son, Joey, accompany me on the New York City to Green Bay by way of Chicago portion of the trip, as well. This was a “soul” endeavor for me, rather than a big money-making job.
Even though I didn’t have a contract with the publisher directly, I requested to have my name on the cover of the book. The three of us discussed whether I would agree to Amy and Daniel’s request to donate 50 percent of any book profits to the Agricultore Fund, in effect becoming full partner in the project rather than simply a photographic content provider. I felt this arrangement cemented my commitment to the project and the “giving back” sustainable spirit of the work.
ASMP: What constitutes “sustainable agriculture” in the United States, the subject of your photographs?
AH: Answer 1: Don’t get me started!
Answer 2: Read the book.
Answer 3: Sustainable agriculture in the United States is a deep and wide subject. It runs the gamut from window box basil to chickens raised by urbanites on squatted land to biodynamic large-scale production farms that feed thousands of families and lots of half-acres in between. It’s exciting for me to see how mainstream these ideas are becoming. We’ve latched on to this burgeoning sustainable ag trend for many reasons: a desire for safer ecology, personal health, deeper community, simpler economy and plain old deliciousness.
ASMP: How deeply immersed were you in the area of sustainable agriculture before embarking on this project? Did your work on this book offer you any new insights or story ideas about this subject?
AH: Every single person involved in growing food has an interesting story. To me some of the most interesting voices are of those folks whose families have been conventional farmers for generations who now have embraced sustainable methods of food production. They have lived and worked on both sides of the issue and have a lot of wisdom to impart. They are often living in very conservative communities across the road from lifelong neighbors who don’t easily trust new methods of working. These folks are pretty courageous trailblazers. City slickers would be surprised at the sophisticated, progressive philosophies and business models they have created in the middle of “nowhere.”
ASMP: What criteria were used (including size, location, history, output) to select the 16 farms you photographed?
AH: It was a sudoku puzzle of geographic location, type of food, community effort, history, and story arch. We wanted as diverse of a body of voices as possible to be represented in the book’s pages.
ASMP: How long did you have to plan your trip and what kind of resources did you consult when doing research?
AH: I planned the itinerary for the trip for a month, plus. I talked to the individuals, discussing best times to visit, what actions would be happening when, what plants would be at their peak when and who in the family would be around. I pored over maps, figuring out the most efficient and economical route to take. I considered where I could stay on which farm, where I could camp, whose couch I could crash where, how long I could spend on each farm, how many sunrises and sunsets I would witness where, and how many miles I could drive in a day. I compiled detailed itineraries for each day, much like a road manager would do for a band. That blue binder became my bible for the months of travel. It was necessary to be super organized going into the project, as the deadline was extremely tight. One of my favorite expressions is, “place the circle within the square,” meaning, create a structure, then improvise. My itinerary was the square within which I drew my circle.
ASMP: How did you communicate with the two writers in order to determine your priorities for imagemaking? Did you have a transcripts or a storyboard to follow or did the decisions about photography result from more of an organic process?
AH: Because Amy and Daniel were on the exact same deadline as I was, the process for image making was quite lively. I rarely had a transcript before going to a farm but always had a conversation or email to point me in a general art direction. Sometimes I visited the farms before Amy or Daniel did and was able to share with them my insights and impressions. Part of why I was so jazzed about working with these guys is that we were on the same page creatively, sharing the same depth of passion for the subject so we could communicate in shorthand and trust each others’ judgment in the field.
ASMP: Please talk about your travels to visit the farms. What was the timeframe and how long did you have in each location? Did you travel alone or together with the author(s)?
AH: I committed to the project in April 2009, produced the timeline in May, began the trip in June, logged 13,000 miles and an equal amount of digital captures by September, and delivered the preliminary edit by October 1, 2009. I had varying times on the farms. The shortest shoot lasted only a couple hours with Sam Comfort, a beekeeper in the Hudson Valley. I spent 4 days with Jim Knopik, a mob-grazing beef rancher in central Nebraska. I was mostly flying solo, but there were times when I had the pleasure of my collaborators company. I drove from San Francisco to Bakersfield with Amy for two days and I drove from Atlanta to Asheville, NC with Daniel. Daniel lives in Chicago, so during those shoots we were together, as well.
ASMP: Did you incorporate any specific logistic, comfort or security measures while on this 13,000-mile trip to make your life on the road easier?
AH: No, not really. I was flying by the seat of my pants and loving it.
ASMP: Did you have a fixed budget for travel, lodging and trip expenses? What items did you find to be most costly in making the trip?
AH: Most costly was the cushy hotel I stayed at after the marathon drive from Burnsville, NC to Hershey, PA. It was the third of July and I’d just driven 13 hours straight. I celebrated by buying a bunch of fireworks and then collapsing in a feather bed. I didn’t know that fireworks were illegal in New York. When I gave them to my niece in Brooklyn the next day, my brother was horrified. I ended up taking them with me all the way to my other brother in Green Bay, WI, where fireworks are sold year round.
ASMP: Did weather issues enter the picture while you were on the road and shooting? Please talk about any challenges you faced resulting from weather or other factors and how you resolved them.
AH: The weather was pretty great the whole time. I traveled with Lady Luck. When I was heading up the Taconic from NYC to meet up with Sam the beekeeper, the skies were pouring out buckets of rain. As soon as we pulled off the road at our exit, the clouds opened up with the most gorgeous light. We shot for a couple hours and then said our goodbyes, ‘cause he had to get going. We put my gear in the trunk just before the skies filled with dark clouds and let loose with another summer storm. My son and I laughed pretty hard about that one.
ASMP: Farming is a very strenuous occupation that often involves a lot of dirty work. Do you have any tips for covering this subject to result in beautiful/appealing images? Are there particular activities or moments that you prefer shooting or that you try to avoid?
AH: It’s a lot like photography, the strenuous part of farming. Work hard, laugh hard, you know, carpe diem. I love to get up with the farmers when they do their dawn “choring” as some of them say, and of course, sunset magic hour is the best. I just follow people around with the camera, ask a lot of questions, and have the sensitivity to know when to shut up. Farmers love to kibitz, but they also love silence.
ASMP: In addition to shooting stills, your Web site also includes multimedia work. Did you include this kind of coverage in your documentation of this project?
AH: I wish I had captured audio on this trip. It coulda/shoulda/woulda been great, but in my mind, the pace was too fast for me to do both. I was focusing completely on still photography and staying on target time-wise.
ASMP: What was it like to collaborate with the two authors in working on the book? Did you have a written collaboration agreement?
AH: It was great. We had great synergy and shared a common devotion to the subject, the farmers, and their stories. We had a written contract that mirrored their contract with the publisher. We discussed all issues and put our agreement in writing. Amy and Daniel were fair and generous about including me in their discussions and agreements with Chronicle Books.
ASMP: Once you finished shooting, did you have any control over the image selection or book design?
AH: I culled a rough edit that the three of us collaborators edited together. Through lively debates we formed four groups of images. Group one were images we thought would made great double trucks, group two would make great single page verticals, group three, good anywhere, group four, good in a tight grid. Amy Franceschini is an extraordinary visualist herself so the photo editing often took the path of easy consensus. Then there were a few months of text editing when the image selection process took a nap. We didn’t have any control over the book design, but I was invited to work with Brian Scott (www.boondesign.com) to change, resize or tweak whichever images I wanted to in the layout grid. I was able to get two additional double trucks into the book, which felt like a great success.
ASMP: The book will be out in late 2010. Please talk about any marketing strategies now in place or being lined up to promote the book.
AH: I just found out the official publication date is January 2011. We are currently in the process of getting our publicity ducks in a row.
ASMP: The book Web site mentions a fund being set up for new documentaries about food production in the USA, with 50 percent of the book’s profits going toward a grant to be offered in 2011. Please tell us more about how this is being established and what it will entail.
AH: To fertilize and cultivate more projects about sustainable agriculture, when we sell books, we will deposit 50 percent of our profits into the Agricultlore Fund. The Agricultlore Fund will grant money to projects about food production in the USA in the future. It’s just getting started. Check in with www.farmtogethernow.org/the-agricultlore-fund for updates and to make a donation.